In 2016, A Room Full of Black Boys was introduced to Toronto.
A collaboration I, Jah Grey, undertook with Toronto-based artist Oluseye. I spent two weeks photographing over 300 black men across Toronto, then postered their faces on a wall with Oluseye’s signature pastel, chalk and acrylic line work over top.
We opened to a packed house at Blank Canvas Gallery here in Toronto and the feedback we received was incredible, both from participants and observers. When we began this project, neither Oluseye or I, could have fully grasped the impact being in that room would have and how it would feel witnessing the finalized work. I never imagined that “A Room Full of Black Boys” would allow me to connect on such a deep level with so many. The show created a safe space and opened a conversation around toxic masculinity, growth and healing.
Following the show, the piece went on immediately to be showcased for Nuit Blanche, an all night art festival in Toronto. The piece also yielded us a video spot with CBC Arts Toronto and other radio and video appearances to discuss the process, the outcome and our plans moving forward.
Our work, I believe had a profound effect on the subjects as well as on how I experience my own black masculinity. Black boys/men need to be seen, and when I say seen I mean in a more vulnerable, softer light because we always get associated with being violent, closed off or not friendly. My work as a visual artist is constantly acting to redefine and reimage masculinity. Black masculinity, gender and identity have rarely in society been so intensely discussed as a culture – themes which have personally pushed me throughout my career.
As a black trans man, gender and race is a combination I am all too familiar with. Having both positive and negative aspects that have acted to shape the artist I am today. One of the reasons I want to re-explore this original piece is because I believe that both cisgender and transgender men of color, deserve to be captured for the sake of beauty, for the sake of art and for the sake of slowly dismantling the image of toxicity we’ve been fed for too long. This problematic mainstream agenda enforces the idea that all men cannot be vulnerable, while punishing those who choose to make themselves visible outside our many stereotypes.
I had so few positive role models growing up and I’ve always wished blackness, as a positive attribute was celebrated more. The fear of vulnerability makes us hide ourselves and I believe we should recommit to having larger conversions that might some day, see men of color in the light.
I aim to deconstruct this problematic binary to remind the participant and viewer that by confronting their fears about their bodies, it enables us to embrace everything that we are, as individuals, and as a community, encouraging the practice and process of self-love.
Each and every photo marks a moment in time that I will remember, one where the connection and vulnerability between me and the subject reminded me how important it is to honor men of color in a way we rarely see in mainstream media.
In the last few years I have been to many art shows from underground Toronto installations to full on retrospective exhibitions held inside the MOMA and now more than ever I truly believe in arts ability to bring us together.
Constantly conforming to the ideals of society forces us to forget about ourselves, so following execution I wish to tour the finished pieces in hopes that I encourage us all to live out loud and not feel silenced or shamed around our bodies, but feel able to express ourselves in any way we choose, to remind us all of the similarities we share despite our differences.
As I look back on “A Room Full of Black Boys”, I realize it was just the beginning to a story that we so desperately need continued. For the next year, I plan to continue the documenting process under the title 'Portraits of a Black Boy by Jah Grey' around the United States, particularly in New York City, Washington D.C., Chicago and Atlanta, respectively. I’d also love to find other black men within Canada as well, such as Montreal.
In addition, I’ll be creating a mini documentary for this project so the budget for this project is reflective of gear expenses, installation expenses, travel accommodation and promotion. This project will likely take me 8 months to a year to complete in its entirety.
Any support you can give means so much to me. Your donation to the piece will help turn this vision into reality and help create this work. I am so grateful to have the opportunity to share what I love with the world and even if you cannot make a financial contribution, please feel free to share this with whomever shares the passion to invest in creating safer spaces and contributing to the path of healing within the community. Feel free to reach out to me on Instagram to follow my artistic process more deeply (@jahgrey) and thank you for taking the time to read this, I appreciate you.
Feel free to check out the rest of the images & video from 'A Room Full of Black Boys' on my website:
- Liam Ball
- raymond smiling
- Paul Chung
- Shannon Ellis