To interdisciplinary artist Rebecca (Becky) Bair, Blackness is about plurality and possibility. Bair, a director of the Black Arts Centre in Surrey insists that when documenting Black history, it’s “insufficient” to focus only on atrocities.
“Blackness is broadly about joy and love and community,” Bair tells Pancouver by phone.
However, government archives, which are supposed to be repositories of the past, are incapable of representing all the nuances of Blackness, according to Bair. She knows this firsthand after searching for records of Black history in the New Westminster Archives.
Along with archivist Erin Brown-Osterman, Bair spent several hours flipping through pages of leather-bound ledgers. They also rummaged through images and blueprints and examined how boxes of documents were categorized.
“We skipped lunch,” Bair recalls. “We skipped getting any water or taking breaks; we just went into those archives and we scoured and we searched up and down… And yet, we couldn’t find a single trace of Blackness.”
She acknowledges that Blackness exists in the city’s past—for example, through newspaper articles and on deeds for property owned by a Black families in New Westminster. In addition, she says, there are “loose histories” about Black barbers in the area, including one who cut hair on a specific corner. But there’s no documentation of his name or his face.
“Two Black women went into those archives and looked for several hours for signs of Blackness and were unable to find it,” Bair says. “Whether or not it’s there is maybe a different issue in my mind. The fact that we couldn’t locate it is incredibly significant. That feeling—that sense—was really, really powerful and lingered for a long time.”
Bair describes interior shadows as elusive
Bair’s work is greatly informed by the work of Nya Lewis, who’s on the Black Arts Centre Advisory Board. Lewis’s master’s thesis and her 2022 exhibition at the grunt gallery, An Insufficient Record: The photo-ethics of preserving Black Vancouver, examined representation of Black people in Vancouver’s archives.
Bair’s response to her visit is the site-specific Curl Mapped. It’s a massive, 8-metre by 22-metre installation on the façade of the Anvil Centre. The artwork includes a detailed, blown-up archival map of the city in 1862. Curly tendrils of black hair expand the edges, highlighting Bair’s intentional fissure in the image.
“They interrupt and they break apart,” the artist says of the curls. “But they also expand the potential for understanding that there is more to this story. There is more to this document and this history. And what we have is actually incomplete.”
She also considered how the installation would be seen inside the building. When the sun comes out, curls are projected as shadows in the Anvil Centre interior.
“You can’t entirely avoid them and yet you can’t touch them,” Bair says. “They are elusive. They are ghostly.”
Commissioned by the city, Curl Mapped will remain on the Anvil Centre façade until March 1, 2024.
Bair deliberately included the Fraser River in the installation because 19th-century Black settlers would have travelled up this waterway during the gold rushes and to move to the city.
“That incredibly detailed map held notes about blocks and house numbers and all kinds of things,” Bair points out. “But it doesn’t note Blackness. We know that because the archives, in their entirely, also don’t note Blackness.
“And so it’s meant to break up our understanding of history—that there are histories untold here, specifically Black histories, that would complete the story.”
Representing absence with hair
Curled Map was unveiled as part of the Capture Photography Festival.
Over Zoom, the festival’s executive director, Emmy Lee Wall, tells Pancouver that Bair’s project was selected in part because it responded so deeply to place. By that, Wall is referring not only to the façade of the building, but also to New Westminster as a whole
As the curator of Curl Mapped, Wall was intrigued by how Bair represented absence through curly tendrils.
“For Becky, hair is an ongoing subject because of its cultural significance and as a representation as a site of cultural care,” Wall says. “For this monumental public art project, Becky presents a map that is separated. There is a gap in the map and curly tendrils reach toward each other. For me, it’s such an interesting image because she has thought of a means by which to represent an absence, a lack of information.”
In fact, Bair often keeps little hair trimmings, which she makes use of in her work. For her, hair is one manifestation of Black plurality and a site for expressing subjectivity and collectivity.
“Within our family groups and within our expanded Black femme groups in particular, we took care of each other’s hair in specific ways—recommending products or doing each other’s hair,” she says.
Therefore, it shouldn’t come as surprise that hair became part of this public art project. After printing out the map of New Westminster, Bair decided to place hair on it, trying different configurations. After a while, she concluded that this “ghost” of a Black presence didn’t need to be separated from the image, nor should it be done superficially.
“It actually had to be one with the map,” Bair says.
Indigenous sovereignty remains top of mind
She’s originally from Ottawa on the traditional, ancestral, and unceded Anishanaabe Algonquin territory. Bair emphasizes that her art is being created on the traditional, ancestral, and unceded territory of the Coast Salish peoples
“My responsibility, in my mind, is twofold,” Bair states. “First is to Indigenous sovereignty—I would say, first and foremost, recognizing the impact of colonial presence and settler presence on these lands. And then second is to uncover where Blackness is and has been.”
That’s because when she first arrived on the West Coast, she felt isolated.
“There wasn’t a Black community for me to turn to,” the artist adds. “That has changed and I have since made community and through my practice and the Black Arts Centre, which I founded. The objective here is to bring Black communities together to say we have a physical space.”
Furthermore, while she loves maps, she also believes that they often lack a human element. So she was determined to create a map about humans on the façade of the Anvil Centre.
“I think that this work does this,” Bair concludes. “It fundamentally integrates the human and the map. They aren’t separate from each other.”
Video: Rebecca Bair and archivist Erin Brown-Osterman discuss their work.