Sally Frater on Sandra Brewster

 Gun

 Gun – Hemoglobin tastes like hate, that’s what demons love / Mixed media on paper, 38″ x 50″, 2008

“Concerned with the growing violence among youth occurring in the city I approached spoken word artist Joseph Daly and asked that he write a poem inventing an imaginary world where similar problems occur. These drawings depict a confused world searching for answers. Through strange and suggestive imagery they share the various emotions felt upon hearing that another young man has been killed by gun violence.” Sandra Brewster

One would assume, from reading published reports in the Canadian press and from watching news reports on television that the Canadian public had reached the apex of its outrage and tolerance over gun violence in December of 2005, the year that Jane Creba was killed. (Creba was a white teenager who was fatally shot while out shopping with her family on Boxing Day after being caught in the crossfire of gunplay between warring gang members). While we remember the name and face of Jane Creba, the names of countless racialized others who have been felled, injured or traumatized by gang-related violence have disappeared from public memory.
When the media reports on escalating gun violence and its related gang activity the perpetrators of these crimes are rarely commented on, except to be demonized. This is not unusual for we do not often identify with those who commit crimes. We tell ourselves that they are unlike us; the fact that they are criminals is the result of bad decision making on their part or because they could no longer contain the evil that existed inside them all along. This is easier than considering the possibility that perhaps these individuals are the victims of circumstance or critiquing the systemic structures that forced these individuals along the paths to their collective dead end. In doing so we ignore the humanity that exists within these people and dismiss the devastation that their actions have; not only on their own individual lives but the lives of others – namely their families, peers and other members of the communities to which they belong.

Filmmaker Frances-Anne Solomon’s 2007 work A Winter Tale was inspired in part by this phenomenon. Based around the fictional character of Gene Wright, a “forty-something social worker whose immigrant father answered former Prime Minister Pierre Elliot Trudeau’s call for a just society” , the film explores the “inner worlds of black men living in Toronto amidst reports of escalating ‘black on black’ violence within the city” . Toronto-based multimedia artist Sandra Brewster’s series Strip from 2008 arose from a similar nexus. The body of work carries a stark commentary not only on youth  led astray by guns and violence but on the dynamic of internalised racism that plays out amongst many blacks living within the GTA overall. Within these bleak monochromatic works, Brewster features three main prototypes: ominous silhouettes and masked figures rendered in charcoal meant to represent the perpetrators of gang violence and faceless figures with newsprint faces and afro hairstyles who are the silent witnesses to their crimes.

Holes

Holes – Misery untold created holes where souls used to dwell, Charcoal on paper, 38″x 50″, 2008

In the work, Hemoglobin Taste Like Hate, That’s What Demons Love (2008), we see a fallen figure above who stands a masked character holding a gun. Behind is an array of figures, all appearing to be witnessing the scene which has unfolded before them. Within this scenario the only figures who appear to have any agency are those with arms; namely the black silhouettes. With the exception of the lone masked figure with the gun, none of the other figures seem to have any ability to act: in fact, it is questionable as to whether they are able to bear witness at all as their faces are without eyes or ears and are shaped from remnants of telephone book pages.  The figures exemplify the tendency of those who are outside of black communities to assume that there is one monolithic black community which is represented by a few individuals. In these earlier works, these faceless forms appear in the background, almost as filler, and their presence was offset by the placement of another figure in the foreground whose features were rendered in detail. When these figures appear in Brewster’s works they reference the erasure of culture, history and individual identity that has plagued members of the African diaspora since colonization.

In interviewing men in the black communities in the GTA Solomon discovered that many had parents who immigrated to Canada lured by Trudeau’s promise of the “Just Society”.  Both Solomon’s film and Brewster’s drawings illustrate the failure of that promise. Still bearing the marks of attempted cultural (and physical) erasure born of colonization, the figures within Brewster’s desolate landscapes are unable to stem the threat of permanent erasure that some in their communities wield through visiting violence upon one another, nor are they able to withstand the violent negation that stems from existing within a culture that renders them invisible. The masked and silhouetted figures have swallowed their rage against the society that has deemed them inconsequential, internalizing the threat to their survival which was once external and other but is now contained within. The masked figures have snarling mouths where their eyes should be, threatening to consume themselves and those around them. The form of the supine figure in the foreground resembles a puddle, one can easily imagine that it will continuously expand and will eventually envelop them all, be they predator or innocent bystander.

Solomon stated that the winter in the title of her film “became a metaphor for a community under siege in the cold, seeking strategies and ways to out of the violence of racism” and that there were none to be found . With Hemoglobin Tastes Like Hate, That’s What Demons Love Brewster seems to presents us with a similar conclusion. Her fictionalized portrayals present us with harsh observations that ring only too true for many of us in Canada who are the descendents of immigrants from the Caribbean and Africa: caught between the painful place of having broken ties with our countries of origin and forced to face the reality of living within a society that still has yet to truly recognize or embrace us. Though we might wish to turn away from the truisms within the work, what Brewster presents us with is best confronted – lest we all continue to suffer the consequences.

Sally Frater  2009

Artist Statement from  STRIP

Dont know...
 Don’t Know, And evil eyes can’t even see their own hell , Charcoal on paper, 38″x 50″, 2008

Concerned about the growing violence among youth occurring in the city I approached spoken word artist Joseph Daly and asked that he write a poem and invent an imaginary world where similar problems occur.   These drawings depict a confused world searching for answers.  Through strange and suggestive imagery they share the various emotions felt upon hearing that another young man has been killed by gun violence.

Among these drawings: Silhouettes of young men depict the “holes where souls used to dwell”.  A herd of lamb suggest the insignificance of another young life.  A disconnect from a rooted ancestry is felt in wilting African flowers.  And the acceptance of love and a feeling of self worth is kept at a distance in a crystal ball.

Demons spy with evil eyes across my city
Misery untold created holes where souls used to dwell
And evil eyes can’t even see their own hell
Hurt smells like waste when mixed with blood
Hemoglobin tastes like hate, that’s what demons love
Sacrificial lambs leave stains on clean hands
That’s why love is all you need but fear is all they understand
Demons spy with evil eyes across my city
Seeking recruits for their devious deeds
They bleed from the need to understand and feel
And they baptize their subjects through shards of steel

- by Joseph Daly, 2008

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