Letitia Fraser, a recent (2019) NSCAD University graduate, is an emerging interdisciplinary artist who focuses on painting and textiles. This small showcase exhibition of six acrylic paintings on collaged quilts, curated by Johanna Mizgala, currently the curator of the House of Commons, was the Portrait Gallery of Canada’s contribution to the 2023 Art Toronto fair. Currently without a physical location, the Portrait Gallery of Canada exploits the art fair context to display work beyond online exhibitions. This centrally located art fair is optimal for showcasing the work of an artist such as Fraser, who is best known on Canada’s East coast, to a broader national audience.
Fraser takes vernacular photography, specifically the family snapshot, as a source for her portraits of family members. Her goal, she states, is “to connect to my roots.” The Halifax-based artist has a family history in North Preston, Nova Scotia’s largest Black community and Canada’s largest community of African Canadians. This rural community comes with a long history: it was settled by Black Loyalists granted crown land and promised freedoms, resulting in a settlement of 3,000 former slaves. Fraser sees her work as a means of exploring her community’s history through the representation of her family members from North Preston.
Fraser’s compositions are human scale, with dimensions ranging from three to six feet, a scale encouraging engagement by physically mirroring the viewer. Despite the formal, central placement and their originating from family photos, the portraits are not self-consciously posed. The subjects appear natural, indicating a carefully contemplated choice of photographs; accordingly, they effectively provide documents of everyday family life.
Fraser expands the portraiture genre by merging craft with academic art. Along with portraiture, quilts are central to Fraser’s art. Her paintings’ backgrounds and some foregrounds comprise collaged fabric made of sundry quilts. The quilts often form large, flat colour bands; they are, therefore, banner like, dually connoting festivity and heraldry. Fraser elaborates on the inspiration of her grandmother’s quilts: “My grandmother’s quilting, to me, was survival for my family. It was about decoration [but] more about warmth and protecting those close to you.”
While quilts connect to family and heritage, they also relate to community, as they are often crafted in small groups, or bees. In this case, Fraser’s quilts reflect a community relatively unknown outside Nova Scotia but rich in history and diversity. By using quilts recycled from thrift stores, bought on sale, or gifted, Fraser also pays homage to the resourcefulness of her grandmother, who made quilts for her family from second-hand material,
Fraser’s quilts draw influentially from the African American Gee’s Bend Quilters, residents of Gee’s Bend, Alabama, and the direct descendants of enslaved people who worked on a nearby plantation. Lauded, for instance, in the New York Times, as significant modern artworks, their quilts received ongoing nationwide attention from the early to mid-twentieth century. An even more comparable artist, though, is the canonical African American artist Faith Ringgold, whose “story quilts,” which she began producing in the 1980s, presented narratives chronicling African American life, notably in Harlem. They present an archive of Black daily life, like Fraser’s portraiture.
Take, for instance, East Coast Shores, 2023, which depicts a scowling young girl immersed in water up to her torso. It captures a private moment whose context is undefined. It also reads like an outtake or discarded photograph in that the subject is not smiling, a suggestion of the undercurrents of real life below the smiling facades of snapshots. A collage of fabric forms a layer of abstraction beyond the representational. The diagonal central band of light blue and the horizontal bands of dark blue and yellow on each side of it recall colour field painting.
More closely incorporating quilting into the portrait itself is Lighthouses and Lobsters, 2023, a portrayal of a young boy posing with a lobster on his head. Certainly, the lobster’s tied claws and the fact it is red, hence already boiled, could give the work an undercurrent of violence, but the primary feeling is silliness. The found quilts lend floral patterning to the boy’s shirt and the painting’s background, which is intended to change how Black masculinity is represented by “show[ing] softness alongside Black male bodies.” Accordingly, along with addressing racial representation, Fraser approaches gender by questioning and performatively overcoming stereotypes.
Outstanding of the paintings, though, is Civil Boom, 2023, which captures a woman in a yellow shirt and beige summer hat sitting at a table in a relaxed conversational pose, her left arm resting on the table, as if reaching toward the viewer. She leans comfortably back in a wooden chair. It seems not so much a painting of a snapshot as it is the capture of a mid-conversation moment. Viewers feel that they know her, or at least that she knows them. Of the exhibited paintings, it best captures the humble highlights of quotidian experience, thus linking daily life to a larger political sphere of race and gender surrounding the paintings.
Letitia Fraser brings work out from the geographical margins of rural Nova Scotia and inserts traditional craft and the family snapshot into the elite context of academic art to explore the intersection of gender and race. Portrait subjects are cultural choices, and those who are absent, not just included, bespeak volumes about a culture. Nova Scotia, with a long-understudied slave history and a more recent, mid-twentieth-century history of the segregation and displacement of Black communities, has a dearth of the artistic representation of Black individuals. Fraser’s exhibition aims to rectify this lack.