By Heidi McKenzie

This FUSE article from issue 36-4 is available full-text online for your reading pleasure.

Denyse Thomasos’s art is her vehicle of resistance to the global marginalization of people of colour. Her work voices her specificsubaltern locus of enunciation — woman of colour,descendent of slaves, indentured workers and Indigenous peoples of the Caribbean. Thomasos (1964–2012) was a Trinidadian-born, Toronto-raised, New York–based abstract painter, whose passion and rarefied zeal for life catapulted her and her work to international recognition and acclaim, and whose life was tragically abridged. This paper grapples with the context, both social and personal, that propelled Thomasos’s artistic trajectory, using the Argentinian semiotician Walter Mignolo’s theories on aspects of modern colonialisms and colonial modernity. [1]

Mignolo describes the coexistence of modernity/coloniality, where modernity, as constitutive of the Americas, does not exist without coloniality. [2] Mignolo offers us an alternative methodology for embracing a totality of paradigms, at once dominant and subjugated, mainstream and repressed, where all coexist at a crossroads of local histories enunciated from the place of the Other. The subaltern is the Other, as distinct from the merely marginalized, insofar as violent oppression is implicated by colonial difference.

Thomasos’s work challenges the coloniality of power through local histories of modernity/coloniality that extend beyond her own ethnic heritage. Thomasos was born in the West Indies on the island of Trinidad in 1964. She came to Toronto at the age of eight. By 23, she had her BA in art history and painting from the University of Toronto, and by 25, an MFA from Yale. [3] Thomasos’s first solo show, Scratch (2001), delved deeply and personally into her Caribbean roots. In 2004, Gaëtane Verna, then Senior Curator of the Foreman Gallery at Bishop’s University, along with Ingrid Jenkner of Mount Saint Vincent University in Halifax, co- commissioned a multiwall mural installation. Tracking (2004) consists of ephemeral wall paintings that track Thomasos’s life, according to their respective titles: Tracking: Thirty Years in Canada, Thirty Years in Trinidad, and Tracking: Bombings, Wars and Genocide—A Six Months’ Journey from New York to China, Vietnam, Cambodia and Indonesia. The works address themes of migration, displacement, nostalgia and war. [4]

Thomasos’s work revolves around a number of ideas that converge in a key set of themes. For example, her insistence on referencing boats and travel in her art, and her treatment of “unspeakable acts,” architectural structures and cages (and by extension, jails) are all derived from Thomasos’s core sense of identity as a woman of colour who is descendent from slaves. This is the lens through which she established and asserted her voice as the subaltern. By using the term “people of colour,” Thomasos was also careful to embrace an inclusive subaltern voice, as opposed to identifying solely with the Black community.

The system of slavery is a matrix that is intrinsic to her art. While Thomasos was heir to African (from her slave lineage), Asian (from her South Asian grandmother) and Indigenous cultures (from the Nepoya, Suppoya and Yao peoples of the Arawak and Carib peoples purported to be in her bloodline), she contended that her work is ultimately rooted in her history, which began, ostensibly, with slavery. [5] Thomasos’s incorporation and integration of slavery in her work was her way of expressing colonial difference, and thereby mitigating the vulnerability of space where the coloniality of power is enacted.

Slave boats are near-ubiquitous in Thomasos’s post- MFA work; her fascination with boats began after being transfixed by a well-known cross section drawing of a 1788 slave boat. The image had a profound impact on the artist: “I saw things broken down into an economy. People no longer existed as human beings. They existed as numbers and measurements and money — as products… The boat was a vessel, a container that symbolized that concept and facilitated the system.” [6]

By their very presence, boats introduce the idea of jour- neying. Thomasos had an insatiable appetite for travel. Between 2002 and 2004, Thomasos travelled to China, Mali, Senegal, Indo- nesia, Cambodia, Vietnam and India. Thomasos travelled in order to make contact with what she believed to be her family’s different points of origination. [7] Part of her personal contract with herself as an artist was to live as full a life as possible and to energize her art through her lived experience. Travel was a way of discov- ering and documenting unfiltered original source material from which to work. This comprehensive way of seeing the world at a confluence of geopolitical crossroads is Mignolo’s border thinking methodology put into practice. For Thomasos, the overriding theme was not so much the journey or the act of travelling, as the documentation of unspeakable acts that humankind invariably perpetrates on itself.

Curator Ben Portis notes that Thomasos “developed a distinctive mode of representational abstraction stylistically derived from New York school abstract expressionism — particularly attentive to Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning and Franz Kline — and informed by artists of the intervening years from 1950s to present such as Brice Marden, Richard Serra, Richard Long and Michael Heizer.” [8] Toronto-based African Caribbean Canadian writer M. NourbeSe Philip reflects on Thomasos’s aberrant relationship with abstraction: “In signalling her history, she subverts the conventions of abstract art… history becomes the subtext, the baseline… which remains in tension with the abstract nature of the work.” [9] By bringing something new to the genre — a programmatic dimension that speaks to slavery — Thomasos is playing out a colonial semiosis that underscores her moral compass regarding coloniality of power. In her words, “What I’m painting about is the structural psychology of a mind that has been disrupted and distorted through the Black experience in the Western world.” [10]

Thomasos birthed her own movement, representational abstraction, where out of a sense of displacement from her own culture, she incorporated material from a foreign country, and the result is the creation of a new cultural phenomenon — a colonial semiosis. Thomasos’s resistance to the colonial oppression and the global marginalization of people of colour demonstrates a postcolonial self-reflexivity that extends beyond Thomasos’s Caribbeanness, and constitutes an additive identity and aesthetic that claims its space within the transcultural. As Verna underscores, Thomasos’s range of thematic strategies “evinces an ongoing postmodern obsession with both her personal history and a broader political memory.” [11] The legacy of Thomasos’s work remains a provocative questioning of complacency as it pertains to race and representation. With respect to injustice, inequality, racism, war and other unspeakable acts, Denyse Thomasos’s work calls on each of us to account for our complicity as citizens in the world in which we live.

[1] See Walter Mignolo, Local Histories/Global Designs: Coloniality, Subaltern Knowledges, and Border Thinking (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2012), 22.

[2] Ibid. 43, 50.

3] In 1997, she received a Guggenheim Fellowship and was invited into the stable of the Lennon,Weinberg galleryinNewYork,aswell as the Olga Korper Gallery in Toronto. Other notable awards include the Canada Council Millennium Grant (1999), a Pew Fellowship, a Joan Mitchell Painters and Sculptors Grant and a travel residency at the American Academy in Rome.

[4] These works were arguably pivotal in bringing Thomasos’s career to the next level and were key to her being selected for a significant AGO commission. Along with Thomasos, artists Karen Henderson, Ingrid Calame, Julian Opie, Chris Ballantyne, Raymond Pettibon, Lawrence Weiner, Christine Swintak, Sol LeWitt and Fabian Marcaccio were included in the AGO’s Swing Space Transforma-tion commission. Ben Portis, interview with the author, 18 March 2013.

[5] Milena Placentile, “Social Consciousness in Canadian Art,” Justina M. Barnicke Art Gallery (2002; online).

6] Ben Portis, “Denyse Thomasos Interviewed by Ben Portis,” in Wallworks: Contemporary Artists and Place, ed. Catherine van Baren (Toronto: Art Gallery of Ontario, 2007), 72.

[7] Portis, interview with the author, 18 March 2013.

8] Portis, “Justification for Acquisition,” in Wallworks, 2.

[9] M. NourbeSe Philip, “Form and Improv,” in Epistrophe:Wall Paintings by Denyse Thomasos (Lennoxville: Foreman Art Gallery of Bishop’s University, 2006), 39.

[10] Franklin Sirmans, “In the Citadel of Modernism,” in Epistrophe, 51.

[11] GaëtaneVerna, “Acknowledgements,” in Epistrophe, 6.


Heidi McKenzie is a Toronto-based ceramic artist, arts critic and emerging curator currently completing her MFA in Criticism and Curatorial Practice at OCAD U. She has over twenty years of experi- ence as a manager and broadcast producer in the not-for-profit arts sector and holds an MA in comparative European cultural policy from the University of Warwick (1994). She has presented at the Subtle Technologies and TechnoScience Salon in Toronto (2012) and at the Race in the Americas conference in Birmingham, UK (2013). McKenzie writes for Ceramics: Art & Perception, New Ceramics, FUSION, Ceramics Monthly, Studio, Canadian Art and POV Magazine.

Image credit: Denyse Thomasos, Babylon (2005). Acrylic on canvas. Donovan Collection at St. Michael’s College (University of Toronto). Image courtesy of Olga Korper Gallery.

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