Art Movements

The Largely Unknown History of Blackface in Canada

Episode Summary

Here's how Toronto's Gardiner Museum is using a figurine in its collection to peel back the layers of violently racialized imagery in Canada.

Episode Notes

There's a curious collection of 18th-century porcelain figurines displayed on the second floor of the Gardiner Museum. Set amidst an impressive display of European ceramic table wear and figurines, this small assortment of Harlequin sculptures don dark masks that stand out for contemporary audiences. One of the colorful sculptures is by Wenzel Neu and hails from the Kloster-Veilsdorf Porcelain Factory in Germany, c. 1764–65, and beside it is a sign that asks, "Is Harlequin in blackface?"

In this episode, we talk to Professor Cheryl Thompson, anti-racist educator Rania El Mugammar, and the Gardiner's Chief Curator Sequoia Miller about this figurine that portrays a character from the Commedia dell'Arte that was a precursor to the more violently racialized images of blackface in 19th and 20th-century minstrel shows. We explore the long history of blackface in Canada, and how one museum is adapting to tell the stories that its collection provokes with contemporary audiences.

A special thanks to musician SunSon for providing the music to this special series, which is produced by Hyperallergic in conjunction with the Gardiner Museum. Check out their website sunson.band for more information.

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