Olumoroti (Moroti) Soji-George has just come off an exceptional year.
Last September in Surrey, the Nigerian-born film theorist and several other artists launched The Black Arts Centre, which he curates. Its members presented the Concealed Cultures: Visualizing the Black Vernacular exhibition at the Surrey Art Gallery from September 17 to December 11. In addition, the I see; I breathe; I am exhibition built on this theme to show how society interprets Blackness.
Then in December, Soji-George met all the qualifications for his master’s degree in SFU’s School for the Contemporary Art.
“I specifically looked at how Black men were depicted in 17th- and 18th-century French and British arts,” Soji-George says.
He points out that this period coincided with the Age of Enlightenment and the beginnings of the slavery-abolitionist movement.
“So, I was essentially looking at how the Black male body was constructed in a frame,” Soji-George continues. “And how these constructions around the Black male body and Western arts were used to mark the Black body as the ‘other’ and a sexual being—and how that affects our society today.”
Meanwhile, as the artistic director of Gallery Gachet, Soji-George also curates events and exhibitions. In this Downtown Eastside space, Aileen Bahmanipour’s How to Invest in Iran continues until January 27.
Soji-George reveals that in February, Gallery Gachet will present a new exhibition called Saltwater Cures All, featuring the work of Barbadian Canadian artist Racquel Rowe.
“Her work is a compilation of video and performance work that speaks to the importance of water and the history that Black people—and especially people of the Caribbean—have with water and family,” Soji-George says.
Soji-George works with PuSh Festival
He’s also eager to discuss The Black Arts Centre at 10305 City Parkway near Surrey Central Station. The other directors are performance artist Arshi Chadha, interdisciplinary artist Rebecca Bair, Madebywe cofounder Hafiz Akinlusi, and writer-producer, and cultural consultant Vanessa Fajemisin.
“We really want to make it a hub that centres Black creativity…where the artists don’t feel they have to cater to the white gaze or anything like that,” Soji-George says.
This year, the PuSh International Performing Arts Festival is co-producing afternow with The Black Arts Centre at the Roundhouse Exhibition Hall from January 28 to February 5.
This free show features works by four-time Bessie Award winner nora chipaumire. It includes the artist’s new opera Nehanda, named after an African lion spirit, which will be played on a huge speaker setup.
“Nehanda inhabits mortal women, notably Charwe Nyakasikana, a revolutionary behind the uprising against British colonists in the late 19th century,” the PuSh Festival website states.
Meanwhile, The Black Arts Centre is curating a Club PuSh event at Performance Works on February 3. Featuring DJ Mada Phiri, it’s billed as “a night of dance, collaboration, and community”.
Soji-George says that he admires how Phiri incorporates sonic elements of techno, house, and grime into Black music.
“I really enjoy that she is trying to make space for young Black people and Black people in general in the party scene in East Vancouver,” he adds. “And she’s doing this by combining the familiar with sounds and feelings that some Black people might not even know they could enjoy.”
While it will be a party, he emphasizes that Phiri’s sets are also “very political”.
Scholarship meets community
In Soji-George’s view, artists play an important role in causing people to rally behind movements or ideas that “might not be super-present in our milieu and our society”.
He reveals that his curatorial practice is fuelled by an urge to uncover. It’s also driven by a desire to speak to issues that artists and people in their community understand.
“I really care about politics, I really care about philosophy, and how people are making sense of their individual realities,” Soji-George says. “So, I guess that’s my curatorial framework.”
He points out that The Black Arts Centre came into existence after the murder of George Floyd and the great racial reckoning of 2020. Directors want to create a safe space for Black people to express themselves artistically.
“We are working on this understanding that Blackness is not a monolith,” Soji-George states. “Different Black people have different meanings of what it means to be a safe space.”
As a scholar, Soji-George has been influenced by important Black writers. He cites Franz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth and Éduard Glissant’s Poetics of Relation as two books that had an impact on him. In addition, he mentions Black writers such as Angela Davis, bell hooks, and Hilton Als, along with white writers Susan Sontag and Joan Didion.
Rest as resistance
The Black Arts Centre is planning other events in February, which is Black History Month.
“One of my goals while I’m working at BLAC is to cause the general public to engage with Black arts academia,” Soji-George says. “I find a lot of reading groups typically have one book to read and something like that. But I want to get members of the reading group to read a scholarly article and we can all sit and discuss that during Black History Month.”
Soji-George emphasizes that he also learns a great deal from members of the Black community in Vancouver. He cites three, in particular, who’ve shaped his practice: curator Nya Lewis, writer and poet Cecily Nicholson, and The Black Arts Centre director Rebecca Bair.
“They encourage me to do what I love and be what I want to be,” he says.
Moreover, they help him recognize that as a curator, the people that he’s working with must know that his efforts are for them. “This can be lost when there is so much academic vernacular.”
For Black History Month, The Black Arts Centre is also planning a movie night. He then mentions another of the centre’s priorities in Black History Month—highlighting the idea of “rest as resistance”. It’s in response to how many Black people, including immigrants from Africa, overwork themselves. According to Soji-George, this is sometimes due to the burden of representation that they face in their lives.
“In Nigeria, we developed with this work ethic because the country is hard,” he says. “You need to work hard already when you’re in Nigeria. So, when you move out of Nigeria, you just keep this work ethic—and opportunity comes easier. I did not expect this to happen.”