Where Art meets Public Engagement on Lost History

Going beyond studying history to create a better understanding of who we are and the path we’re on together

CHARLES MICHAEL
Charles Michael
NSCAD (Nova Scotia College of Art and Design) University is in the midst of developing a unique complement to its already well-respected selection of courses and programs. The Institute for the Study of Canadian Slavery is a ground-breaking initiative led by NSCAD’s first Canada Research Chair (CRC) Tier 1 Dr. Charmaine A. Nelson. Among its goals, the institute will facilitate research on Canadian Slavery and comparative research between the regions that became Canada and other nations or colonies.

The proposed research will take the forms of scholarly publications and lectures, fiction writing, film and media production, digital humanities and information technologies and art and visual cultures. Program lead Dr. Nelson has spent her career researching and teaching subjects related to Transatlantic Slavery and Black Diaspora studies through the lens of art and visual culture.

“It’s not just historians or anthropologists who need to explore these works and topics,” says Dr. Nelson, framing the importance of having artists and art practitioners analyze and research the visuals which are crucial to this field. “Why is this being done in an art school? Because there’s an opportunity to learn about Canadian Slavery through the distinct conventions of film and the arts,” she continues, “and through this research we can know more about the nature of representation and slavery. That’s what makes this unique.”

Most scholars focusing on topics of slavery are well-educated in the history of tropical plantation slavery, but Dr. Nelson is one of the few who are expertly trained in researching slavery within the context of Canada’s own history and climate. Many histories relating to Canadian slavery are hidden within the Nova Scotia Archives (and other provincial archives) and are incredibly tedious to sift through.

“If you’re looking to find information about an enslaved person, you wouldn’t look for a birth certificate. Someone who was seen as property wouldn’t have been issued one,” Dr. Nelson says about her detective-like research techniques. “I train students in the field to know where to look and how to look. How do you locate an enslaved person? You look through things like fugitive slave advertisements, print ads from slave owners detailing the enslaved person’s description when they ran away, or even in the owner’s will.”

It’s this sort of specialized document interpretation that will prepare the next generation of researchers to continue the Institute’s legacy. Dr. Nelson says that it’s her vision for the Institute to see these documents collected, preserved and digitized in order to embed the cultural and historical significance of this information in the minds of all Canadians. Making these fragile archival findings accessible will help amend our existing historical records and fill previously unknown gaps in our national identity.

In addition to making these documents available, Dr. Nelson’s dream is to organize public events on Canadian Slavery to reach beyond NSCAD’s student pool and open up the conversation to the community.

“Students tend to gravitate towards topics and objects intersecting with their own studies or degrees, whereas the general public is often more comfortable exploring pop-culture,” Dr. Nelson says of her idea to link movie nights to Q&As with community historians, artists, and academics who work on Canadian Slavery.

The importance of creating broad discussion through the institute, where art and public engagement intersect, is that we can explore where the issues are, speak about them at large, and begin to understand that we’re not just studying history—we’re creating a better understanding of who we are and the path we’re on together.

You can help support the Institute and bring it to life by funding artists in residence for the coming academic year. Visit https://nscad.ca/connect/give/support-the-institute-for-the-study-of-canadian-slavery/ for details.

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