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Massy Interviews / Ruby Smith Díaz

September 27 – November 10, Massy Arts will host, Duppy Conquerors: Black Histories + Futures in Canada, a new window exhibition organized by lead artist and educator Ruby Smith Díaz.

Duppy Conquerors presents light boxes made by grade eight co-op placement students at Guilford Park Secondary through artistic mentorship by Díaz at the project Still Here, an eight session arts-based workshop series exploring the histories, erasure, and resistance of Black Communities living in Canada.

The Massy Arts Gallery is located at 23 East Pender Street in Chinatown, Vancouver.
The gallery is open Tuesday to Sunday, 12pm to 5pm.
Entrance is free, and masks are mandatory.

Know more about the exhibition at Massy Arts.

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To celebrate Duppy Conquerors, Rafael Zen interviews Díaz for Massy Arts, addressing the project Still Here, an eight session arts-based workshop series exploring the histories, erasure, and resistance of Black Communities living in Canada.

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Ruby Smith Díaz / Giving youth an opportunity to create their visions for the future

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Rafael Zen – First of all, I would like to ask you about the project Still Here, an eight session arts-based workshop series exploring the histories, erasure, and resistance of Black Communities living in Canada. Why exploring themes of identity, displacement, and colonization through art? How do you feel that students correlate these themes through the artistic process? Do you think that your project is situated between art and activism?

Ruby Smith Díaz – When I completed my education degree, I always felt that there was something missing for me as a student, and also in schools within a teacher role. Within a couple months of graduating, I was lucky enough to stumble across an intergenerational, social justice, arts-based summer camp for youth, and my experience there changed my entire life.

During my time as a youth counsellor, I realized that art had such a powerful capacity not only to disarm participants when entering challenging conversations, but also for deep and meaningful transformation around anti-oppression work that didn’t just end at being able to recite facts and definitions.

So much of the education system leans on rote memorization as its main pedagogical approach for presenting topics on identity, displacement, and colonization. Critical examination of identity, displacement, and colonization however, requires much more than memorizing names and dates.

It requires all of us to look at our own stories, our own actions, our own biases, and to be co-creators of our futures. In this way, I feel that this project is situated right in the centre of both art and activism.

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RZ – The series Still Here culminates in the creation of a Light Box Time Vessel that invites students to share what they think Canadians need to know most urgently about Black histories in Canada. Why working with a light box / time vessel, and what do you think this object represents metaphorically for this show’s proposition?

RSD – As a multi-disciplinary artist, I often feel restricted by one dimensional realms, so I wanted to give youth an opportunity to either showcase their artistic talent, and/ or to explore new mediums in answering this profound question so as to fully bring their vision to life.

In our state of the world, most of us spend so much time behind screens. As an artist, I find it deeply meditative to be able to physically work with my hands, and to create something from my imagination, rather than clicking on the first thing that pops up on a search engine. I love giving youth the opportunity to do the same.

There is also something powerful about youth connecting with their peers about their artistic process (as messy as it sometimes is) and to give them an opportunity to create their visions for the future.

The light element is what brings us in. I think there’s something about human nature that draws us to light, whether it be around a fire, or around an oven, or a kitchen stove light. We are all connected in this way, and with these lights, the projects also light the way for the future.

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RZ – Still addressing the last question, what were common answers on what the students thought Canadians need to know most urgently about Black histories in Canada? And in a personal level, what would your answer be?

RSD – The most common answers from youth are around the history of Africville (Mik’maq Territory, Halifax), and the history of Hogan’s Alley here on Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil Waututh territories, Vancouver. They are shocked to find out about the violent displacements of these communities, and even more shocked to have never been taught about it in schools.

For me, the most urgent piece of Black Histories in Canada that folks need to know about is the Doctrine of Discovery which gives a green light to land theft, displacement, and enslavement of Indigenous nations on Turtle Island, the African Continent and beyond. This racist Papal Bull is the foundation of our modern nation state in Canada today.

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RZ – Can you tell us more about your experience exploring issues of identity, decolonization and joy with youth? Why choosing young students as a target? How do you usually approach these themes within such a young crowd? What has surprised you the most about this project?

RSD – My experience of working on these topics with youth has always been so transformative, and so unique with every single iteration. My pilot workshop series was a small, all Black cohort in a Surrey high school, and the experience with those youth was one of such deep fulfillment for me AND for the youth.

To hear how much they needed to learn about their own histories, and to hear about how much this empowered them to hold their heads up, affirmed everything that I knew- that this is critical, life changing work.

Since then, I have done this project with mixed youth audiences, and even in that capacity, all youth are able to find their places of connection and solidarity in their own identities and family stories with Black communities living in Canada.

I think often our society underestimates young people and their capacity for critical thought and deeply see and understand structural and systemic inequities, and we do a disservice to them when we don’t engage them in these next level conversations.

After all, within five years, most of them will be out in the world starting or finishing degrees, or being in different of positions where they will have even more power to catalyze change. Youth are literally our future, and it’s important to respect them and nurture them as such.

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