Spatial Lexicon

HUE exhibition reviewed
By Ashley Marshall
HUE exhibition. Image Credit: Darren Rigo

Image credit: Darren Rigo.

HUE x RMG: Honouring Unapologetic Expression
March 19, 2022 – May 8, 2022
The Robert McLaughlin Gallery
Oshawa, Ontario
Curated by: Womxn of Colour Durham Collective
Artists: Kezia Amoako, Anna Balagtas, Stephanie Hu, Ashleigh Hutchinson, Reisha Lyon, Melanie McFarlane, Melissa Murray, and Kay Williams

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"Pure colour is the medium of fantasy, a home in the clouds for the playful child."
– Walter Benjamin

Southern Ontario gets Blacker the further west you go. After Whitby comes Oshawa, known commonly as “the dirty ‘Shwa.” It is a blue-collar town that housed the GM Plant and provided much automotive labour for generations. This too was understood as whiteness.

Pickering is where you go to get Black girl hair products, a link on the latest streetwear, the flyers inviting you to the all ages dances, and the best hair braiders.

Then you get into Scarborough, the spot. “Scar Town” is where you learned the new lingo, the food court of the town centre is where you got cat called, and had a reputation for its high influx of immigrant populations. It is still where you can attend the R.I.S.E (Reaching Intelligent Souls Everywhere) cyphers and spoken word poetry. It is a hub of creativity and kids looking to express themselves.

West of Scarborough is “Toronto proper.” Everything east, Pickering to Clarington, up to Lake Scugog, is considered Durham Region.

HUE exhibition. Image Credit: Darren Rigo
Image credit: Darren Rigo.

It is known that "urban" and "inner-city" are codes to describe people of colour. It is less known that whiteness also has a spatial lexicon. In their research from 1980, Sternlieb and Hughes described “The Doughnut Complex,1” explaining that “since World War II the suburbs and exurbs of most U.S. cities have grown faster than the cities themselves.” Oshawa, a pillar of Durham Region, remains the fastest growing city in Canada2,per%20cent%29%2010%20Belleville%20%281.6%20per%20cent%29%20 (by population). Growing up in the doughnut, then migrating to the doughnut hole; lacking centre and struggling to find culture or community, it is as an adult that I recognize that the void has grown into its own core.

The Robert McLaughlin Gallery (RMG), located in Oshawa’s bustling downtown, hosted the HUE (Honouring Unapologetic Expression) exhibition from March 19-May 8. The photographic exhibit was created by the Womxn of Colour Durham Collective (WOCDC). The gallery is a free, public space with multiple levels displaying the contemporary visual art of Canadian people, with a penchant for Durham stories. The downstairs gallery is where I experienced HUE, invited by this passage: "WOCDC aims to create equitable and inclusive spaces to connect and collaborate with BIWoC who may feel marginalized, unsupported, or unheard. Through projects like HUE x RMG, they hope to make lasting change in the community by cultivating spaces where their interests and experiences are given the awareness, recognition and attention they deserve."

HUE exhibition. Image Credit: Darren Rigo
Image credit: Darren Rigo.
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The wall on my immediate left upon entering the space encouraged visitors to describe Durham in five words, with many saying "home, community, belonging, safety, clean, complicated" et cetera. The only word that came to mind for me was "typical."

Members of the WOCDC had their portraits and bios hung to the walls. The colours foregrounding each portrait were a combination of creamsicle-esque and reminiscent of the vibrant lights of a dancehall. The colours reminded me of my kaleidoscope joy as a kid. The colours reminded me, also, of my favourite movie, Barry Jenkins's "Moonlight," filmed in Miami and about which he describes as a "beautiful nightmare."

each portrait were a combination of creamsicle-esque and reminiscent of the vibrant lights of a dancehall

The autobiographies that accompanied each photo included the question “In 5 words, how would you describe your relationship with Durham Region,” and “what does being a womxn of colour mean to you?” To which, there were seven representatives of the WOCDC.

One picture struck me immediately. I recognized her. Her melanin melted to her perfectly; rich, dark, beautiful, and comfortable with her power. The lighting made her even darker still. The kind of blue-Black that photos capture so tellingly. It was Kezia Amoako, a distant friend from a distant time.

HUE exhibition. Image Credit: Darren Rigo
Image credit: Darren Rigo.

Using the powers of the internet, I spoke with Kezia, who thankfully remembered me.

Immediately Kezia and I fell into gun fingers, snapping along to “Pour it Up,” laughing with our whole chests, and “that part” with the pursed lips of a Black people who understand each other. As Black women, the impetus for us to “apologize” for existing, was understood without much discussion. Our coils, clothing, colour, and contexts are systemically filtered through respectability politics before we even leave the house. Do we look appropriate? Can we blend into our environment? Do we sound like we are from here?

Kezia explains the pressure to apologize comes from existing amongst the white gaze that renders us hyper-visible, and therefore hyper-aware of our natural, normal Blackness, Queerness, Womxness, etc. A moment of reverie from these nagging pressures comes from creating enclaves of identity: “Connecting to these physical spaces creates mental space for joy, laughter, pleasure, community.” Through our discussion we agreed that these senses are amplified when in the presence, specifically, of Black womxn: there is a spice, a magic, a healing, and a sheen only Black womxn have.

there is a spice, a magic, a healing, and a sheen only Black womxn have.

We also realize, however, "the apology is built into the culture," that much of the programming of apology comes from our own family’s intergenerational trauma, cycles, patterns, and internalized -isms, as well as misogynoir.

The radicality of Black existence must come with safety, and for Kezia, that means “the freedom to be everything I am, and everything I want to be, without fear.” And even more radically, “we are all free to not apologize.”

I moved to Whitby, Ontario from Toronto when I was eight years old. I remember loving the view from the top bunk of my bed, living in a high-rise building that overlooked an intersection. I would cry because I enjoyed he kaleidoscopic effect of the street lights diffracting the red, yellow, and green that I understood as Rasta colours. At an early age, I knew that I would search for community in my surroundings, always looking for my city to communicate back to me some form of reflection.

always looking for my city to communicate back to me some form of reflection.
Sinclair Secondary School is in north Whitby, a town colloquially referred to as "White-by" for its legacy of conservativism and middle-class whiteness. The racism at school was real, so much so that what few Black students did attend were kicked out of the cafeteria for “suspicion of stealing food” so often that the outside of the caf was referred to as "Cafrica" – where you could find the Black kids hanging out during lunch.
HUE exhibition. Image Credit: Darren Rigo
Image credit: Darren Rigo.
By grade 12 I was in a creative writing class, one of a few Black students. It was here, at age 17 that I studied the rhythm and poetry of Tupac Shakur. I was not introduced to rap before this time, not really, finding my Blackness mostly in Bob Marley, Lenny Kravitz, Erykah Badu, Garnett Silk, and many others. When I read “I wonder if Heaven got a ghetto,” a line Tupac ponders in several songs, it hit home to me that the search for belonging is culturally shared experience. With this knowledge, I began writing my poetry in the voice of a teenage boy from New York, an identity I adopted so I could find my voice. I submitted work to my white teacher that read “Throwin’ Bs up for Bloods or walkin’ like a crip/Corpses are red, violence is blue/but death don’t give a shit/Your life accomplishments have no purpose when your tombstone’s tellin’ you to RIP/Yeah bustin’ your ass for minimum is a joke/as the rich get richer and the minorities stay broke/Under the Star Strangled Banner tailor fitted for coloured folk.” I wasn’t sorry for cussing in class. To me, that is what poetry sounds like: gritty, raw, embodied, and brimming with an ontology of our death.
gritty, raw, embodied, and brimming with an ontology of our death.

Kezia explains Saturday’s panel for the exhibition: “it was lit. There were three Queer people discussing Blackness, Queerness, our relationship to Durham Region…reimagining what our futures might look like, which is us being outside. No more ‘let’s meet in these small, little places away from view,’ no more private link ups, no more hiding.”

There is a poetic justice in Black people realizing that “apologizing is a survival tactic,” and still radically embodying “I will be safe regardless” while outside, in a state we know is hyper surveillanced, amplified by white gazes, and programmed for our discomfort. To experience this within the confines of the gallery’s lower level was insulating and expansive. The audio playing while I meandered was interviews from the contributors, and added to my experience of togetherness and interactivity; the interplay between a physical space and a mental space.

Other portraits on display were of Melanie McFarlane on behalf of her mother, Beverly Browne; Ashleigh Hutchinson (whose 5 words were “Can’t afford to move away”); Reisha Lyon (a financial advisor who describes Durham as “Anishinabewaki,” and who says “the average financial advisor in Canada is a 62-year old white man, so working in the field is about taking up space in my industry); Kay Williams, whose “Blackness is very much part of [their] gender identity, as something that is everything and nothing at the same time”; Melissa Murray, who emphasizes the importance of resistance instead of normalized resilience; Stephanie Hu, who takes pride in her Chinese culture and embraces mutual willingness to learn from other people; and Anna Balagtas, who asserts that “we are the means of liberation, justice, radical softness, persistence, and undiluted love. We’re also the faces of heartbreak, sorrow, grief, anger, and rage. Women of colour are the beginning, middle, and end, holders of truth, and the way forward. We are expansive.”

We are here, on road, outside, unapologetically.

My relationship to Durham Region is tense, certainly, and made all the more empowering because of Allison Hector-Alexander, a Director for the Region of Durham whose crown has always guided my way forward, Alyssa Fearon, who graced my Black Student Success Network initiative with her experiences as the first curator of Nuit Blanche Scarborough in 2018, and the irreplicable Desmond Cole, whose work with the Oshawa Public Library is a commitment that creates a sense of home in the present and for the future.

Tupac continues to contemplate his environment: "Did you hear about the rose that grew from a crack in the concrete/Proving nature’s laws wrong it learned 2 walk without having feet/Funny it seems but by keeping its dreams it learned to breathe fresh air/Long live the rose that grew from concrete when no one else even cared!" We holler because we hear him, and we realize the complete vibrancy and brilliance that comes out of the east end. We keep cracking concrete and planting ourselves. We are here, on road, outside, unapologetically.

Note: This work was commissioned prior to Ashley Marshall being confirmed as a Board member for the RMG.


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Ashley Marshall
Ashley Marshall's research critiques how power, economics, and politics influence social change.
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