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Deanna Bowen: Night Prowl at The WALL

Nya Lewis

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To Place and Re-Place: Reflecting on Deanna Bowen’s Night Prowl in Four Acts

Deanna Bowen, Night Prowl, The WALL, 2019. Photo: Ellie Nixon.

It was serendipitous really—I visited CBC Radio four times in 2019, and each time the 4 AM morning sky was punctuated by the (illusive) black and white “Dance Blue Sky” image. As a transient first generation Caribbean with roots on the east, I searched for openings in Black Vancouver histories expansive enough to hold the beautiful, chaotic diasporic futures of our dreams. The two minute and 30 second Steven Quinn interview welcomed an anxious, angsty, writer, and agitator to articulate what would become the center of my curatorial practice: confronting the myth of the Black Canadian, and Vancouver’s cultural, social, political perpetuation of its speculative non-existence. A research practice rooted in historical recovery, concerned with the omission of histories and its impact on the dissolution of Black communities across so-called “Canada.”1 

Offerings like Night Prowl, move towards an ethic of transparency and truth telling, making visible, centralizing, collecting, and disseminating Black artists’ works. Archives transform under the scrutiny of the Black gaze, unearthing underrepresented histories through modes of cultural translation. Bowen’s landmark public artwork Night Prowl (2019) is a guiding light (a creator’s vinyl north star), proof of artistic and academic lineage concerned with the rediscovery of Vancouver’s buried histories.2 As a city we owe a debt of gratitude to artists, thinkers, curators, and organizers who labor to render Black lives and Black culture visible, and form participatory interventions into the archive. As a Black queer woman, “self-making” and looking, I owe gratitude for the works that illuminate the way, centering stories that support even the most mundane endeavours of placemaking. 


“What, if anything, survives this insistent Black exclusion, this ontological negation, and how do literature, performance, and visual culture observe and mediate this un/survival?”

How does a city steeped in anti-Black and anti-Indigenous racism continue to plead ignorance during a global call for accountability, and what does Vancouver’s oversimplified historical engagement with Blackness and Black people reveal?. What reflections might surface for local art institutions in their 36th, 50th, 90th year, many of whose archives read as a decennial demarcation of Black presence and institutional investment. I shape my practice as an experimental strategy of inclusion, tracing a phantom lineage or succession, bringing an ongoing, fragmented, and questioning collection of histories forward into public consciousness. For beings concerned with the hastened death of Black people and Black histories—where diverse reflections of Black life are not publicly collected or exhibited—what curatorial responsibility might we hold to present contemporary art that implicates the nuance of Blackness, beyond representation? What new conditions of care may we extend when addressing these archives? What counter narratives may be offered as dynamic reinterpretations of material? Night Prowl simultaneously shakes the assumptions of the photographic archive in its alluring dictation of the truth, and the unquestioned privilege of the archivist. If we are the stories we are allowed to hear and see, who gets to tell our stories? Bowen’s practice takes often inaccessible material perhaps not intended for exhibition and through an approach of retrieval and revival, creates coherent alterity—informing the archive with new entry points, speculating new racial epistemologies that center self-representations in contest of this country’s institutional racist past and present. Night Prowl combats the erasure of personal and collective histories, while employing vernacular photography as a performing agent in the reclaiming and development of communal memory. 

May we carry this forward. 


“This work is about writing history through artmaking.”

When I consider a way forward, there is a concern of over-theorizing Black history, that perhaps within the efforts to daylight under-represented histories an anthropological reading of the subject could surface, rendering the histories remnants of a lost community, rather than the ever evolving active histories they are. The autobiographical preoccupation with familial inscription places Night Prowl within a cartography of critical migrations, western Black America into Canada, interrogations of insider, outsider, community building, political trauma, archival omission, and documentation potentials. It is the critical engagement of her family history that shifts the forensic objectives in attentiveness and stewardship. Scale and contrast at the forefront of the considerations for the installation of Night Prowl. Perhaps confrontation and mediation are strategies in her effort to charge Black histories in Vancouver. A practice of visibility. Curator Kimberly Phillips writes, “Bowen contemplates the simultaneous hypervisibility and invisibility of Black bodies in the photographic archive, Vancouver’s particular performance of racism through class and how her own work might offer a counterpoint to established forms of representation in Vancouver and their role in the continued erasure of Black presence from the city’s historical narratives.”5 A space-making public art gesture that both freezes time and extends query long beyond the frame, Night Prowl may be the flame to the limitations of the archive. Like On Trial The Long Doorway (2017), the work positions Black lives and their stories as the excess of the archive, histories that require adjacency, reenactment, alternative forms of record keeping, understanding and an unrelenting commitment to expose systemic racism in Canada.6 Night Prowl traces a Black geography of Vancouver entertainment community from the 1940s through the 1970s, and Bowen’s process of manipulation, reactivation, extraction, translation, and ultimately rearticulation of the archive is a necessary part of the subversion required in dialogical history-making. 



"Those who work to extract new knowledge from the vast photographic archives of our time have the capacity to blow apart old, dominant cultural codes that have constructed any form of racial marking as being outside of culture, inferior and alien. Photography archives matter and how we read them is essential to our lives."7 

What constitutes a Black archive? I propose this as a question of legibility, in that it is perhaps the same thing that makes a 50 year archive predominantly white—intention, invitation, value. Where archives exist as neutral, unchallenged authority and an honest reflection of a bureaucratic organizational system, photographic archives affirm the historical flaw of the state and the nature of homogenous colonial visual regimes. Black archives and archival practices are more than archivists arranging, describing, and digitizing Black collections or materials. Black archives and archival practices are testimonials of the complexity of how Black life is lived, documented, and returned to. Beyond the archive, the lives or consciousness of these images has the potential to pivot representations of individual presence through adjacency, reading the bonds of affiliation created by reconfiguration as transformative and generative.

A radical, redemptive, re-placing of images.

May we (the understood us and our) take up affirmation, as an energetic pursuit of possibility through recordkeeping, and documenting Black lives beyond their current condition. Researchers intervene and re-imagine the relationship between vernacular photography made and circulated in the public sphere, and the public consumption of Blackness, while the creation of a counter-archive authorizes a refusal to the practices of objectification that underpin colonialism and its logics of capture, containment and stasis. The work of archives, to hold Black life persists even as Black life refuses the conditions of legibility that formal documentation demands.Night Prowl exists on a timeless plane, entering and exiting, a calling card for the loving whispers of marginalized communities who build a promise of tomorrow on the truthful evocation of the past. 

Nya Lewis

Nya Lewis’ practice is a culmination of centuries of African resistance, love, questions, actions, study, and embrace. Lewis sees her practice as a continuation of a long lineage of work undertaken by Black artists, curators, writers, activists, and thinkers who blaze(d) a trail of critical discourse surrounding the Black experience. Her archival research-based practice works across the disciplines of curating, writing and organizing. Her work is multivalent in form and expression but is always driven by the reimagining and reclaiming of community. Lewis (MFA) is an independent curator/writer currently serving as the Director/Curator of Artspeak Gallery and the inaugural Research Fellow at the Vancouver Art Gallery.


1 Historical recovery refers to the act of conscious recollection or re-memory (as used in Toni Morrison’s Beloved, re-memory addresses the recollection of the things that a person has forgotten and repressed), of history making as a means for acceptance and transcendence. Used by Afro-diasporic cultural producers, historical recovery is the process of reconstruction and reconceptualization of historical methodologies that centre the perspectives of Black people.

2 Deanna Bowen, Night Prowl, 2019, commissioned for Vancouver Heritage’s WALL project. The WALL is a Vancouver Heritage Foundation public art initiative presented in partnership with CBC/Radio-Canada and the City of Vancouver Public Art Program, with additional support from JJ Bean Coffee Roasters. 

3 Christina Sharpe, In the Wake: On Blackness and Being, Duke University Press, Durham, NC, 2016, p. 14.

4 Quoted in Jasmine Jamillah Mahmoud, “To Salvage an Archive,” Canadian Art, June 6, 2019.

5 Kimberly Phillips curated Night Prowl as an offsite project of the Contemporary Art Gallery.

6 On Trial The Long Doorway was a 2017 solo exhibition by Deanna Bowen at Mercer Union in Toronto. Working across film, sculpture, performance, installation, drawing, and photography, Bowen excavates invisible histories. Through genealogical and historical research, she digs into histories of slavery, oppression, migration, and Civil Rights movements in North America, making discerning personal work through the historical. Its eponymous video work was co-commissioned by Mercer Union and CAG, and was exhibited as part of A Harlem Nocturne, Bowen’s 2019 solo exhibition at CAG.

7 Mark Sealy, “Seeing Beyond Race,” December 15, 2016.