Kuumba Artist Feature: Joséphine Denis

Harbourfront Centre’s Kuumba festival is spotlighting a different Black artist each day of February. Today we’re sharing the story of Joséphine Denis.

Joséphine’s artistic education was suffused with politics from its very beginning. Her career began in Port-au-Prince, where she was born. For her and many around her, art-making was a form of resistance against oppressive governments. She enjoyed working with and writing about living artists, supporting their journeys and fostering relationships with them. This eventually matured into a career as an art curator.

Joséphine’s sensitivity to politics and justice is reflected in the way she treats her work as a curator. She strives to communicate new possibilities to her audiences, pushing the boundaries of their artistic, social and political engagement. She emphasizes, though, the importance of acknowledging that people’s behaviours are determined by the cultures and communities that surround them. This seems to set parameters for her work and creates an interplay between her quest to expand the imagination and society’s natural ability to constrain it. Within her own life, she adopts the same expectations she presses upon her audiences, and adds, “I work to share the ways that art continues to be the vehicle for my mind’s expansion and exploration. My imagination is the infinite source through which I pave my own way and claim my freedom.”

Josephine is perplexed by how audiences can sometimes fear an artwork’s criticality and candour, as if art suddenly becomes dangerous once it begins to interrogate the world. She adds, “I find it strange when viewers resist owning up to their own projections and interpretations, or are even unaware of the mechanisms that result in their experience.” She sees these dynamics, wherein the passive reception of art is interrupted by bold social critique, as a way to make us more conscious of the ways in which we generate meaning about art. In her own life, she likes strange artistic experiences that catch her off guard and make her feel unexpectedly emotional or uncomfortable. “I cherish art that offers language I didn’t even realize I was aching to find,” she adds.

The politics of art encompass race, and it is impossible to strip racial dynamics and their injustices from the cultural sector. Joséphine points out how, though Black artists are numerous in the art world, few make it into the dominant establishments. “The hierarchies and bureaucracies that permeate the sector, revelling in a sense of exclusivity, are violently inaccessible to Black people,” she says. At the same time, she protests against the misconception that Black artists can be explained through simple references to their Blackness. “Of course, our positionality is important, and it involves being Black, and yet the interests that we cultivate and explore, while they start there, go beyond identity politics and performance. The works of Black artists aren’t a performance of identity. Black artists aren’t here to define Blackness for the sake of non-Black audiences. Their work isn’t displayed to either condone or condemn.” She considers binary approaches to Black art simplistic and reductive, which fail to capture the intimate specificities of individual artists.

Josephine Denis is a curator and writer whose practice centers BIPOC communities in the creation and narration of our own spaces. She is currently head of public programs and outreach at SBC Gallery of Contemporary Art in Tiohtià:ke/Montreal. Through Kuumba, she will be interviewing Nathan Eugene Carson about his new solo exhibition Cut from the same cloth on February 4, 7pm–8pm. The interview will be available until February 28, 2021, and can be found here. You can follow Joséphine on Instagram (@josephinedenis).

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Harbourfront Centre

Harbourfront Centre

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