Dr. Gabrielle Moser, assistant professor in Art History in the Faculty of Liberal Arts & Sciences, sifts through photographic archives looking for Canadians in social situations and at political events. She questions the documented and the undocumented.
Black Star Agency archives, Ryerson Image Centre. Photo: Paul Tjepkema
In the early stages of what could be a five-year project, Moser reflects on both the photographic evidence from the past as well as those untaken photographs not captured by a camera at significant moments in time. “Can we imagine other histories,” she wonders, “other possible outcomes of those moments?”
With her latest project, Citizen Subjects: photography, race and belonging in Canada, Moser looks at how racialized subjects pictured themselves as citizens. So far, she has examined a series of photographs produced by the Canadian government that show the forced relocation of Inuit people above the Arctic Circle. She has also reviewed photographic archives from Nova Scotia’s African-Canadian newspapers.
It is her hope that the project will help to build the public’s visual literacy skills, encouraging them to read photographs for these overlooked citizens. She says, “Canadians don’t know their own history of racial discrimination and settler colonialism. When it comes to this very specific history, they don’t want to know.”
In 1947, Canada passed its first Citizenship Act, replacing the category of British subjects with the new category of Canadian citizens. Indigenous peoples were not included in this Act. With a few exceptions, Indigenous peoples were not included until a 1960 amendment of the Citizenship Act was passed.
But evident in the photographic archives, Moser explains, is the idea that racialized subjects did picture themselves as citizens.
Wilfred Doucette, Inuit transporting supplies for the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (R.C.M.P.) from C.D. HOWE, Pangnirtung, 1951. Courtesy Library and Archives Canada and the National Film Board
Richard S. Finnie, Pangnirtung Federal Hostel and Day School (now Nunavut), 1927. Courtesy Library and Archives Canada
Nova Scotia’s The Clarion newspaper used the word ‘citizens’ to describe its African-Canadian audience well before the Citizenship Act came into existence. Additionally, more than 300 people emigrating from India on the SS Komagata Maru were turned away from disembarking in Vancouver in 1914. More than 30 years before the passing of the Citizenship Act, the group argued that as citizens of the Empire, they were also citizens of Canada.
The Prevoe Family of Halifax on the front page of The Clarion, vol. II, no. 2, February 1, 1947. Courtesy Nova Scotia Archives.
Viola Desmond on the cover of The Clarion, vol. I, no. 1, December 1946. Courtesy Nova Scotia Archives.
An art historian, critic and curator, Moser is analyzing how photographers, as well as their subjects and viewers, used and responded to the camera and its images in the first half of the 20th Century. She speaks of how, in many of the images, subjects show a tendency to choose somber and serious expressions over those that are more jubilant or expressive. “This response to the camera,” she explains, “was in part a bid to be taken seriously as citizens, and also a reaction to what was happening in the mainstream press at the time.” But it wasn’t the only reaction. Moser also describes how families posing for portraits in The Clarion newspaper — families whose members were, in this case, smiling — approached the experience of being photographed differently. “They were thinking about these images as a counterarchive to coverage of racial violence happening internationally,” she says. “The people in these photos were hearing and reading and responding to things like lynching postcards — terrible visual documents that spectacularize Black death."
Moser’s work certainly raises some difficult questions. What if, for example, we were to consider that which had been made invisible by existing accounts of those moments deemed ‘important’ in history?
Consider our approach in 2017 to the commemoration of Canada’s 150th year of Confederation. About this Moser is cautionary, and of course she’s not alone. “If we’re not careful,” she says, “this very nationalistic moment could erase a 12,000-year history of Indigenous ownership of the lands we now call Canada. So if we’re going to celebrate this history, how do we do so in a way that makes it possible to think about our complicated histories — those of settler colonialism and participation in the transatlantic slave trade?”
A Fulbright Canada Visiting Scholar at Rhode Island’s Brown University, Moser’s project is partially funded by $12,500 from the Fulbright Foundation. She has also received funding from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC).
Moser has plans to mount an exhibition related to Citizen Subjects: photography, race and belonging in Canada at Toronto’s Gallery 44 and Critical Distance in May 2019, as part of the Scotiabank CONTACT Photography Festival. The exhibit will include contemporary artists’ projects that reimagine the archive materials and images from her research.
Heather Beaumont (www.wordsbyhb.com) is both a creative and corporate writer, fascinated by ideation, art making and communication. Among her projects is a workshop she designed to showcase the art and text in children's picture books and help parents and caregivers develop stronger connections to the children in their care.