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Photographer Jalani Morgan Turns Vandalism of His Toronto Exhibition Into Opportunity for Social Justice Dialogue

May 25, 2017

By Melayna Williams

© Jalani Morgan

An image from the installation of Jalani Morgan's exhibition "The Sum of All Parts" at Scotiabank CONTACT Photography Festival in Toronto. Morgan responded to vandalism of his images by mending the slashes with red yarn. © Jalani Morgan

Jalani Morgan’s exhibition “The Sum of All Parts,” a black-and-white series of portraits and reportage that captures significant moments in Toronto’s movement for Black liberation and social justice, has been showing since April 29 at Scotiabank CONTACT Photography Festival in Toronto. The installation reflects Morgan’s dedication to documenting the Black Toronto community, including Black Lives Matter TO, the Black Canadian Studies Association Conference, the Racialized Indigenous Student Experience Summit and prominent Black Torontonians.

Two weeks ago, three photos in the outdoor installation were vandalized, possibly slashed with a knife. Responding to the vandalism, Morgan, along with visual artist and activist Syrus Marcus Ware, used red yarn to stitch together the tears. The contrast of the red yarn on the black-and-white photographs highlighted rather than hid the vandalism. The stitches have also become symbols of resiliency and community.

The dialogue that followed the vandalism was instructive, says Rania El Mugammar, a Toronto-based artist, organizer and anti-oppression consultant. As a Black artist in Toronto, she was not surprised by the vandalism. Art is a conversation and Morgan’s work has become “evidence” of the cycle of activism followed by opposition. El Mugammar says she is glad the canvas wasn’t replaced, so there is evidence of the slashing, and the public can engage with that as well as Morgan’s work.

Another of Morgan’s vandalized and repaired images: Osobe performs a spoken word piece during the Canadian Federation of Students RISE (Racialized and Indigenous Student Experience) Summit. © Jalani Morgan

Ryerson Professor Idil Abdillahi notes that Morgan’s response to the vandalism reflects the values and assertions of his activist subjects: “We are not going to be destabilized, we will continue to resist, repair and revitalize.”

But Morgan’s work is far deeper than the vandalism. Hailing from Scarborough, a Toronto suburb home to many first- and second-generation Black Canadians, Morgan’s roots inform his work, an ongoing love letter to his community. Morgan’s parent’s decision to come to Toronto from the island of Saint Vincent has “played a big part in who I am,” Morgan says, “so I make many of my decisions based off of honoring that. And so through that I connect with the community my parents must have been looking for when they came here and I want that love to be reflected, and I’m doing that through photography.”

Jalani Morgan. Photo © Colin Boyd Shafer

Jalani Morgan. Photo © Colin Boyd Shafer

Morgan’s work has captured the attention of many, including a diverse body of Black Canadians doing the work of Black liberation and social justice. Human Rights Lawyer Anthony Morgan (no relation) refers to Morgan as a “formidable addition to an emancipatory tradition of Black Canadian art.” He says the exhibition “creatively, beautifully and profoundly compels us all to confront Canada’s contemporary participation in anti-Black racism.”

For Black people, art, struggle, liberation and justice have always been closely connected. The Black Arts Movement happened alongside and was heavily influenced by the Civil Rights era, so it’s no surprise to see Morgan’s work connected to the Movement for Black Lives. A significant amount of Black imagery the public sees is “trauma tourism” that reflects society’s thirst to take in and exploit Black death and pain. It is well documented that white artists have capitalized on Black death, an issue, like cultural appropriation, that is pressing for people creating Black art. To counter the hyper-violent pieces of Black imagery that we often see, Morgan documents Black healing spaces. Morgan stresses the importance of honoring “sites of Black knowledge” in his photographs, which he defines as anywhere from hair salons and barbershops to academic conferences to family dinners or dominos games. “I don’t reproduce trauma tourism. I’m very cognizant of making choices specifically to ensure my work doesn’t represent that.”

Emelie Chhangur, curator of “The Sum of All Parts,” says in her curatorial statement that Morgan’s images portray sites of Black knowledge production as intersectional spaces. His work invites “viewers to participate in the cultural milieu his photographs frame and the discourses they seek to share across social, civic and cultural borderlines.”

A young marcher holds a 'Black Lives Matter' sign during a 2015 action by Black Lives Matter Toronto. © Jalani Morgan

A young marcher holds a “Black Lives Matter” sign during a 2015 action by Black Lives Matter Toronto. © Jalani Morgan

Black art is where we go to believe in ourselves, often in dimensions beyond not only our imaginations, but far beyond the ways in which other people see us. Anti-Blackness is a global reality that is manifested in various ways across the African diaspora. In North America, we experience, tolerate, fight against and survive Anti-Blackness. One of the most visible ways the fight is captured is through protest. Morgan’s protest work is layered. When Black Lives Matter Toronto affirms their commitment to “actively dismantle all forms of anti-Black racism, liberate Blackness, support Black healing, affirm Black existence, and create freedom to love and self-determine,” they trust Morgan to help deliver that message, making him integral to the movement. Idil Abdillahi, who co-produced the 2017 documentary, “It Takes a Riot” (co-Produced by Simon Black and Directed by Howard Grandison), insists that Morgan is not simply documenting activism, he is a full participant: “While we live, he lives, we resist, he resists, we struggle, he struggles.”

Morgan says he’s gained the trust of activists by thinking “about the history of photography in relation to Blackness, and how dehumanizing it has been historically.” He adds, “So this is my chance to right the rights of our people, right the rights of my community, I don’t take that for granted, I take that with serious focus and narrow dedication to making sure that if I’m going to be representing someone’s likeness I am going to do that with trust and love.”

Yusra Khogali, fist raised in front of Queen’s Park after a two week encampment at Toronto Police headquarters. © Jalani Morgan

Yusra Khogali, fist raised in front of Queen’s Park after a two week encampment at Toronto Police headquarters. © Jalani Morgan

My favorite photo at the installation is of Yusra Khogali, one of the leaders of Black Lives Matter Toronto. In it, she holds a megaphone with one hand and holds her other in a fist in the air. There is something that captures her spirit in this particular photo, and Khogali recognizes how Morgan’s photography affects how people perceive her and the movement. “In the midst of polarizing violence where I am sensationalized as an idea of Resistance or an object of anti-Black hatred, Jalani gives me a nuance where I can see myself in the complexity that makes me human,” she says.

As a young academic focused on issues of Black liberation, intersectional Black thought and anti-Black racism, I am interested in the ways in which we have and continue to tell our stories. Black art stands equal and alongside Black academic studies and activism. Seasoned academics who situate their work in Black art understand how important work like Morgan’s is. Professor Rinaldo Walcott, Director of Women and Gender Studies Institute at the University of Toronto and prominent art and cultural critic, describes Morgan’s photography as work that captures Black political protest in motion: “The still photograph of his images are not still. Instead his images mark both the present and the past of Black life as it is in motion. Additionally, the polished aesthetic of his images bring beauty to the dreadfulness that Black protest must continually confront in service of Black life and its futures.”

Jalani Morgan’s exhibition “The Sum of All Parts” is on view at Scotiabank CONTACT Photography Festival through May 31, 2017.

Melayna Williams holds a JD, is pursuing her Master of Laws in anti-discrimination law, and is the director of the Rights Advocacy Coalition for Equality (R.A.C.E.).