As a boy, growing up in Windsor, Canada, Kenneth Montague’s parents took him to art exhibits in Windsor and across the border in Detroit. That is how the Jamaican Canadian first saw art like James Van Der Zee’s 1932 photograph of a “Couple in Raccoon Coats,” posed alongside a gleaming Cadillac V-16 roadster parked along a Harlem street, a record of their beauty and success.
“I recognized that there was another way that Black folks lived that wasn’t being publicly portrayed,” the Toronto-based dentist and founder of Wedge Collection says in the catalogue for the riveting and inspiring exhibition “As We Rise: Photographs from the Black Atlantic,” showcasing his collection at Salem’s Peabody Essex Museum from June 17 to Dec. 31, 2023. “I really plugged into that idea from early on, and that was basically my introduction to art—seeing reflections of Black life that were representations of who I was and aspired to be. This helped shape my own identity.”
Organized by Aperture in New York, and curated by Elliott Ramsey, the exhibition features more than 100 photos by Black artists from Canada, the Caribbean, Great Britain, the United States, South America, and throughout the African continent.
In 1997, Montague began hosting exhibitions in a wedge-shaped space in his home. The Wedge Collection and Wedge Curatorial Projects grew out of those shows. “From the outset, my mandate was to ‘wedge’ these lesser-known, underrepresented, and uncelebrated artists into the story of contemporary art and into the mainstream,” he says in the catalogue.
The exhibition features family portraits, parents and children, self-portraits, posed scenes, a Gordon Parks photo of a couple dressed in their Sunday best in Detroit in 1950, Seydou Keith’s picture of two women perched on a Vespa in the 1950s, Henry Clay Anderson’s portrait of a couple in leather coats on a motorcycle in the 1960s, Dawoud Bey’s 1976 portrait of “A Boy in Front of the Loew’s 125th Street Movie Theater, Harlem,” J.D. ‘Okhai Ojelkere’s 1970s documentation of the dazzling braids and buns of traditional Nigerian hairstyles that reemerged and evolved following the nation’s independence from Britain in 1960, Tayo Yannick Anton’s 2013 picture of a ecstatic Toronto hip-hop dance party for queer people of color, Jalani Morgan’s 2014 photo of a Black Lives Matter protest in Toronto over the killing of Eric Garner by New York police.
Montague says he focuses his collecting on “the simplicity and beauty of daily life: Black hairstyles, people at a party on the beach, leisure time, etc. I grew up seeing images of Black folks historically in struggle or in some form of oppression. I was hell-bent on ensuring that my collection was not going to perpetuate that view, but rather show the beauty and power of Black life.”
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