Kuumba Artist Feature: Ashley McKenzie-Barnes

Harbourfront Centre’s Kuumba festival is spotlighting a different Black artist each day of February. Today we’re sharing the story of Ashley McKenzie-Barnes.

Growing up as a second-generation immigrant in Scarborough, whose parents emigrated from Jamaica, Ashley McKenzie-Barnes witnessed a very different cultural scene than what dominates downtown Toronto. Her sense of art was more inclusive and more sensitive to the margins. Hence, when in 2019 she became the curator for Nuit Blanche’s Scarborough events, she knew what to bring to the table. She knew that Scarborough artists, even those known internationally, don’t often have a chance to exhibit their work in Scarborough. She knew that the audiences in Scarborough wouldn’t be your typical downtown crowd, being more multi-ethnic, with West Indian, South Asian, East Asian, and Indigenous peoples. She knew that first and second-generation immigrant families would need their particular needs served. Hence, as a curator, she chose a theme that would be celebratory, Queens and Kings in Scarborough, to uplift those who are often forced to be invisible.

The following year, in 2020, Harbourfront Centre asked Ashley to curate the 25th anniversary of Kuumba. She’d already curated a photography exhibit for Kuumba the previous year, but this was a different level of creative control. Thinking back on Black History Month, how she experienced it as a child, she realized something: it wasn’t that exciting. Many Black History Month celebrations she’d known as a kid seemed, in their well-intentioned focus on the past, blind to the present, let alone the future. She knew that she’d have to put together something more current. Rather than curating programming that memorialized the past, she spotlighted leaders who were paving their way to a brighter future. She prioritized dialogues about contemporary issues that are slightly controversial or uncomfortable.

The project was a success, and marked some of Harbourfront Centre’s final, in-person programming before lockdowns migrated everything to cyberspace. More recently, Ashley continued her relationship with Harbourfront Centre through co-curating da mic is on, a free online series of candid conversations and art focussed on the Black experience.

Ashley’s attitude towards her career, as well as art more generally, has been defined by entrepreneurship. She advocates for new creatives and researches the kind of work and projects they want to do. In pre-pandemic times, that might look like frequenting gallery openings, public fairs, creative talks and other cultural events — anything to get a sense of how you can fit into the broader cultural scene. She advocates for artists to proactively align themselves with creatives they want to work with, to go and seek out opportunities rather than wait for them to come to them. When she started her career, Ashley would curate exhibits at lounges and restaurants, for as few as 100 people, but this work was what got her noticed.

She adds, “Filling in the void and seeking change is part of how my experiences have directly impacted my work. Wanting to see reflections of myself in my field, industry, and in the mainstream, I eventually started to create those opportunities myself.”

Ashley McKenzie-Barnes is a leading curator and cultural programmer. In 2020, she was the curator for the 25th edition of Kuumba. Her other clients include Nuit Blanche Toronto, Walmart, Samsung, Scotiabank, Bell Media and CBC. You can follow her work on her Instagram (@ashleymckenziebarnes), Twitter (@ashleymckenzieb) or her website (www.mckenziebarnes.com).



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Harbourfront Centre

Harbourfront Centre

The official Medium account for Harbourfront Centre, Toronto’s iconic cultural space on the downtown waterfront.