Art Agitating for Change: Through the lens of Michael Chambers

By Sankofa Arts and Facilitation Tuesday, October 10th, 2017 Categories: Exhibitions, Features, Updates
 

Anna-Kae West & Fabian Thomas of Sankofa Arts & Facilitation, Jamaica, share a feature on Jamaican-Canadian photographer Michael Chambers, whose powerful and socially engaged work deals with issues of injustice in society and the portrayal of the black body. His recent exhibition ‘Shadows to Silver: A 25 year Retrospective’ curated by Pamela Edmonds ran from July 7th – September 3rd, 2017 at the Thames Art Gallery in Chatham, Ontario. Read more about his work below:

Michael Chambers, The Wait, 2012.

Michael Chambers, The Wait, 2012.

Heightened global political tensions and anti-immigration sentiments are rife, spawning countless human rights violations. For many, the solution is found in protesting and marching, but for Michael Chambers, his keen sense of composition and artistic eye allow his protests to come through his photography.

Born in Kingston, Jamaica, Chambers migrated to Canada in the mid-1970s. At just 16 years old, young Chambers was coming of age in a place and time where multi-culturalism was blossoming and being celebrated. Enrolling as a student at York University, he was introduced to the history and culture of Africa, and this formed the foundation of and framed many of his early works. It was also at York that he fell in love with photography, purchasing his first camera with the intent to document paintings. However, he quickly fell in love with capturing images of people and, in the process, capturing the essence of the human spirit that was so often overlooked.

Chambers drew from cultural experiences in his home-country Jamaica and adopted country, Canada, garnering inspiration which created a unique artistic expression. His images highlight social injustices and often court controversy. One recurring theme in his work, especially in the early years, was the use of  African symbols which would harken to slavery. These evoked strong reactions from people, many of whom were uncomfortable with his portrayal of the black man. Rather than acquiesce to the majority – for whom these images represented an intimate, unadulterated look at the black body and prompted introspection – Chambers continued to produce haunting and provocative images of the black man. He demonstrated his range and tackled controversy head-on, especially when he started photographing men in poses that, while highlighting the muscular physique of the man, did not show their heads; rendering them, as it were, headless.

Work by Michael Chambers.

Michael Chambers, Cullets.

His photographs often invite viewers to see more, go beyond the surface, to become part of the experience. According to Chambers, he “deliberately photographed those who were often not seen as beautiful or worthy of photography…broad nosed, very dark-skinned, bald or low cropped hair.” This of course proved to be somewhat revolutionary, as black people were not being represented this way at that time, and especially not by a black man. In anticipation of the backlash that would arise from his race, early on in his career Chambers avoided being photographed as he did not want to be told how to produce art because he was black. Once his race was revealed, there was a lot of criticism leveled against him and his work.

Chambers remained undaunted. With pieces that spark conversation and gets tongues wagging, there is certainly something unique to his images. He may in fact have been one of the first photographers to wholeheartedly embrace his blackness, putting it on display in a manner which demonstrated that he was unashamed – of who he was, and the shared history that made him this way. Unlike many of his contemporaries whose exploration of the black man’s body was done in a way to fetishize, Chambers was able to “promote a positive black image” in a visual style that represented the black folk.

“I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me.” This quote by Ralph Ellison speaks to “invisibility” as a black man, but is the stark reality many marginalized persons face.

Like his in-your-face way of highlighting issues surrounding the black community, Chambers does not shy away from elevating issues of HIV/AIDS and social injustice. His interest in activism through his art work was further deepened by the death of a close friend, which was one of the things that affected Chambers’ photography style. Instead of his usual outdoor photographs which focused more on the body of his model – especially in those “headless” images – his images changed to indoor photographs which focused on a family dynamic, giving a face to the injustices he was fighting against.

Michael Chambers, Love.

Michael Chambers, Love.

Today more than ever, Chambers views his work as being relevant. The current sentiments being expressed globally about anti-immigration, black pride and human rights have always been issues explored in his artwork. Chambers embraces the irony, that his photographs are “…even more relevant today,” than they were 20 years ago. He is one of few artists who is consistent in his commitment to “giving a voice” to the marginalized, using his photography as a platform to promote often excluded, marginalized models and ‘exotic’ beauties. He continues to be approached by individuals with photography requests because of his ability to see beauty where others don’t, and thereby making them feel beautiful and good about themselves. Further, he has contributed to women he has worked with embracing a positive self-image; many of his models and women in his life chose to start shaving their heads and wearing bold jewellery, and becoming more confident overall. Despite his immense success, Chambers does not feel that he has yet reached his full potential “I am not where I want, or need to be just yet, but I am reaching towards my goals and getting closer.”

Chambers is internationally renowned and has been recognized for his work, receiving the 2010 Harry Jerome Award for his contribution to Arts and Entertainment. He was also the feature of a CBC documentary, The Photographer, An Artist’s Journey. Additionally, he was part of a PBS special Through a Lens Darkly: Black Photographers and the Emergence of a People.

Michael Chambers, Bullseye, 1995.

Michael Chambers, Bullseye, 1995.

The film, directed by Thomas Allen Harris, won an NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Documentary for 2015. Chambers’ other accolades include his iconic TD Bank’s Black History Month poster, as well as his trademarked image ‘Motion’ for the International Association of Blacks in Dance. He was also featured in When Ackee Meets Codfish a coffee table book published in Canada in commemoration of Jamaica’s 50th anniversary of Independence. Most recently, his image Bullseye was used as a promotional images used by the Black Lives Matter Movement.

In 2016, Chambers was one of a select few photographers chosen to exhibit in the National Gallery’s Biennial Exhibition, and his exhibition Shadows to Silver: A 25 year Retrospective curated by Pamela Edmonds is on view from July 7th – September 3rd, 2017 at the Thames Art Gallery in Chatham, Ontario. Chambers plans to bring this exhibition to an international audience. In addition, he is currently working on a coffee table book which will feature pieces from this exhibit.

Sankofa Arts and Facilitation
Sankofa Arts and Facilitation

SANKOFA Arts & Facilitation, a registered sole-trader company dedicated to transformational training/facilitation and performing arts.