As We Rise: Photography from the Black Atlantic | Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, MA

BY Michelle Lamuniere, November 1, 2023

On view through December 31, As We Rise: Photography from the Black Atlantic, organized by Aperture, features more than 100 works from the collection of Toronto-based dentist and art collector Kenneth Montague. Montague began building his Wedge Collection, named after the wedge-shaped loft in which he lived and held weekly salons for the local arts community, in 1997. His collection, which champions artists who live and work in the African diasporic communities that make up the Black Atlantic (defined in the exhibition as comprising North America, the Caribbean, South America, and Africa), includes works in all media, but focuses on photography.

A first-generation Jamaican Canadian who grew up in Windsor, Ontario, across the river from Detroit, Montague saw James Van Der Zee’s iconic 1932 portrait of a man and woman in Harlem, wearing raccoon fur coats and posing in front of their Cadillac, at the Detroit Institute of Art when he was ten. The photograph was revelatory: the dignity and pride of the couple countered the negative and disparaging portrayal of Black life that permeated his childhood through the mainstream media. He was inspired to build a collection of positive representations of Black experience that embodied his father’s philosophy of “lifting as we rise,” impressing upon his son the importance of sharing one’s success by helping others. 

Jamel Shabazz, Best Friends, Brooklyn, New York, 1981. Courtesy Jamel Shabazz

As We Rise is organized into three sections – Community, Identity, and Power – and includes many texts by curators, writers, and community members that interpret and frame the photographs. A QR code provides access to a Spotify playlist compiled by Montague of music that, for him, is inextricably linked to how the images are experienced. The overarching message of the exhibition is that photography is a tool of empowerment and self-representation, allowing subjects to collaborate with photographers to be depicted as they want to be seen. 

The universality of the experience of having a portrait made is evident throughout the works on view, where domestic interiors and photography studios provide safe spaces for vulnerability, creative expression, self-fashioning, and affirmation. Some of the more conceptual images are in a section titled “Refusal,” which focuses on what artists and their subjects conceal as an expression of agency and self-determination. In Elliott Jerome Brown Jr.’s portrait Devin in Red Socks, the subject stands in a motel room decorated in shades of white, brown, and gold. He holds up a white towel that obscures his body, but his personality is conveyed through his red socks, which are comfortably worn, with the occasional hole. Another section reimagines the relationship between Black bodies and nature as a source of power, as in Xaviera Simmons’s Denver (2008), in which the photographer depicts a Black woman fishing in a stream to bring inclusivity to the art historical genre of landscape painting. 

Xaviera Simmons, Denver, 2008. Courtesy the artist and David Castillo

The primary goal of Montague’s collection is to promote Black identity across diasporic narratives. In one of the first galleries, there are black-and-white photographs by artists from Canada (Zun Lee), the United States (LaToya Ruby Frazier), Ethiopia (Aïda Muluneh), and Algeria (Abdo Shanan) that reflect on shared histories and experiences of family and friendship, demonstrating, as one of the text panels suggests, that community is fluid. Montague is especially interested in acquiring works that represent the Black Canadian community, and the exhibition provides a welcome introduction to the rich diversity of photographers living and working in the country. 

Montague has developed relationships with many young and emerging photographers whose careers he continues to support by collecting their work in depth, as with the Eritrean-born, Canadian-raised, and Chicago and Montreal-based artist Dawit L. Petros, whose 2005 portrait of the immigrant Hadenbes family in their backyard is reproduced as a mural that greets visitors to the exhibition. Established artists like Hank Willis Thomas and Carrie Mae Weems are represented in the collection by works from early in their careers. As a collector, Montague is non-hierarchical and expansive, trusting his eye and bringing together a range of strong images that celebrate Black life, inviting viewers at the close of the show “to take part in this joyous and unforgettable groove.”