A new, first-of-its-kind arts centre dedicated to Black creatives opened this month and artists say it is long overdue and will increase the visibility of the Afro-diasporic arts in Canada.
The Nia Centre for the Arts new space in Toronto’s Little Jamaica community is 15 years in the making. Renovations which began in 2019 led to the completion of what is now the first professional multidisciplinary space for Black artists, according to a news release by the centre.
“Our communities, our varied communities have been here,” Pamela Edmonds, a Halifax-based curator and director of the Dalhousie Gallery, told CTVnews.ca.
The lack of dedicated professional cultural spaces for Black artists of different disciplines to exhibit and develop their work creates barriers for artists to access resources and contributes to the minimization of Black communities in Canada’s arts industry, she said.
“It’s not like someone’s giving you permission to tell your story. It’s being able to say ‘I’m opening the door. I have a space where that can be celebrated in all its diversity’. It doesn’t have to be a certain type of work all the time.”
The centre offers Black Canadian artists opportunities for mentorship, artist development and most importantly, said Edmonds, a space for artists from the African diaspora in Canada to call their own. It celebrates the various art forms in the country outside of euro-centric standards on their terms.
“It’s important to have spaces where one doesn’t feel like one is intervening into a space because that’s often how a lot of our practices as Black curators have been positioned, like we are coming in to [only] speak about identity, to showcase our diversity,” she added.
“When sometimes you just want to be a creative artist and just talk about whatever, and it’s not always political.”
Edmonds has been a curator for more than 20 years working to amplify and archive the works of African Nova Scotian communities, and has worked as lead curator and mentor with the Nia Centre on selected exhibitions and digital collections.
She says having a dedicated space for Black creatives to collaborate has been a years-long task and something she wished had existed when she was starting out in her career.
“It’s important that Canada sees the Nia Centre as a model, as a space that has a longevity that didn’t just spring up in 2020, that it was and had a commitment to presenting a range of artists in different disciplines and supporting their practices,” Edmonds said.
She says past organizations like Canadian Black Artists in Action (CAN:BAIA), which dissolved in the 1990s, have attempted to establish a dedicated arts space in the country for Black artists but none have been successful in developing a space like the Nia Centre for the Arts in nearly 30 years.
The brand new, fully functional, multi-purpose performance space offers a digital media lab and artist studio, among other additions, and the centre’s executive director, Alica Hall, told CTVNews.ca that they are now able to fully expand their outreach within Canada and offer a space community members in the city can regularly visit without pressure of commercial gain.
“In Toronto, I think that the pressures that we face here are felt in other parts of the country. Access to community space and to artistic space is really difficult because it’s expensive and it’s often centered in the downtown core, which is a pricier part of town…” Hall said.
She adds that with the pressures on the city to address affordable housing, many public spaces that could be used as arts spaces are lost to private development, which makes the dedicated multipurpose arts centre so important for the city’s Black creatives.
Montreal-based experimental storyteller Kofi Oduro, who also worked with the centre on an online collection called “Digital Launch: the cut, the tear, the remix: contemporary collage and Black futures” in 2021, calls the centre an opportunity for artists across various disciplines to interact with other Black creatives, which is an essential aspect of building community.
“There’s a lot of Black music…Black theatre … We have a lot of Black events, but having a place that is the first national multi-art centre, it’s not only that they’re given mentorship but you’re having a cross-pollination,” said Oduro.
For Oduro, the new centre is now a “fundamental base” for Black artists and is an opportunity to encourage collaboration not only in Canada but also abroad.
For Black artists in Canada the appeal of the new centre isn’t just in its efforts to increase representation for artists, it’s also a space that goes beyond just one-off exhibitions.
“Not just for Black artists but for any artists as an institution to have those kind of spaces where one can experiment and collaborate and work with other artists and present. That’s a rarity. And so hopefully it’ll inspire other communities,” said Edmonds.
Reporting for this story was paid for through The Canadian Journalism Foundation’s Black Journalism Fellowship.