Visions of Greater things

David Woods is a “grassroots warrior” uniquely positioned to involve black artists in the province’s cultural conversation. “It’s not ‘Oh, it’s black art’ and you do one show and you’ve covered it, and you can move on.”

photo Scott Munn

After David Woods was publicly named as the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia’s first associate curator of African Canadian art in February, he joked that it messed up his friends at Tim Hortons, where he goes to write. “They don’t know what associate means, but they know it’s big. It’s comical because I might not be making a lot of money, but if they name you the associate curator, the brothers are looking at you like, ‘damn, you got a big, big job,’” he says, laughing.

It is a big, big job: one that’s tailor-fit to Woods’s exhausting stream of accomplishments. Immediately recognizable in his signature dark suit, he’s a well-known curator, painter, poet, playwright, director, arts administrator and activist. If you want a crash course in Woodism, look for Joe Sealy’s Africville Suite, the Juno-award-winning jazz CD. Woods’s moody painting graces the front, and several of his spoken word poems overlay Sealy’s jazz. Above all, he’s a self-proclaimed “grassroots warrior,” whose “heart and passion belongs to the everyday folk and the things that everyday folk do, that allows me to be able to interact with people in a way that is not always typical.”

Perhaps it’s Woods’s charismatic, chameleonic quality, his natural aptitude for storytelling or his straightforward approach to dealing with people that makes him equally at home hanging out at Tim’s (he had to change locations to get some writing done), as chatting with Shelagh Rogers on CBC Radio’s Sounds like Canada. He’s funny, outspoken and—although he suffers from a mild case of technophobia and occasionally his voicemail fills up—he was born for the job.

Woods’s new office at AGNS, located on the second level of the South Gallery, already feels like home. On one wall, prints of work from exhibitions Woods curated for the Black Artists Network of Nova Scotia hang in rows. Celebration, an oil painting by NSCAD grad Justin Augustine, is propped up against a file cabinet. In early April, students from Nelson Whynder Elementary School in North Preston visited the museum for the popular Art of the Ancient Mediterranean World exhibition. Woods showed them Augustine’s painting, which depicts several musicians and a small choir, throwing their heads back in tangible joy.

“It was amazing watching their little faces pop,” says Woods. “They were excited because, yes, they saw their own communities reflected, but also because their art was the topic of discussion.”

Jeffrey Spalding, the AGNS’s director and chief curator, observed the interaction between Woods and the school group. He remembers the kids “going mental” over the exchange. Over the phone, he says this is just one example of why Woods’s contribution is very special: “It’s reaching out to a different community and saying, ‘this is your art museum. We’re not asking you to visit our museum, this is yours.’ If you do not see yourself reflected in the face of a place, it doesn’t matter what you do. You can only be so invited.”

The position of associate curator of African Nova Scotian art came about thanks to a generous donation from senator Donald Oliver, a known advocate of human rights and visible minorities. Spalding believes it’s the only position of its kind in Canada.

“People don’t have a lot of experience hiring associate curators of African Canadian art,” explains Woods. “I think they started with African Heritage, but to me, it’s pretty grandiose. You may see primarily African Nova Scotian art, but that’s too exclusive and too narrow of a dialogue. Plus, half of the population of black Nova Scotia lives away anyways.” Woods himself was born in Trinidad, moving to Dartmouth with his family in 1972. “We’re interested in the dialogue of Africans in Canada.”

“It’s not a full-time union position, so we’ve not been forced to bring a great deal of clarity to it. Every week we banter,” Spalding adds. “But here’s the point: what David and I hit on are the bigger aspirations. We don’t want to talk to ourselves. This is going to be about us, in relation to the world.”

As curator, Woods will organize historical and contemporary exhibitions that explore the African experience and make connections within a larger, sometimes international, context; develop related programming and community outreach strategies; and advise on acquisitions to the AGNS’s permanent collection. Most importantly, the grassroots warrior will develop relationships with the province’s various black communities, who have been largely underrepresented by Nova Scotian cultural institutions—outside of the requisite annual African Heritage Month events (somewhat ironically, in 1984 Woods initiated the province’s first Black History and Culture celebrations, continuing as lead organizer until 1992).

“Yes, it was important to get stuff out there, but it was always about a special event, and then it was over again,” Woods says. “When you wanted to get involved in more protracted, more investigative kind of things, to continue the dialogue among many fronts, there was no opportunity. It’s not ‘Oh, it’s black art’ and you do one show and you’ve covered it, and you can move on.”

In 1998, when David Woods first put a call out for black artists to participate in In This Place: Black Art in Nova Scotia, an exhibition held at the Anna Leonowens Gallery, only six responded. So he literally went door-to-door in various communities, looking for work. “Our creativity in a sense was always very proletarian, had very utilitarian needs,” he says. “Black communities never interacted with art galleries and museums in the same way as standard professional artists have. They haven’t submitted slides, they have not come with exhibition proposals.” Woods explains that if work was shown, it was often in venues such as community centres, or in community-minded locations such as the Dartmouth Heritage Museum.

In This Place, which packed the NSCAD gallery and toured the province, represented the contemporary and historic work of 50 artists. Many of the artists who Woods discovered don’t even consider themselves as such. “I am always intrigued when I find some old dude who painted his whole life, and didn’t try to make money. His muses were aroused, he sat around in his little house, and did his thing.”

Eight years later, artists approach Woods, as do collectors. His encyclopedic knowledge of the various communities also proved an asset with the upcoming opening of the AGNS’s Yarmouth branch. A series of exhibitions of works on paper, primarily from the permanent collection, are planned there. By participating in the curatorial process along with other AGNS staff, Woods was “able to contribute something that wasn’t on the radar,” such as identifying folk artists from south western Nova Scotian black communities, including Harold Cromwell and Lester Sykes.

“It’s not always going to fly. It’s not like we’re tossing out Alex Colville and putting in Lester Sykes,” Woods says, laughing. “But you’re introducing a dialogue that allows some rethinking.”

Woods’s first public success as an AGNS curator occurred on a warm mid-March afternoon. Artists, quilters and enthusiasts filled the museum’s Windsor Theatre, some sitting in the aisles, to watch the Pulitzer-winning documentary, The Quilts of Gee’s Bend, followed by a talk by Woods and a few local quilters.

The story of Gee’s Bend may be familiar: It’s a small, rural all-black community in Alabama, where, after the Civil War, the freed slaves remained isolated from the rest of the world. The women of Gee’s Bend created quilts—never with the intention of hanging in major museums like MOMA, but out of necessity, using up scraps of material, old jeans and other remnants. Without the aid of store-bought patterns, these women developed a sophisticated quilting aesthetic and composition that has been compared to modernist, abstract paintings, and been declared “miraculous” by the New York Times.

For the past four years, the exhibition has travelled across the United States. Woods and Spalding are collaborating to bring the quilts or a similarly themed exhibition to the AGNS; details are still in the works, but the real plan is to connect the unique African Nova Scotian quilt-making history and style to other black communities in the world.

“There are so many points of interest and departures for people,” Woods says. “For the Gee’s Bend talk, there were young, white, old, Chinese. You can’t present it in one way—you just can’t decide for folk. If you exclude people, you eliminate all sorts meeting points. People travel and people relate, and people are more interconnected than you think.”

Woods’s second major success is the AGNS’s acquisition of a painting by Edward Bannister, a relatively unknown 19th-century landscape painter from New Brunswick. It’s a first step towards one of Woods’s dream projects—a historical exhibition of 19th-century art created by African Canadians. “Every province has black communities. Why is that we have no inkling of the art produced? Not just in historical terms, but any cultural knowledge of it?” he asks.

“Hey, I’m going to have fun too. Basquiat…” he says, leaning back in his chair. He dreams of bringing the work of Jean-Michel Basquiat, the famous artist whose work personified, for many, the black urban experience and the decadent ’80s New York art scene, to the AGNS. “Man, I’d retire on that. I’d stand in front of the gallery and wave, ‘I did that,’ and then go home to Tim Hortons and retire.”

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