New show returns ROM to African-Canadian issues — and scores a provocative success

Decades after an infamous misstep, the Here We Are Here exhibit of African-Canadian contemporary art adds its own notations to our notions of history, writes Murray Whyte.

A sharp, unnerving hiss seeps from a broad upper gallery at the Royal Ontario Museum, penetrating enough that it hits your ears before your eyes can fall on its source. It’s coming from a three-screen video installation by Michèle Pearson Clarke, and if it grates on the decorous solitude of your museum-going experience, mission accomplished: On screen, a revolving cast of Black Canadians suck their teeth — a culturally shared gesture of disdain among Africans and their broad-ranging diaspora alike — frown disapprovingly, shake their heads and roll their eyes, as if to say: Enough, already.

And they’d be right. For much of our 150-ish years as a country, we’ve clung tightly to a national mythology of abiding niceness. Awful things like slavery, genocide and racism happen somewhere else, we’ve often told ourselves, and among that litany of colonial ills, we’ve been a uniquely gracious nation of tolerance and inclusion.

But in the remarkable reckoning that gathered momentum leading up to the sesquicentennial last year, bloomed in full colour throughout and is now doing its best to dig roots so as not to become a one-off, there’s only one response to that common tale: As if. Clarke’s piece is the ROM’s emblem of just that, as it joins that growing chorus with Here We Are Here: Black Canadian Contemporary Art, which opened Saturday.