In her full-time job as Heritage Toronto’s executive director, Karen Carter is responsible for elevating an appreciation of the city’s rich and culturally diverse heritage.
So when the opportunity recently arose to share the Caribbean carnival’s 44-year history with a wider audience, Carter leapt into action frantically reaching out to photographers she figured would have been chronicling North America’s largest street carnival over the decades.
Nation Cheong received a phone call about a month ago and responded to the rare opportunity even though it meant he had to work within a very rigid timeline.
The result is the Caribbean Carnival Exhibitions, complementary art exhibits at the Gladstone Hotel and the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM), which is being presented in part by Black Artists’ Network in Dialogue (BAND).
Migrating from Guyana in 1975 at age seven, Cheong’s passion for photography emerged in high school at Winston Churchill Collegiate Institute.
“I had a mentor in John Arnold who taught me how to load film, mix chemicals and do the processing in the dark room,” he said at last week’s launch at the ROM. “I was hooked for several years until my obsession switched to painting and drawing, drumming and folk music and then community work.
“I picked up the camera a few years ago and began shooting again at Caribbean events and also at festivals around the city. At around the same time, Chris Pinheiro showed me a book about the history of Carnival and I was deeply moved. I remember thinking this is what I want to do.”
With the help of Pinheiro who is a fabric artist, actor and script writer, Cheong’s photos explore different aspects of emancipation, masquerade, steelpan and calypso.
“My photos are mainly contemporary and they are meant to show that carnival is more than just jumping up and having a good time,” said Cheong, the Youth Challenge Fund’s director of community engagement and grants. “There is a social and political significance to carnival, especially as it pertains to people of colour and those from the Afro Diaspora.”
Cheong’s photos are juxtaposed with CBC archival video footage from the first three parades and Toronto Star’s archival photos.
“In 1967, a group of immigrants from the Caribbean gave a unique gift to the City of Toronto and Canada when they conceived of an idea to present a carnival event to coincide with Canada’s centennial celebration,” said Festival Management Committee (FMC) chair Denise Herrera-Jackson. “I am really sure today that the pioneers of this great festival would never have imagined that their dream would have lasted for such a long time.
“The exhibition that you will see is the footprint of this fantastic festival and their creation. Today, we are all proud to be part of the history and the story surrounding this festival.”
Carter said the exhibitions reveal some of the very important work the Black cultural community has been engaged in with carnival in Toronto for the past four decades. She also thanked Cheong for seizing the opportunity to showcase his work.
“This was not only for him as an artist, but also for BAND as an organization to start to break down some of those barriers between the arts and cultural community and an institution like the ROM,” said Carter, a former City of Toronto museum administrator who joined Heritage Toronto a year ago.
“Our role as an agency is to tell Toronto stories and this exhibition very well talks about the history and culture of the Caribbean community.”
Jane Nokes, Scotiabank’s director of Corporate Archives and Fine Arts, said Nation’s photo exhibits represent a visual retrospective of how the festival has grown into a unique celebration of culture while the ROM’s first female director and chief executive officer Janet Carding said she’s looking forward to her first festival experience.
The British-born former Australian Museum assistant director took up her new post last year.
“I have just been here for nine months so I have not yet experienced the carnival,” she said. “But the great thing for me when I had a sneak preview myself was how beautifully it captures the mood, ambience and sense of enjoyment and excitement in the carnival. From my point of view, I am looking forward to the carnival even more now that I have seen the exhibition which is great.”
Toronto‘s Carnival: Festival Photographs from 1967 to Today will be on view at the ROM’s second level up until August 1. The Gladstone Hotel exhibit, which opened yesterday, ends on July 31.
The two-location exhibition was developed in consultation with Pinheiro, Dr. Sheldon Taylor, Dr. Ramabai Espinet, Dr. Gary Trotman and Dr. Gary Miedema.