First black NB artist to exhibit at Beaverbrook says photography has opened many doors
A Fredericton photographer is expected to make history this spring when his work is showcased at the Beaverbrook Art Gallery.
Gary Weekes is set to have an exhibit at New Brunswick’s only officially designated provincial art gallery beginning April 2, titled Larry Fink vs. Gary Weekes: The Boxing Portfolios.
When it opens, Weekes will become the first black artist from New Brunswick to have an exhibition at the Beaverbrook.
It will be exciting to set that precedent, Weekes said, but he noted that it wouldn’t be the first time photography has opened doors for him as a black man.
“The camera made a lot of the world an open place for me,” he said.
“I would be allowed to sit at a table in a very expensive restaurant and at the same time sit at a table with homeless people, and be accepted in both.”
It gave him both “a certain sense of power” and “a very strange way of seeing the world”, he said.
Weekes does many types of photography, from commercial portraits and still lifes to figurative and abstract fine art.
The spring exhibit will feature black and white images of Fredericton Boxing Club athletes, taken by Weekes as well as American photographer Larry Fink.
A few of his images can currently be seen at Fredericton’s Gallery on Queen, as part of a Black History Month exhibit titled DiasporArt: Self Actualization.
Gallery owner Nadia Khoury noted that Weekes had a solo show there last year.
This month, the gallery is also showing work by seven other members of the New Brunswick Alliance of Black Artists, she said. They include Rhonda Simmons, Daniel Leek, Clyde A. Wray, Sydona Chandon, Reon Hart, Aleya Michaud and Angel Terry.
And on February 11, the gallery plans to host a virtual launch party for a book called AfriCANthology: Perspectives of Black Canadian Poets, by Greg Frankson.
It features a cover photo by Weekes and artwork by local poet Thandiwe McCarthy.
Weekes has lived in the Fredericton area for 14 years, but his roots as an artist go back to London, England.
Growing up, he says, he was interested in creating art, but he was more interested in learning how to survive in an environment where racism was rampant.
It was common to see the letters NF, for National Front, on clothing, walls and doors in his predominantly white, lower-middle-class neighborhood, Weekes said.
The far-right National Front party supports white-only citizenship in the UK and opposes the immigration of people of colour.
Weekes said he saw the support for them and thought, “Gee, that’s weird.”
Information morning – Moncton17:45Black History Month: A Conversation with New Brunswick Photographer Gary Weekes
But it was also in London that he had his first glimpse of successful photographers.
He got jobs as assistants to Kofi Allen and Franklyn Rodgers, whom he described as excellent role models, as he learned his craft.
Later he moved to the United States, where he lived in New York’s Bronx neighborhood and visited more “strange” sites.
The apartments had bars on the windows. On the downtown Manhattan subway, all white people got off before it got to Harlem. Street corners in black neighborhoods had no trash cans.
The inequality and different experiences of these places fueled his creativity, giving him “head space” and opportunities to look around, Weekes said.
11:33Larry Fink vs. Gary Weekes: The Boxing Portfolios
American artists Weekes admires include Gordon Parks, whose creative work ran the gamut from fashionable photo documentaries, to film and music. Weekes said Parks was able to excel in white-dominated fields and “sowed the seed” for artists like himself.
The painter Charles White was another.
He “could paint and document any nationality”, said Weekes, describing White’s work as “beautiful graphic images”, “very stylized” and “Afrocentric”.
But while Weekes said there was no “black way” to be an artist – noting that any way of expressing yourself is valid – he noticed a distinct trend in photography now that more and more more black people take pictures.
The proliferation of camera phones has given black people more opportunities to show the world “how they are” in everyday life – “moments of joy, love, hate and anger” – without that “someone from the outside will come to these neighborhoods and tell our stories for us.”
Instant cameras may have been available since 1900, Weekes said, but in the places he lived most people couldn’t afford to buy them or have film developed.
You haven’t seen many photos of black families growing up, celebrating at home or just being themselves, he said.
Now, he said, digital photography has leveled the playing field and ushered in a new era in the history of photography.
For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to stories of success within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project that Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.