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Artist Rebecca Bair’s powerful work examines the complex identity of Black women in the Canadian landscape

The MFA grad exhibits her work “We Are Not What We Are Oppressed To Be (Black Speaker, White Walls)” at the Vancouver Art Gallery in the group exhibition ‘Where do we go from here?’

Acting on the Vancouver Art Gallery’s statement in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement during the summer of 2020, the exhibition Where do we go from here? examines the gallery’s own collecting and exhibiting history. The exhibition is an open and collaborative endeavour by six members of the VAG’s curatorial team along with guest curator Nya Lewis of BlackArt Gastown.

Within this exhibition, you will find We Are Not What We Are Oppressed To Be (Black Speaker, White Walls) by Rebecca Bair (MFA 2020). From outside the room, you can hear the muffled sounds of talking. It sounds playful, inviting. Inside the room, there is a symphony of looping voices telling stories of racism, microaggressions, and oppression which are addressing the Black identity, specifically that of Black women on Turtle Island.

We Are Not What We Are Oppressed To Be (Black Speaker, White Walls) by Rebecca Bair, as installed at the Vancouver Art Gallery. View from room entrance.

Rebecca shared the history around creating the piece, which was completed during her undergrad in 2017 out of necessity, according to the artist. “It’s funny to think it’s still so pertinent now,” said Rebecca. “The piece and its content still resonate with me today. It is also incredibly relevant to our current cultural and social context. Many of the motifs from that work have carried through and influenced the rest of my practice.” The artist continues that seeing the work have a second breath in a new city has given her time to reflect and absorb the piece and process all over again.

“I think about the fact it was made in Ottawa alongside my friends, and while their stories are still incredibly important, I question what the experience would be like of re-recording the sound,” said Rebecca. “Physically the piece could remain the same in every way but the sound could evolve. That potential is so exciting.”

Rebecca explains that in Ottawa, diversity is experienced in a very different way, and for Black women in the lower mainland, there is a difference in representation, or rather a lack thereof. “When I first arrived in Vancouver, it was incredibly isolating,” continued Rebecca. “I went many days, if not weeks, without seeing another Black person. I kept asking, how is this possible?”

The piece could morph ever so slightly over time and place would allow Rebecca to amplify the voices of Black women from the city where the piece is exhibiting. “I think about what the voices of Black women in Vancouver could bring to a piece like this,” said Rebecca. “Speaking specifically about location, place, and the experience within that. If it is shown again, I believe more than ever that it should, and has to, address that. It’s an exciting prospect.”

Rebecca explains that the creation of the work occurred within her group of friends, with the intention of having them come in one by one to sit with her and chat about their experience. “I asked them, ‘tell me about your experience as a Black woman in Canada’,” said Rebecca. “As they shared their experiences with me, I found myself feeling a sense of unity, of liberation with the cathartic release of these experiences.”

Instead of the recordings being one-on-one as Rebecca had planned, as each person arrived, the previous participants would stay. Others would arrive early and listen to the person before. “We came together as a community and felt this closeness,” said Rebecca. “The closeness came from these racist experiences, but in coming together, it made us feel safer as well as seen and heard. It ended up being a really beautiful experience. There was still laughter, even though the stories were difficult.”

We Are Not What We Are Oppressed To Be (Black Speaker, White Walls) by Rebecca Bair, as installed at the University of Ottawa. Photograph by Julia Martin.

For those of you who have been unable to visit the Vancouver Art Gallery to see this incredible show and Rebecca’s installation, it’s difficult to do the work justice in mere text alone. You can hear the work escape the room, refusing to be silenced. Once inside the space, you’re greeted by the rumbling of voices, laughter, and snippets of conversations. The ten plinths with attached speakers are painted black and stand at the height of the artist. By standing close to any structure, you can isolate the voices and hear only that story. Floating above the plinths is a cylindrical photo abstracting the identities of the subjects. The piece is a visual powerhouse that could make a statement in silence, but it is loud. Combined with the cacophony of voices, the piece envelopes you within the room. You are forced to lean in.

The piece has two audiences: those it asks to sit in their discomfort and those it welcomes home with collective experience.

“I love watching people lean in, to accept that invitation to listen without hesitation,” said Rebecca. “Or unwillingly accept it, where you see their eyes widen at the story and they sink into it. Which is a really important aspect of the work.”

The impact of showing at the Vancouver Art Gallery is not overlooked. Rebecca noted that the institution is respected by the art world, and there is a certain amount of joy showing there. “It does feel like a big deal to be showing there, but it also means that a typical demographic is listening,” she continued. “It is incredibly powerful to me to have infiltrated the space of those who could otherwise avoid discussions of racism.”

The show itself presents another collective and community experience, by showing the work of marginalized artists in conversation with one another. “While it is odd to not be showing this work to a predominantly Black audience, it does feel like we’ve made a statement together,” said Rebecca. “The community aspect in particular is incredible. Black people, Black women in particular, can relate to these experiences, can enter this conversation. For the non-BIPOC viewer and listener, it becomes an exercise on actively listening, often against their will.” Rebecca notes that the viewer is brought in by the voices and that often it can sound like a party before you really listen in.

We Are Not What We Are Oppressed To Be (Black Speaker, White Walls) by Rebecca Bair, as installed at the Vancouver Art Gallery. View opposite room entrance.

It’s important to recognize that this work, especially within the context of the Vancouver Art Gallery, challenges the status quo that the audience may be accustomed to. “I think what Nya [the curator] is proposing through this show is that an institution can be about representation and they can prioritize it. There are so many artists, particularly BIPOC artists right now, who are making great work with powerful messages if people are prepared to listen,” says Rebecca. “Particularly if an institution is prepared to listen, to have those difficult conversations, to create that space, you end up with this incredibly impactful show that breaks and interrupts the status quo.”

The exhibition Where do we go from here? is on at the Vancouver Art Gallery until May 30, 2021. You can find it on the second floor of the gallery. To see more of Rebecca’s work, please visit her website.

Rebecca Bair is a visual artist from Ottawa. In 2020, she received her Masters of Fine Arts degree at Emily Carr University of Art and Design. Rebecca completed her BFA at the University of Ottawa where she began her exploration of identity to further probe the complexities of intersectionality. Her findings soon merged with her art practice, and they now coexist harmoniously as multimedia installation works that illustrate the condition of the Black Woman in a Canadian landscape. Rebecca’s ultimate goal is for those who experience her work to ponder their own identity and be able to empathize with that of others.

[Bio from the artist’s website]

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