Searching for a Black Pacific: An Alternative Archive

Building an Alternative Archive: Digitization Theories in Process

“Who needs an alternative?”
Mitzi Waltz asks on page one of chapter one of her book, Alternative and Activist Media.[1] While Waltz explores the delineations of alternative and activist media vis à vis mainstream media, this question permeates too the post-production politics of archive creation and management/curation.

So, who does need an alternative? This question has fueled this archive before it ever came to be.

This project (my undergraduate thesis) began in the margins. I did not intend to research the history of black art and its production in Vancouver, BC. The research came about as a last ditch effort to finish off a seminar in the midst of a severe concussion I incurred at the end of my third year of University. Even in personal terms, the research began as an accident more than anything else.

I started this research in the “traditional” places – the Vancouver Art Gallery’s library, the Vancouver Archives, even the Royal Archives in Victoria. Through these I parsed certain narratives, such as that of Hogan’s Alley or Black Strathcona, and the history of back porters in the city, and the existence of figures like Joe Fortes and Mifflin Gibbs. Books like Crawford Kilian’s Go Do Some Great Thing and Professor Wayde Compton’s After Canaan: Essays on Race, Writing and Region explained, documented and discussed the histories of black migration and presence in Vancouver, and led me to names of individuals and sources – and most importantly, to my central question: where could I find a centralized source of information or access to the history of black art production in Vancouver? What was the history of black art in Vancouver and where had it gone? Researches like Compton and Kilian had left enough trails and clues to expose the absences within these traditional, institutional spaces. And so I went back armed with new lines of inquiry, new names to enter in the search catalogues and new questions. With the exception of an old exhibition booklet of Stan Douglas’s at the Vancouver Art Gallery, and a few odd pamphlets at the Vancouver archives, there was nothing.

Hogan’s Alley was a thriving cultural hub for the better part of the 20th century. The Sepia Players, based on a couple mentions in Nina Baird’s report on “Theater Space in Vancouver,” were shown to be active through the 1970s. A couple secondary sources like Celeste Insell’s “Laying the Groundwork for Survival: African Canadian Theatre in Vancouver” confirmed the existence and timeline of groups like the Sepia Players, and made mention of spaces like the Pitt Gallery and Video In.

So where the heck was the paper trail?

I started emailing, any names I could find. An article I found on google, titled “#BlackLivesCDNSyllabus Uncovers A Vital Archive” mentioned the article I later used to ground and title my thesis: “Disappearing Histories of the Black Pacific” by Peter Hudson.[2] Finally, someone asking the same question – and by the looks of it, providing some answers!
But Peter Hudson’s article in Mix magazine, while pictured in Merray Georges piece, was nowhere to be found by any power of google or hyperlinked forays into academic search engines.

So I emailed him. And Andrea Fatona, Chantal Gibson, Jan Wade – anyone I could find the professional email for on University websites. Professor Chantal Gibson, artist and educator, was very quick to respond and suggested I contact an artist featured in the piece by the name of david george morgan.

Who, as it turns out, had been meticulously documenting, preserving and archiving the scene of black art production in Vancouver for over thirty years.

This online archive has entirely been made possible by the work and continued contribution of david george morgan, artist, documentarian, and in my opinion, archivist extraordinaire. Along with many others who have generously responded to my questions – Chantal Gibson, Wayde Compton, Peter Hudson (who not only authored “Disappearing Histories of the Black Pacific” but also edited the two issues of diaspora magazine), david george morgan offered me access to the paper trail of black art production in late 20th century Vancouver. And with it, memories, reflections and discussion of personal involvement in the events documented.

I do not name drop here only to say a massive thank you; each name refers to an individual whose work constitutes its own archive, and the connections between these academics, artists and activists can tell the continued story of black art production in Vancouver much better than I can.

Names can contain archives. Better, they can contain the connections between archives, or between stories and sources not yet archived, alternatively or otherwise. 

To Waltz, it is often certain groups who need alternative medias in order to articulate experiences and communications left out of the mainstream.

I amend Waltz’s question: who needs an alternative archive? Or, more presciently perhaps, who needs access to the alternative archives that already exist?

I certainly did, all that time researching the traditional institutions. Ironically, now all of us, largely unable to access at least the traditional physical places of public research – the library, the museum, the city’s or state archives – may find the time and need to pursue alternative avenues.

I hope so. I hope that’s why you’re here. I hope you read these names and continue your own research into the silences and absences in our online schema of sources. And to the “groups” Waltz suggests, those that may have particular vested interest in these sources and their stories: black upcoming artists, researchers of black Canadian art history, students of Vancouver’s past - I hope this helps. I hope you came across this when you ran out of names to google. And, please feel free to correct, add or question anything here at any time.

You can reach me at
[1]Mitzi Waltz. Alternative and Activist Media. Edinburgh University Press, 2005. EBSCOhost. Accessed 23 Oct. 2019.   
[2] Gerges, Merray. “#BlackLivesCDNSyllabus Uncovers a Vital Archive.” Canadian Art Online, Features, July 14th, 2016. Accessed December 10th, 2018.

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