Former Governor General touts promise of youth perspective at gallery gathering

- May 31, 2023

Her Excellency the Right Honourable Michaëlle Jean, centre-left, and artist David Woods speak to youth at the Dalhousie Art Gallery earlier this month. (Stephen Abbott photos)
Her Excellency the Right Honourable Michaëlle Jean, centre-left, and artist David Woods speak to youth at the Dalhousie Art Gallery earlier this month. (Stephen Abbott photos)

A new exhibit at the Dalhousie Art Gallery brought together Black Nova Scotian students and Her Excellency the Right Honourable Michaëlle Jean for an important conversation on art and African Nova Scotian culture in Canada.

Mme. Jean, who served as the 27th Governor General from 2005 to 2010 and received an honorary degree from Dalhousie in 2019, met with around a dozen students from Gorsebrook Junior High School to tour The Secret Codes: African Nova Scotian Quilts, an exhibition featuring quilts and paintings made primarily by African Nova Scotian women.

“Your voice is very, very important,” Mme. Jean told the students as she discussed the role of art in the path towards justice and equity. “You are part of the solution. You have a point of view and perspective on the kind of world we want to live in, the kind of society you want to live in.”

The exhibition, curated by David Woods, is a collaboration between the Black Artists Network of Nova Scotia and the Vale Quilters Association. The Vale Quilters Association is the only incorporated guild of Black quilters in Nova Scotia.

The show explores around 100 years of quilt-making tradition in Black Nova Scotian communities and includes a wide variety of styles. With pieces from more than 25 artists, the exhibit explores how patterns were used as coded messaging to help African people escape from slavery in the 18th and 19th centuries.

“We are honoured at the Dalhousie Art Gallery for Madame Jean to take time of out a very busy schedule to visit The Secret Codes exhibition and engage with students about the importance of the creative work coming from African Nova Scotian communities," said Dalhousie Art Gallery Director and Curator Pamela Edmonds.

"The Right Honourable Michaëlle Jean is an exceptional individual who embodies the power of resilience, compassion and leadership. As the first woman of African descent to serve as Governor General of Canada, she has utilized her platform to elevate marginalized voices and bridge divides within Canadian society.”

Recommended reading The social life of art: Get to know Pamela Edmonds, the Dalhousie Art Gallery's director and curator

Reading quilts

Curator Woods is a founding member of the Black Artists Network of Nova Scotia and conceived of The Secret Codes more than a decade ago by collaborating with quilters across the province. While travelling, Woods encouraged quilters to use his designs which are based on community stories and people he met. The exhibit has been touring the province and will next head to Toronto.

“In North America, the quilt making tradition is quite unique,” said Woods.

Speaking to the students, Mme. Jean noted how The Secret Codes exhibition can serve as a catalyst for difficult conversations and how the art speaks to the Black experience in Nova Scotia and across Canada.

“Making the invisible visible through art is so important for people from African descent, and everyone,” said Mme. Jean, who was also in Halifax for the release of the Halifax Declaration. The Halifax Declaration is the product of six years of work at National Black Canadians Summits to create a framework for the eradication of racial discrimination.

After the introductory session and discussion, Woods provided the students with a tour of the exhibit and explained key features of the different pieces on display.

One section of the exhibit features quilts with symbols originating in the Underground Railroad. As Woods explained to the students, quilts displayed messages to those escaping slavery. For example, one quilt in the exhibit portrays a log cabin — meaning there was a safe place to stay the night nearby.

Students were also introduced to the Dal’s Black Student Advising Centre by Black Student Advisor Guyleigh Johnson, who explained the centre’s role and offered support to students as they transition to university in the coming years.


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