A crowd about 100 people deep braced against the sharp-edged air on November 23, as history was being made–and recalled and refracted—on a spate of Gottingen Street sidewalk. “Why are you crying?” one woman asked another, pulling her in for a hug. The tears sparked, presumably, from the magnitude of the moment: The unveiling of a new monument honouring Viola Desmond, the proud north ender and Canadian civil rights icon.
The monument itself—the first permanent, public celebration of Desmond in the city—isn’t the staid statue or mural you might expect. Titled The Viola Desmond Experience, it’s located in an outdoor alcove of the Velo building at 2300 Gottingen Street—but really, is a portal into another world you can step into seamlessly from the sidewalk: Artist Marvin Nelligan (who, like Desmond, is a proud north ender, having grown up meters from the installation at Ahern Manor) created an installation that is a reimagined take on Desmond’s beauty salon.
The floor looks like planked wood. The wall the viewer sees first sports a vanity, complete with mirror. Flanking the alcove, the walls feature would-be salon patrons—all reading the African Nova Scotian paper The Clarion—alongside a mix of rich details that centre Desmond’s story and significance: The 10 dollar bill and stamps bearing her face are framed alongside the pardon she was granted for the arrest that made her a household name. Nearby are posters riffing on the line of beauty products she sold across the province. (For those who were sleeping in history class: Desmond challenged the racial segregation of a New Glasgow movie theatre in 1946, resulting in her arrest. She fought her court charge and lost—but was granted Canada’s first posthumous free pardon in 2010. The Clarion was the first paper to cover the case.)
The centrepiece of Nelligan’s exhibit, though, is the weatherproofed barber’s chair that sits in the installation’s middle, beckoning passers-by. “You can sit in it! I want people to be able to sit in it,” he says, moments after the cape covering it is removed and opening remarks are made by himself and Tracy Jackson, executive director of the North End Business Association (which helped formalize the push for a public, permanent monument for Desmond). Almost immediately, a group of several schoolchildren make good on his bet: They climb over the chair’s arms and each other, jostling for a spot, to begin braiding each other’s hair in a spontaneous moment of make-believe.
The location of the new monument is between two modern hair salons, Tara Taylor’s The Braiding Lounge and the Blue Collar Barber Shop. Taylor, who wrote a musical about Desmond and was inspired by Desmond’s history to launch her own line of natural beauty products, says it is “ground zero” of Desmond’s story, near where Desmond’s actual salon would’ve been located. “It just feels like: Literally before I knew she existed in the world, I was struggling as an entrepreneur—and when I learned about her, I was like: ‘Oh my gosh, there was somebody way back then that had the tenacity, the trailblazing power inside of her that she didn't even realize: She just she was just going for it’,” Taylor tells me at the unveiling reception, held inside the Halifax North Memorial Library (right across the street from the artwork itself). “ I'm not Viola. I never will be. But I want to just embody what she meant to the business world of the Black woman business world.”
The library’s multi-purpose room is packed with people celebrating the installation. Nelligan speaks about the artwork’s creation process before entrepreneur Shantia Upshaw talks about how Desmond paved the way for future generations of successful African Nova Scotian business-owners like herself. Hip hop artist MAJE performs the tribute he wrote in Desmond’s honour before bridging into some verses of Tupac’s “Keep Ya Head Up.” Poet Guyleigh Johnson shares some verses. Between each, the clapping is so thunderous that it could almost be mistaken for a rainstorm.
The reception ends and Nelligan darts back to the installation, taking photos of folks in the barber’s chair and thanking the crowd for coming out. I ask him why Desmond’s legacy is still so important, this many years later. A historic photo of Desmond stands just over his shoulder, while ephemera and evidence of her business acumen and the space she made for Black women are reflected in the installation’s contents.
“I don't believe that we've even begun to scratch the surface of her legacy yet,” he tells me. “I feel this was one of the first attempts, to this magnitude, where people are starting to really embrace and become aware of her accomplishments—more so than the incident that happened to her. And that's really what the focus with this project was: We want to celebrate and show her as a Black woman, especially during that time, and the challenges that she faced. And just really celebrate that, and show, like, this is somebody that is just on a whole ‘nother level entirely.”