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Concordian Ashley Raghubir wins 2020 Canadian Art writing prize

The art history student’s master’s thesis examines Afrofuturist interventions into the Middle Passage
October 22, 2020
A black and white image of a young woman with long dark, wavy hair and a black shirt.
Ashley Raghubir’s essay explores Black artists who “intervene in the representation of history that in some ways has been denigrated and not explored.” | Photo by Monse Muro

Concordia Master of Art History student Ashley Raghubir is the winner of the 2020 Canadian Art Writing Prize.

Raghubir’s award-winning essay explores the depiction of water and air in the works of Afrofuturist artist Pamela Phatsimo Sunstrum and the poet Nathaniel Mackey. The Paris Review literary magazine recently featured both Phatsimo Sunstrum and Mackey.

“I was thinking about water; I was thinking about air and breath. And I was writing this essay toward the end of June, so I was very much thinking about George Floyd’s death,” Raghubir says.

“Nathaniel Mackey was responding to Eric Garner’s death in 2014, who uttered the same words about being unable to breathe.”

Raghubir notes that there is a deeply sad series of connections in this portfolio.

“My essay was thinking about those ideas and incorporating different theorists and writers and other poets whose work informed my master’s research.”

A different take on the Middle Passage

Artist and writer Gelare Khoshgozaran, a member of the prize jury, described Raghubir’s writing in a press release for Canadian Art magazine.

“It departs from the blue of painting to navigate water and air through their material and symbolic connections to Black diaspora breath,” Khoshgozaran notes.

“Framing Sunstrum’s new and recent paintings as ‘a representation of thrivance,’ Raghubir posits care and protection as constants that define the past and future of Black diaspora life and kinship.”

The prize, offered annually by Canadian Art, is meant to encourage new contemporary art writers. Raghubir will receive a $3,000 award and will be commissioned to write a feature story for a future issue.

For Raghubir, there are meaningful connections between the works she explored in her essay — particularly in Sunstrum’s depictions of her subjects near and sometimes created out of water — and the two pieces she’s focusing on for her thesis. South African Afrofuturist artist Mohau Modisakeng’s Passage and American photographer Ayana V. Jackson’s Take Me to the Water are at the core of her current research.

Both pieces engage with the Middle Passage, the forced transatlantic voyage of enslaved Africans. Modisakeng’s series of three projections depicts three Black characters in small boats that are eventually submerged by black water. Jackson’s portrait series captures Black women in regal dress against a pitch-dark background.

“I’m looking at how these artists are representing the Middle Passage in an Afrofuturist way through focusing on the concept of ancestral Black waters. I’m also looking at the use of dress in both artists’ work, the apparel and adornment, as a way to examine the Afrofuturist representations of these historical traumas,” she explains.

“I’m really interested in these works as artistic interventions into Black diasporic histories. I think that through Afrofuturism, there’s a very clear historic intervention. But it’s also a way to understand the origins of present-day contemporary anti-Black racism and violence.”

Launch of the new Afrofuturisms Research Collective

Raghubir adds that the archive of those passages is incomplete and doesn’t meaningfully reflect the stories of African men and women who experienced them, contributing to the erasure of their personal histories.

“In a way these artists representing something like the Middle Passage or other events in Black diasporic histories is a way to intervene in the representation of history that in some ways has been denigrated and not explored.”

Raghubir points to the way Modisakeng and Jackson afford their subjects the power archival records may have denied them by portraying them looking directly at the camera “in a way that conveys self-possession and agency, resistance and resilience.”

Her work is supervised by Alice Ming Wai Jim, professor of art history and Concordia University Research Chair in Ethnocultural Art Histories. Raghubir is also a core member of the Ethnocultural Art Histories Research (EAHR) student group, where she’s helped host exhibitions, galleries and public talks with Black, Indigenous and people of colour researchers.

This year, Raghubir launched the Afrofuturisms Research Collective under the EAHR’s umbrella, with fellow Concordia graduate students Ojo Agi, Anastasia Erickson and Olivia McGilchrist. The collective is hosting a virtual public lecture series during the fall and winter, and they’re considering writing together.

“We’re collaborating and supporting one another’s work through a collective practice,” Raghubir says.

“There’s clear synergy among our individual practices, and it was a really beautiful idea to come together, launch a public lecture series and really formalize what we’ve begun to do over the last few months. We’re trying to activate different theoretical frameworks on Afrofuturisms and different artistic practices.”

Find out more about Concordia’s
Afrofuturisms Research Collective and the Ethnocultural Art Histories Research Student Group.


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