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When Big Man Talk Lets Marcus Garvey’s Words Sing

A look into the JAM Arts Centre’s latest exhibition

When we think of the legacy of Black history in North America, the impact of civil rights pioneer Marcus Garvey cannot be overstated. Born in Saint Ann’s Bay, Jamaica in 1887, Garvey spent much of his life traveling throughout America, Canada, the Caribbean, and all across Africa, championing his message of worldwide Black liberation. Garvey’s influence was monumental: according to the UNIA Papers Project, Garvey is considered “the leader of the largest organized mass movement in black history and progenitor of the modern “black is beautiful” ideal.” Best known for his activism in the back-to-Africa movement, Garvey championed a kind of Black nationalist ideology built on celebrating Blackness and centering racial pride. His influence can be felt in every corner of the world. The famous lyrics  – “emancipate yourself from mental slavery, none but ourselves can free our mind” – from Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song” (1980) actually came from one of Marcus Garvey’s speeches.

Garvey’s extensive political work led to him to found the United Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), which by the early 1920s included over 700 branches in 38 American states. On 13 February, I made my way to Montreal’s very own UNIA branch to see When Big Man Talk, an art exhibition hosted by the Jamaica Association Arts Centre (JAM Arts Centre) to celebrate the legacy and spirit of Marcus Garvey’s work.

Established in 1919, the UNIA Hall on Notre-Dame Street West is still alive and thriving over 100 years later. Walking through the second set of doors, I was greeted by a warm, cozy room lined with rows and rows of easels displaying the eye-catching, emotive artwork of the exhibition’s four featured artists. I immediately felt myself captivated by the artists’ masterful use of mixed media, bold paints, and dynamic photography. I could have spent hours gazing at these pieces, which each took unique artistic liberties to translate Marcus Garvey’s message into our present and future worlds. 

Garfield Morgan’s work used a multimedia approach, using creative, unconventional materials to add a layer of dimension to his portraits. A didactic to the left of his exhibit listed gift wrap, a repurposed dress, African wax fabric, acrylic, oil paint, plaster, and repurposed plastic among some of the materials used. The exhibition program describes Morgan’s work as “resembling that of Jamaican master Daniel Heartman and the imagination of an Everald Brown.” I was particularly enchanted by Morgan’s striking use of contrast and silhouettes. One of my favourites was titled “Meditation (Echoes of a culture past, present and future)” which captures the serene, yet somber side profile of a young Black man in repose. 

The paintings by Anthony McLennon also included portraits: one was of his grandmother smiling gently, eyes glimmering, and another was of himself holding a wine glass while gazing back at the viewer. On When Big Man Talk’s program, McLennon is described as displaying “an uncanny ability to intricately render portraits, animals, and landscapes with accuracy and depth.” These skills were showcased masterfully in his painting “Can A Caged Bird Sing?” where a beach landscape forms the background for a row of crows, one of which is perched in a cage. His paintings depicting scenes from everyday life stirred even greater emotion. A piece titled “Just a Regular Day” portrays passengers traveling on a bus, including a Black man in the foreground looking down at his phone with a white “X” across his mouth. In an interview for the Daily, exhibit curator and director of the JAM Arts Centre Pat Dillon Moore said that this painting “speaks to how invisible a visible and audible minority can be.”

Daniel Saintiche’s photography was absolutely mesmerizing; the depth of movement, texture, and colour that he fits inside a single image make the contents jump to life before your very eyes. Saintiche’s didactic described his photographs as a window into “Montreal’s Black Community life in the 70s.” Scenes from Carnival showing music festivals, parades, and joyous celebrations were the main focus of the exhibit. The text in his section noted that “the carnival arts at one time boasted over 150,000 predominantly Black people on St. Catherine Street to Lafontaine Park. This was a huge financial contribution to Montreal’s coffers when every hotel room was booked.” Pat Dillon Moore pointed to one photograph in particular, where two women during Carnival in the 1970s are captured laughing with their arms around each other as they made their way down St. Catherine Street. It was truly amazing to experience how Saintliche’s skills allowed for this joyous occasion to transcend both the boundaries of time and space, pulling the viewer into a single storied moment in history. The exhibition program describes his talents best: Saintliche’s “journey is a tapestry woven with resilience, passion for the arts, and an unwavering dedication to capturing the essence of Montreal’s Black community.”

The other historical photographs in the exhibition were truly special to behold. Momentous instances of Black history in Montreal adorned the walls, tables, and complementary slideshow, detailing the rich contributions of Black visionaries in this city. A photograph of Bob Marley performing in Côtes-de-Neiges captures his first visit to the city, while a still from the 1968 Black Writers Congress – held at McGill University – featured Stokely Carmichael at the front and centre. Another image in the back of the exhibition showed Leroy Butcher and Muhammed Ali walking through Dorval airport. Viewing these photographs alongside the work from the contemporary artists beautifully wove together the threads of the exhibit’s thematic material, creating an impactful, fully fleshed-out experience that upholds Marcus Garvey’s message of lifting up Black excellence worldwide. 

The final piece of this exhibit takes this message to another dimension entirely. Quentin VerCetty centres Garvey’s goal of Black interconnectedness in his virtual exhibition experience Inside Garvey Yard. A free viewing experience for all, allows visitors to interact with a virtual Marcus Garvey museum from anywhere in the world. Viewers can answer questions and collect Black Star Line tokens to “reawaken the spirit of Garvey and hear his special message.” Pat Dillon Moore explained that VerCetty’s work “creates a space that speaks to Marcus Garvey’s time in Canada in a way that an intergenerational family – a grandmother and a grandchild – can both participate in. The grandchild can maneuver the joystick, while the grandparent or parent could speak to them about Garvey’s history.”  

The words of Pat Dillon Moore describe the impact of When Big Man Talk best: “I think the larger purpose behind When Big Man Talk is to put history and context behind our presence. And it’s no accident that we did it during Black History Month. In a sense, we are giving you the history within Black History Month. And there’s a lot of history that is hidden as time goes on. However, it’s about making the ties of yesterday to today. And prior to many of the movers and shakers, both men and women, there was a huge, impactful man by the name of Marcus Garvey, who from 1917 through the late 1930s, was here in Canada to improve the lives of Black people wherever in the world they were. And I think that’s important, to break the narrative that Black people, number one, just migrated here and that we take. No, we build. And the association that Garvey built, the UNIA, where we are now, is alive and thriving – and so is his legacy when it comes to improving the lives of Black people.” 

You can see an abbreviated version of When Big Man Talk on 24 February at the Oscar Peterson Concert Hall. To support the four featured artists – Garfield Morgan, Anthony McLennon, Daniel Saintiche, and Quentin Vercetty – you can keep up with their work at, @tony_mendez_3219 and @keepgrowingq on Instagram.