Nova Scotia was once home to Africville, one of the oldest Black settlements outside of the African Continent. Africville’s oral history supports its existence as far back as the 1700s. It was located on the Bedford basin of the city of Halifax in the general area the Alexander Murray MacKay Bridge now occupies.
In the 1960s, Africville was demolished by the municipality under the pretense of urban renewal. This act of destruction and the displacement of its residents was the ultimate embodiment of generations of systemic and overt racism against Black people in Nova Scotia.
Almost twenty years after the last Africville home was demolished, Mount Saint Vincent University (MSVU) collaborated with the Africville Genealogy Society, the Black Cultural Centre for Nova Scotia, and the National Film Board to develop the exhibition and symposium Africville: A Spirit that Lives On and the NFB documentary, Remember Africville. The exhibition explores the story of Africville and toured across Canada, showing in several prominent institutions
Marking the 30th anniversary of the 1989 exhibition, the collaborators reconvened with the addition of the Africville Museum (established in 2010 following the Africville Apology), to reactivate the gallery space to remember and celebrate the vibrant community that once was
The exhibition is composed of three major components: archival materials from the original exhibition, visual artworks and literary works, and scheduled performances and presentations. The archival materials include symposium transcripts, newspaper articles, publications, and films. The artworks and literary works, some recalled from the original exhibition and others newly added, comprises photographs, paintings, mixed media works, poems, films, and media-based installations.
The performances and presentations took place on and off site, chosen and organized by the Africville Genealogy Society, the Black Cultural Centre for Nova Scotia and the Africville Museum. MSVU deliberately extended freedom to its collaborators for agency and self-determination over the programming that would take place in the space
Through the combination of these three components and exhibition strategies, Africville: A Spirit that Lives On – A Reflection Project creates a potent space for difficult conversations and social justice
Upon entering the gallery, I was greeted with audio recitations of poetry by Martha Mutale. Her three poems set the tone for the rest of my time with the exhibition. Her words were powerful, unapologetic, thoughtful, and heartfelt
The National Film Board documentary Remember Africville was next. The film spoke to the injustice and wounds that were still open twenty years after Africville’s destruction. There was a considerable collection of archival newspaper clippings with headlines and articles, speaking to racism and oppression that could have been published today.
As I moved through the gallery, I couldn’t help but feel the outright sense of loss communicated in the works by Africville’s former residents and descendants. They spoke of stolen identity, estrangement from the past, and imposed indignity. Many of the works, however, also embodied joy
The underlying message across the entire exhibition was grounded in cultural pride and resilience. Irvine Carvey proudly states that when asked where he is from, he always answers “Africville.”
Projected on the far wall of the gallery were three short films by Cyrus Sundar Singh, highlighting the yearly Africville Reunion in connection to the yearly Owen Sound Emancipation Festival. His documentaries highlight many people working to preserve the story and legacy of where they came from
Coinciding with this exhibition in the MSVU Mezzanine Gallery was a solo painting exhibition by award-winning emerging artist Letitia Fraser. Fraser spoke on the panel of How We Build: On Craft and Blackness, one of this exhibition’s official events presented by MSVU Art Gallery, Visual Arts News, and Nocturne: Art at Night. Interdisciplinary artist NAT chantel, who also took part in the panel discussion, performed in the exhibition space in November
How We Build: On Craft and Blackness panel discussion. Left to right: Sobaz Benjamin, Letitia Fraser, Juanita Peters, NAT Chantel, moderated by Francesca Ekwuyasi
As a visitor, I found myself very moved by this exhibition. My own experiences with racism as a mixed-race African Nova Scotian were brought to the forefront of my mind. I encountered my biological surname on the list of Africville families, and I was left to wonder if there might have been a community for me there if Africville still existed.