un/settled art installation centres Black womanhood at SFU’s Vancouver Campus
By Chloe Riley
At the busy downtown intersection of West Hastings and Richards, you will find a street-facing art exhibition of exceptional scale featuring a tribute to Breonna Taylor in the windows of Belzberg Library at SFU’s Vancouver campus.
In dialogue with the current social climate, un/settled combines poetry by Otoniya J. Okot Bitek with portraiture by Chantal Gibson, in collaboration with Mily Mumford and Adrian Bisek. Gibson is an award-winning writer and artist, as well as a university lecturer in SFU’s School of Interactive Arts and Technology. Her collaborator, esteemed poet Okot Bitek, is the 2020 Ellen and Warren Tallman Writer-in-Residence with SFU’s Department of English and a 2021 Shadbolt Fellow.
A towering photo-poetic piece, un/settled literally drapes Black womanhood over 240 square feet of Belzberg Library’s streetfront windows. It centres Blackness - an identity often erased or maligned - in a hypervisible fashion that celebrates Black thought, creativity and joy while situated in the ongoing systematic violence against Black people, Indigenous people, and people of colour. As Okot Bitek puts it, “un/settled is about the inability to settle because of the systems that oppress and alienate people. It's also about the constant reminder that some people cannot be seen to be of these lands.”
For Ebony Magnus, head of Belzberg Library, the closure of the library’s physical space during the COVID-19 pandemic presented an opportunity to transform the space.
“SFU Library is known for being open in many senses of the word,” she says. “So to see the spaces closed has been strange for employees and our community. This has given us a rare opportunity to reimagine the role of the library as a text and to use the real estate to engage the local community in an important and meaningful way. Especially now, when we hear too often about the over-policing and oppression of Black men, women, like Breonna Taylor and Regis Korchinski-Paquet, and children in the media and in our public spaces - un/settled is a resistance, it’s our response, it’s about monumental and unapologetic Black life.”
Gibson agrees: “We’ve turned the intersection of Hastings and Richards into a book.” By covering the windows and obscuring the interior space of the library, un/settled compels passersby to look up, to read Black lives and bodies, and to confront the displacement caused by pandemic. Amidst global uncertainty, Gibson and Okot Bitek offer a reminder there are stories to be told and communities to be celebrated.
Gibson and Okot Bitek will be speaking publicly about their collaboration along with Magnus at two upcoming Black History Month events. On Feb. 10, Word Vancouver in partnership with Vancouver Public Library presents un/settled: Reading Black Women, Art, Poetry and Place featuring readings by Gibson and Okot Bitek, followed by an interview with Magnus. On Feb. 17, join the collaborators for “An un/settling event: Readings and Reflections on Black Art, Identity, and Place” hosted by SFU Library, FCAT and FASS.
un/settled is on display until May 31, 2021. Belzberg Library remains closed. This is a street-facing window exhibit only.