The Black Canadians (after Cooke)

July 2023 - August 2024
National Gallery of Canada

In this monumental new work, Deanna Bowen expands her family history into a broader examination of discrimination in North America over the centuries.

Rooted in a chronology that begins with the artist’s great-great-great grandfather and ends with the birth of her mother in 1943, The Black Canadians (after Cooke) also maps the United Kingdom’s abolition of slavery in 1833 and the trade’s colonial legacy.

The title references a Maclean’s magazine article written in 1911 by Britton B. Cooke, which presented his argument against Black immigration to Canada from the United States. Bowen’s forebears were such immigrants, and were fleeing deadly violence on Muscogee territory in today’s Oklahoma. The family’s journey was further complicated by discriminatory Canadian policies affecting Indigenous land rights and Black immigration.  

This major work – among the largest the Gallery has ever installed – has been developed upon lines of research and archival documentation presented in Bowen’s critically acclaimed travelling exhibition Black Drones in the Hive (2020), organized by the Kitchener-Waterloo Art Gallery; The God of Gods: A Canadian Play (2019), at the Art Museum at the University of Toronto; and The God of Gods: Berlin, Berlin(2020), presented at the Gropius Bau as part of the 11th Berlin Biennale.

In each of these exhibitions, Bowen created visual narratives drawn from publicly available archival sources to assess the different implications for European, Black, Indigenous and other racialized Canadians from the 19th to the mid-20th century. This era included Confederation, the South African War and two World Wars. It also comprised the founding of the National Gallery of Canada, in 1880, a formative moment during which a young country was striving to secure its place on the world stage, and sharing its vision through politics, arts and culture.

Exploring the complex history of colonialism, the trade of enslaved peoples, and Black migration through the lens of the artist’s own family’s experiences, The Black Canadians (after Cooke) restores generations of voices in a thought-provoking commentary on the enduring impact of prevailing cultural norms.

    Explore the installation here.

Watch the videos by The National Gallery of Canada:

Becoming Deanna Bowen - video documentary

Why Deanna Bowen’s work matters: Kahente Horn-Miller, Carleton University, Ottawa

Why Deanna Bowen’s work matters: Sarah Onyango, Black History Ottawa

Why Deanna Bowen’s work matters: David Sachs, Jewish Federation of Ottawa

Deanna Bowen on the Black Canadians (after Cooke) - Part I

Deanna Bowen on the Black Canadians (after Cooke) - Part II