A Room Full of Black Boys: Blank Canvas Recap

In the age of #BLACKLIVESMATTER, being a black male consists of a variety experiences: to be subjected to the preconceived notions of others, while bearing witness to both the stigma and blessings of being Black. Regardless of what it means to be a black boy, it can be assured that it’s not easy embracing the emotions of our experience; to show weakness, or to leave oneself vulnerable.To express oneself in any manner, or to be anything other than ‘the one that doesn’t smile for photos’ draws a lot of attention – sometimes, it can feel that there is only one expected (and accepted) way to be black.

Jah Grey and Olu Seye (both artists, and roommates) are helping to change the perception of what it means to be a black male – by putting us in the spotlight, and on a level that (literally) goes beyond face value. One of Blank Canvas’ latest exhibits, A Room Full of Black Boys, took place from September 29th-October 5th. Hype before, during and after the event brings about the likes of CBC to come along and capture some of the magic that took place on its opening day.

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Seye originally spearheaded the idea, with a particular purpose in mind:

We definitely wanted to celebrate black boys in the city, and the diversity that exists within black boys. But, I think, from the get-go, it was just a by-product of my creation process. I’ve always collected faces of black males to inspire my paintings, and then I ended up with all these faces that I had started to make collages of. And then, I knew I wanted to start creating content that was local, and that was native to Toronto. And that’s where Jah comes in – I wanted to collaborate with a photographer who could photograph men who are from Toronto, and that we could use to create this mural.

Aside from the plethora of faces (approximately 250), plus as a poem written on a mirror/the wall by Ezi Odozor, the duo also has shapes made out of metal wire suspended from the ceiling—as well as coloured string travelling throughout the room, protruding from the eyes of Seye’s piece, HIM.

In fact, a lot of Seye’s work is inspired by a combination of geometry, and Yoruba spirituality.”I’ve always tried to capture that sort of intangible aspect of what the spirit is, and what our intuition is. And the Yorubas believe that there is a sort of immaterial force that all of those intangible things are made of.

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Seye further goes on to explain the concept behind the string, which ended up becoming an interactive aspect of the exhibit: “sometimes the strings would pop out, but then people started to make those links themselves, and were placing the nails in different places from where I had originally placed them.

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Of course, as easy as it may seem to map out and plan such a concept, coming to execute it is a lot more challenging than originally planned. Aside from time-consuming jobs, a struggle we all know way too well, there was quite a few other hindrances for each respective artist. For Grey, it was the confrontation with a bunch of unknown strangers.  “A challenge that I tried to hide was going up to people I didn’t know – shit just got so real, so quick. … I’m ‘behind’ the camera, never in front – so when I do shoot people, I have to acknowledge the fact that it takes [being] vulnerable to a certain point, to do such.”

Meanwhile, for Seye it was more so monetary matters:  “For me, the greatest challenge was doing this entirely out of pocket. I had applied for grants at all three levels – city, province, and national – to at least get certain aspects of this project going. But, I got denied.” Given the amount of driving, printing out hundreds of faces, and the cost of supplies,  it was no easy feat to the artists to pull all of this off.

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It just so happens that the event also took place during Toronto’s annual art festival, Nuit Blanche. Discovering the coincidence one day before the event, the duo decided to set up their own unofficial Nuit-Blanche installment on the rooftop of the gallery, for people on street-level to enjoy as they pass by.

Video by See.What.Icy

In crafting the exhibition, there was a thoughtful dialogue on the connotations around the word ‘shoot’, which undoubtedly has its own stigma – especially given its perception towards black males in general. Being a photographer, Jah himself feels that the word “seemed very triggering”, and intended for the show to help dissolve (at least some of) the stigma circling the word. When I tell people “I wanna shoot you” I feel like it’s triggering. That word is triggering, and I guess it sucks now that we’re here, and we’re well-present. There’s words that we have to avoid, in order for us, and our mental health, to feel good.

Jah also feels like the show was a form of therapy to those who attended, especially given the amount of shared vibes, tears, and smiles throughout the week of its showing. “The day of the show I was at work, I’m like  ‘I can’t be here. I gotta go to the show.’ And then I came [to the gallery], and the energy here really did fill this space, to the point where we need this as a community. We need this – we need the love, we need the vulnerability.”

Check out some shots from the opening night of the exhibit below, and re-live the moving energy that the exhibit brought about to the community!

Video courtesy of See.What.Icy; photos courtesy of Brianna Roye.

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