When the Faculty of Fine Arts announced the creation of a new annual donor-funded lecture series focused on activism and the arts, the selection committee were faced with an onerous task: who to select as the first guest? While a number of options were presented, the committee ultimately—and unanimously—endorsed internationally acclaimed multidisciplinary artist Charles Campbell as the inaugural speaker in the Lehan Family Activism & the Arts Lecture Series.

Jamaica-born but Victoria-based, Charles Campbell is an artist, writer, curator and educator whose artworks—including sculptures, paintings, sonic installations and performances—explore aspects of Black history, especially as experienced in the Caribbean region. The recipient of the Shadbolt Foundation’s 2022 VIVA Award and the 2020 City of Victoria Creative Builder Award, his practice animates the future imaginaries possible in the wake of slavery and colonization.

As such, Campbell is an ideal choice to kick off a series focused on how the arts can be a catalyst for change in advancing the understanding and goals of various social justice topics. His March 23 talk, “Sometimes in the Middle of the Story: Art & Changing Fictions,” explored how his work examines and disrupts the fictions embedded in our colonial reality.

You can now watch that talk here: 

Working for social change

When asked if he felt he was a good fit as the inaugural speaker for this series, Campbell pauses before giving a characteristically thoughtful response. “There are a lot people doing good things in the community with regards to activism,” he says. “My work is important in the realm of social change: it doesn’t always strictly meet the criteria of what I’d consider activist work, but it’s definitely in dialogue with that space.”

From his perspective, what’s the difference? “I think of activist-based art as engaging with a very specific outcome: we want something to happen in how people think, or the social context we’re working in—and the more specific that is, the more effective it can be in terms of activism.”

Campbell feels his more socially engaged practice is about “exploring our political and social realities . . . I think my own work is more about creating a certain kind of space rather than leaning towards a specific outcome.”

photo: Lia Crowe (Boulevard Magazine)

Shifting perspectives

By way of example, he points to “Time Catcher”, his recent commission for the Victoria International Airport. Installed overhead in the passenger departure lounge, “Time Catcher” features a series of three-sided suspended vessels invoking concepts of not only time and movement but also ecological and cultural memory; additionally, the text of Octavia Butler’s “Paradise” is also inscribed in Morse code on each surface, acknowledging both our connection to home and the forces of change motivating people’s global movements.

“That airport piece is an interesting example, as it’s made for all kinds of audiences who come through that space,” he explains. “But one of those audiences is Black people coming into Victoria: the city has historically identified itself as an extension of a little British town—there’s no public or visible space for Black people—so that quote is a marker to say, ‘hey, we’re here.’ That’s just a small example of how I’m trying to create that kind of a space, and a little bit of a shift of people’s perspectives on how a space can work.”

Similarly, his upcoming solo exhibition An Ocean to Livity—running April 15-June 20 at the Surrey Art Gallery—foregrounds Black breath as a source of power, repository of memory and site of connection. He touched on similar themes with his contribution to the 2022 group exhibit The Chorus Is Speaking at the Campbell River Art Gallery, which explored how people experience identities of Blackness in Canada.

“My work in that show was really about breath, about what allows us to breathe,” he explains. “That piece really came out of the experiences of 2020, about Black Lives Matter and the murder of Geroge Floyd.”

Exploring Black identities

Following up on her 2022 Massey Lecture series and subsequent essay collection, Out of the Sun: On Race and Storytelling, celebrated author and UVic Writing alumna Esi Edugyan recently spoke out against the idea of a “Black monolith” and encouraged people to acknowledge how complex Canadian identities of Blackness can be—an idea with which Campbell definitely agrees.

“I’m totally with Esi on that one,” he says. “There are a large number of Black identities, and some of them take up a larger space in the cultural field than others. But for a lot of us—specifically in Canada, and more specifically on the West Coast—it really fragments quite quickly. But then the question becomes, how to define that space within the context of the multiplicity of experience and points of view?”

As a Jamaica-born artist on Vancouver Island, that’s a nuanced dialogue with which he is constantly engaged. “I’m very well-connected with the Caribbean arts movement and a lot of my exhibition opportunities have come through that—just not on this side of the continent, since Canada’s massive Caribbean population lives back east,” he explains.

“Here on the West Coast, it’s more about being a capital-B Black artist . . . yet there isn’t one origin story for the Black community here, so there’s an attempt at a kind of pan-Blackness. But I think you can intentionally create more solidarity through different notions of Blackness—it’s not about common identity, it’s about consciously working to create understanding and commonality.”

About the Lehan Family

Meet brother and sister Mel Lehan and Freda Knott: committed West Coast activists and community builders . . . and now, thanks to an anonymous donor, the named recipients of a lecture series established in 2022. Each year, the Lehan Family Activism & the Arts Lecture showcases a distinguished guest presenting ideas on how the arts is a catalyst for change in advancing the understanding and goals of various social justice topics.

This short video tells you more about their family’s commitment to activism and the arts, and how Mel and Freda have worked to build community and make changes in their home communities of Vancouver and Victoria.