‘History is Rarely Black or White’ deconstructs the cotton industry

Agnes exhibition is a poignant exploration of slave labour through garments

Image supplied by: Supplied by Agnes
Freed by Karin Jones. 

History is Rarely Black or White is an exhibition at the Agnes Etherington Art Centre deconstructing the cotton industry’s harmful colonial legacy through garments.

The exhibits and accompanying writings explore how the cotton industry widened global income disparities and commercialized the oppression of marginalized communities, specifically groups forcibly brought to North America through the slave trade.

In an interview with The Journal, curator Jason Cyrus shared the inspiration behind this poignant exhibition and the conversations he hopes it incites.

“So many things are siloed in research,” Cyrus said. “So often you’ll study the history of fabrics, then you’ll look at how that connects to trade and different cultures. So rarely do [all these elements] intersect, even though you can’t have one without the other.”

The exhibition mainly studies cotton garments from the Queen’s Collection of Canadian Dress by connecting their materials to resource extraction and slave labour.

The online version of History is Rarely Black or White is separated into three main subsections: “Cotton and the Canadian Consumer,” “Who Harvested Cotton in the American South?,” and “Connecting the Cotton Trade to Life in Canada.”

Through select clothing from the 1800s, “Cotton and the Canadian Consumer” explores how cotton being a commodity in Canada perpetuated slave labour.

Most of the cotton imported until the American Civil War of 1861-65 was produced by slave labour despite England’s abolishment of slavery in 1833. Artist Karin Jones explores this harsh reality through her site-specific installation, Freed.

Who Harvested Cotton in the American South?” reveals how seriously the cotton trade relied on Indigenous erasure from fertile land and the enslavement of African people.

In this section, multi-disciplinary artist Damien Jöel tells an eye-opening fashion story of how the Gullah/Geechie preserved their heritage through their garments.

Black Canadian life in both the past and the present is examined in the “Connecting the Cotton Trade to Life in Canada” subsection.

This part of the exhibition explores how formerly enslaved Africans in Ontario used clothing and photography to rewrite their narratives. The associated artwork by Gordan Shadrach illustrates Black men in historic and contemporary dress.

These sections share a common thread—the cotton industry’s irreversible impacts on those enslaved into colonialism and their descendants.

“It’s the cotton industry in the 1800s that ties this to a wider system where it becomes in a sense, sadly, a part of life going forward,” Cyrus explained.

“When you start, especially as a child, working [as a slave], you never are able to get an education, never able to advance yourself economically—it systematizes poverty.”

Cyrus hopes History is Rarely Black or White challenges viewers to think about the historical context underlying many of today’s prominent societal issues. He believes no experiences exist in a vacuum independent from what has proceeded them.

“People love to use the hashtag ‘BlackLivesMatter,’ but what does that really mean? When a lot of folks are coming forward with their experiences, [we should ask] what historic precedent creates [this situation]. Why is it some people have a different experience of the world than others?”

Look no further than Kingston and its history of incarceration.

“You’ve got the penitentiaries and a lot of folks in the Kingston population who are living there to be closer to their [incarcerated] loved ones. You cannot have these beautiful cotton garments from Kingston, from the Agnes by Kingstonians, without looking at this long history.”


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