It’d be an understatement to say it has been a busy month for Aaron Francis. While juggling a day job and serving as Chair of the City of Kitchener’s Arts and Culture Advisory Committee, Francis has been curating a series of events to celebrate Black History Month here in Waterloo and Toronto. He’s also getting ready to resume his studies at the University of Waterloo as a PhD candidate in the Global Governance program at the Balsillie School for International Affairs.
On top of all this, his birthday was on Tuesday.
Born and raised in Kitchener-Waterloo, Francis is a well-known fixture in the local arts community. He has served as an advisory member for festivals including Open Ears, CAFKA and Summer Lights. His love of art and culture has taken him around the world, but his travels have always brought him back here. “Aside from brief stints in Toronto, Shanghai and Taipei, this has always been home.”
Like most relationships in KW, there are less than six degrees of separation between Francis and me. We first met at a Green Light Arts show he did with his brother Anthony Ramsay during Summer Lights back in 2017. A year later, Ramsay joined the marketing team at Communitech as a content creator.
On the side, Ramsay is an accomplished hip-hop artist and producer. Their show took the audience through the history of sampling music in hip-hop. It was also where I learned that the University of Waterloo has a hip-hop dance team. The show introduced the audience – and me – to parts of the local arts and culture scene I didn’t know about.
Continuing his passion for sharing art and culture, Francis has curated a photographic exhibition through his Vintage Black Canada project titled “Documenting Black Families.” Presented in collaboration with Black Artists’ Networks in Dialogue (BAND), the exhibition explores the transnational identities of black families through the lens of family photographs. “When my grandfather came to Waterloo in the 1960s from Jamaica via Leeds, UK, he brought with him a love and a talent for photography,” Francis said. “He passed away just over a year ago and going through his vast collection of black community photos – birthdays, weddings, gatherings – brought me joy. I wanted to share that joy with the world, hence Vintage Black Canada.”
The connection to BAND came from another local arts leader. “It was my former board member at CAFKA, Glodeane Brown, who first connected us. Once I began posting images, curators from all over the world showed love,” said Francis. “Karen Carter, the Executive Director of BAND, suggested we collaborate on a small show at the Gladstone in Toronto and we’ve been collaborating ever since.”
Francis said there are many assumptions about culture and identity placed on people of colour. He looks at these photos as realistic reflections of their experiences that correct these assumptions. “Too often those ideas are negative and framed in notions of absence, brokenness, poverty and despair,” said Francis. “While the act of preserving these precious photographic records may not have been a conscious rebuke against the way outside eyes perceive black communities and their families, they have nonetheless come to represent just that.”
When I asked Francis about the concept of transnational identities, he cited British historian Paul Gilroy’s “The Black Atlantic.” “It suggests that someone with my cultural background is forced to simultaneously navigate multiple identities at once – Caribbean, British, Canadian, American and, of course, African,” said Francis. “Placing that multiplicity aside, these photos demonstrate similarity not just in and amongst seemingly disparate black cultures, but Canadian culture in general. I’ve been all over the world and everywhere I go people seemed surprised that I identify as Canadian. If this project gives folks a more nuanced view of Canadian identity – of Waterluvian Identity – then I have succeeded.”
“Documenting Black Families” opened in Toronto at BAND’s space at 19 Brock Ave. in January and runs through March 20. You can see the exhibit here in Waterloo at the Centre for International Governance Innovation in Uptown Waterloo starting on Feb. 20. There’s also an opening reception on Feb. 20 from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m.
Francis has a few other events running throughout February to celebrate Black History Month. On Feb. 6, he hosted a showing of the 1993 Tamra Davis film “CB4” at the Apollo Cinema. “CB4 hilariously confronts issues associated with the music industry and gangster rap culture that persist to this day.” On Feb. 25, he will host a screening of “Through a Lens Darkly” with the Grand River Film Festival at CIGI. “The screening of Through a Lens Darkly has a synergy with Vintage Black Canada in the fact that both projects seek to shine a humanizing light on black people though photography, film, curatorial research and presentation.”
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Put down the overpriced flowers and chocolate, I see and hear that...the Bring on the Sunshine Festival 2020 is this Sunday, Feb. 16 from 10:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. in the Kitchener City Hall rotunda. Reuben and the Dark are performing at the Emmanuel United Church on Sunday, Feb, 16 starting at 7:00 p.m. This will be an intimate show with the spirited folk-rock outfit as they continue their winter tour with sold-out shows in Stittsville, Ottawa, Paris (Ontario), Toronto and Philly. THEMUSEUM has their Family Hack Day on Monday, Feb, 17 from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Half-price admission and activities spanning every floor of the space to let you tinker, make, learn about S.T.E.A.M., digital technology and interactive tech-art.