Toronto writer discusses erasure in Black art and history during Black Portraiture[s] Conference

Acclaimed poet M. Nourbese Philip speaks in the first Canadian edition of the conference.

The Black Portraiture[s] conference keynote was delivered by M. NourbeSe Philip.  

Black Portraiture[s] kicked off on Oct. 13 with a keynote address from M. NourbeSe Philip on the denial of Black artists in culture and history — in both concerted and incidental ways.

In partnership with Agnes Etherington Art Centre, Wedge Curatorial Projects launched a three-day conference which discusses blackness as absented presence in art and history. This year’s conference, titled Absent/ed Presence, is the first to be hosted in Canada. It was spearheaded by Philip, who discussed her own experience with erasure, and delivered her keynote online.

“When we think about being absented or being present, it’s not only about being there or not being there, but it’s also about being—about existing.

M Nourbese Philip

Philip, who earlier this year won World Literature Today’s 21 Books for the 21st Century award, spoke to attendees of the seminar about her experience with an Italian media outlet, Benway Series.

Her book-length poem, Zong!, was translated and published by the publication without her knowledge. 

Zong! archives the eighteenth-century court case regarding the drowning of 150 slaves by the captain of the slave trading ship on route to Jamaica from Africa.

“When we think about being absented or being present, it’s not only about being there or not being there,” Philip said. “But it’s also about being—about existing.”

Philip recalled being perplexed while researching the case prior to writing the book. How is it possible, she wondered, that the murder of 150 humans can be reduced to a two-page report? It was therefore important that the details remain accurately depicted in Zong!. The book, in Philip’s words, “provides a place where something more than justice restores me and restores those who take part in it.”

Philip called out The Canada Council of The Arts for a lack of policies that protect the works of Black authors. According to Benway Series’ website, “the publication was made possible thanks to the support of the Canada Council for the Arts.”

“I asked for the work to be destroyed in June this year when I first heard about it,” she said. “No one has listened until Sept. 1 when I threatened that I would go public with my concerns.”

The issue with Black art being re-written by Italian media is that the translation is not the same and messages become misconstrued.  

‘It desecrates the memory of the ancestors,” Philip said. 

Another problem Philip had with this particular unpermitted republishing of her work is that Benway Series is usually a bilingual press. She raised the question of why all their works are bilingual editions except for Zong!.  

“In other words, Italians would only see the Italian version,” Philip said. 

Although not every Black writer has encountered a situation like Philip’s with Benway Series, the problem of continual erasure is one that younger artists like poet Lydia Collins must keep in the back of their minds. 

“Much of my fear around my work ending up in the wrong hands is what led me to become a self-publishing artist,” Collins said. “It brings me a sense of peace knowing that my project teams are Black.”

Collins, author of Angry Black Woman, believes in the sanctity of her work, however. She describes Blackness and its history as the foundation of her art. 

“It is embedded into the very fabric of my creations and that will always be the truth, no matter who comes in contact with my work,” Collins said. “That truth can never be altered.”

With almost 1,000 signatures on an online petition, Philip still awaits the destruction of the unauthorized translation of Zong! by Benway Series.

Black Portraiture[s] runs until Oct.16 and is free for the public. Guests can now sign up for the virtual conferences and join in the discussion.

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Posted: Oct 14 2021 12:00 pm
Filed under: Arts & Life News Profiles

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Amarachi Amadike