Africville art marks the spot
This story first appeared in The Coast on Sept 4, 2008:
Dal students and community leaders mark the doomed African Canadian community with signposts and structures.
By Chris Benjamin
The stories of Africville, some horrifying and some inspirational, have been told many ways by many artists: At spoken word events, in the news, in the poetry of George Elliot Clarke. On street murals, inside public schools, at NSCAD University’s new campus, visual representations of Africville abound. This Saturday’s Go North! celebration of creativity and culture in the north end will feature a new wall installation and sound component called A Sense of Africvilleat Joseph Howe School, and student art at the Halifax North Memorial Library.
Yet while Haligonians have had ample opportunity to learn the history of Africville through art, many could not point out the Africville site on a map.
In an effort to change that, a group of 10 Dalhousie architecture students spearheaded a community arts project to raise awareness of the site. They were led by Shyronn Smardon, who has family roots in Africville. Smardon started the project as a Free Lab, a Dalhousie architecture program that involves a two-week intensive community placement, hoping to teach visiting students an important chapter of Halifax history. “Not a lot of people in my program are from here, and I wanted them to learn the context of Africville,” he says.
The actual site has never been marked, other than with a concrete sundial naming some of the early families. “The sundial doesn’t resonate or speak too much with folks,” says Kim Thompson, a local artist and natural materials builder who instructed the Free Lab.
There has been little official effort by HRM to commemorate the forced relocation of Africville’s 400 residents in the late 1960s. Even after Africville was named a historic site by Heritage Canada in 2002, it wasn’t marked.
For the record, Africville was located in what is now called Seaview Park at the northern tip of the peninsula at the foot of the MacKay bridge, just off Barrington Street. It’s an off-leash dog park now. (See Tim Bousquet’s feature on page 18 for more about Africville’s history and current state.)
Smardon wanted to show the dog owners strolling through Seaview that it was more than a dog park, using signage to recall “public spaces that were in the forefront of Africville. We worked with the environment that was there, hoping people would see the signs and markers and that it would give them just enough information so they’d take the initiative to learn more.”
Thompson, who has been a Free Lab teacher for ten years, was a natural choice to instruct. She was a driving force behind the Africville mural at Joseph Howe Elementary on Maynard, where she says 60 percent of students have direct connections to Africville. Thompson worked with sound expert Liz Van Berkel to teach the children how to interview their elders and record the oral stories of Africville, their memories of a vibrant community with a church, sports fields, a post office and gatherings with community leaders.
Thompson and Smardon knew that to successfully mark these important locations, the knowledge of those elders would be crucial. And to access that knowledge, they would need to first connect with Irvine Carvery, president of the Africville Genealogical Society.
Carvery was receptive. “Kim and Shyronn approached us and we accepted whole-heartedly,” he says. “Their enthusiasm and passion was very strong.”
The society had long wanted to mark off the Africville site and its most important locations. “This was widely endorsed here and by former residents who have moved away,” says Carvery.
“There was a huge want for it in the community,” Thompson adds. “There was that little piece missing,” a signifier of what had been, and what had come down.
The students’ Free Lab coincided perfectly with Africville’s 25th annual community reunion in late July. Every year since 1983 former residents, descendants and friends of Africville have gathered at the site to celebrate the community.
Smardon’s team put kiosks up at the reunion and brought six 10-foot-high poles, made from sustainable slab wood and leather-metal panels cut and perforated with iron lettering, spelling the names of prominent Africville sites. “We thought very consciously about the materials we used,” Smardon says. “It could have been very shiny but it was all natural, using rough wood.”
The community was asked what the Baptist church, the school, the post office and other sites meant to them. Community members responded with milk paints on two panels of the triangular signs, creating an earthy aesthetic that Smardon says emulates Africville. “It has scars; it is not pristine. But it is strong and it is layered.”
The community members also worked together to weave a small amphitheatre out of willow. “The students had a design in mind,” Thompson says, “but the material was flexible, and whoever was around we pulled in to help. It changed forms numerous times.”
The community and the genealogical society also wanted a distinctive sign marking the overall site. The result is a slab wood “Welcome to Africville” sign on north Barrington Street, heading toward the bridge. The simple all-caps letters are etched into a small square of deep brown wood that overshadows HRM’s Seaview Park sign even from underneath it.
Carvery is pleased, and says that the project was a “collaborative effort, a joint kind of thing. It is the proper imaging for the site, closely tied to the piece of land.” He hopes that now that the Free Lab is over, the sign markers will be set in cement so that they will hold up for many years to come.
“Everyone should see how they’ve managed to keep the community alive,” Thompson adds. “That’s an art.”