A look inside Kenneth Montague’s stunning private art collection

By Vibhu Gairola| Brittany Carmichael, courtesy of Kenneth Montague and Wedge Curatorial Projects
Arusha, Viviane Sassen, Tanzania, 2005; Bobo mask, Burkina Faso.

Dentist and art collector Kenneth Montague still remembers being “the only black kid in the class” when he was growing up in Windsor, Ontario, in the 1970s. “I remember not really seeing myself reflected on TV, movies, books, billboards or even history books and gallery walls,” he says. “So it became a personal project to look for reflections of self and own them.” Montague, who runs Wedge Curatorial Projects (a non-profit that focuses on black identity in contemporary art), now owns more than 400 pieces of art: photographs, paintings, sculptures and more. We asked him to give us a tour of his collection.

Montague, with Untitled, Manuela Marques, 2008.

“This is by a Portuguese photographer named Manuela Marques. She goes to Rio de Janeiro often, which is where this photo was taken. Portugal had a historical presence in the slave trade in Brazil. Marques addresses that in subtle ways through her photographs. She happened to be setting up a shot when she saw this girl seemingly talking to the sky. She thought the girl might be crazy, but the girl told her she was just praying. That’s actually a Bible in the woman’s hand—she is in the rain having a spiritual moment in a place where they actually used to hold slave auctions. It’s still a place where they have a political rallies, and it’s a very charged environment.”


Our Unfinished Revolution, Alexander Calder, 1975.

“These prints were a gift from my great aunt Edith Tiger. She and my great uncle Charles Roach, both activists, were an interracial couple in America at a time when that wasn’t an easy thing to be. They met at the March on Washington with Martin Luther King, Jr., in the ‘60s. They lived in Brooklyn in a two-storey loft. I never knew what an art collector was until I met them. She commissioned these pieces by Alexander Calder to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the National Emergency Civil Liberties Committee, an organization she founded, and the bicentennial of the United States. They ended up being some of Calder’s last works before he died. They were a gift from my Aunt Edith, just before she passed away almost 20 years ago. That motivated me to start collecting.”


Above crib: Our Unfinished Revolution, Alexander Calder. Above shelf: Food Basket Shopping Mall, Peter B. Hastings, 1991. Top right: Surface Charge 3, Odili Donald Odita, 2014. Bottom right: Technical Sunrise Number One, Douglas Coupland, 2014.

“My wife, Sarah, and I want our son, Eli, to be stimulated by colour, and all of these artists are celebrated for their use of colour. We like the mix of a Canadian and the Afro-futurist narrative. This sun piece, part of the Calder collection from the living room, offers a bit of wordplay.”


Sign, from the Transliteration series, Dawit Petros, 2003.

“This photo is an homage to the painting Self-Portrait by the German Renaissance artist Albrecht Dürer. I bought it from the artist, Dawit Petros, in time to show it at 2011’s Position As Desired show—so called because it’s black Canadians positioning ourselves in any way we desire within Canadian galleries and society, where the subjects are in control of how they’re represented. That show will be on view at the Art Gallery of Windsor from February to May. This is one out of an edition of three; the second was purchased by the Royal Ontario Museum, and the third is still with the artist. In the background, there are some photos themed around black hair.”


Top: Subway poster, Jamel Shabazz, 2003. Bottom: Nido Bouchra, Hassan Hajjaj, 2009.

“I commissioned the Shabazz poster myself as part of the 2003 Contact Photography Festival. I had asked for a series that we could use on the TTC, and he submitted shots that he’d taken of people on the train in 1980s New York. It was displayed on the subway, where advertising usually is—up there beside Palmolive ads. Kids lifted these photos—I wouldn’t even have known except so many kids showed up to our opening that May with posters rolled up for the artist to sign. What’s the TTC going to do with 700 of these posters anyway? I hung it high in my house and backlit it to mirror the way it was displayed on the train.

“I got this second piece in 2009 at the Bamako Encounters, a pan-African contemporary art biennial in Mali. Nido is a milk product from Nestlé that’s used in a lot of developing countries; it’s peddled to young mothers to use instead of their natural breast milk. The artist, Hassan Hajjaj, is making a political statement on globalization and consumerism with the Arabic Fanta cans, his invented Louis Vuitton fabric, and the subject, who’s a well-known singer in Marrakesh. The piece was on display in a mosque—it was daring of him to show this work in a mosque in a Muslim country, and to create a work criticizing consumerism in a place like Morocco. With all this food and consumerism in it, this seemed like a good kitchen piece. The cans don’t come off, but our two-year-old son tries to dent them.”


Montague changes the art on his office wall regularly. The current line-up includes works by Raphael Albert, Jamel Shabazz, Seydou Keïta, Vanley Burke and Henry Clay Anderson, ranging from the 1950s to 1970s.

“The theme of the photos in my office is black style. They’re from an era when African countries were coming into their own and breaking away from Europe. The fashion in these images is inspired by the American and French movies they got from the West. People ended up looking like stylish cowboys by way of France. Women were inspired by Catherine Deneuve, or drove around in Vespas after seeing Roman Holiday. It’s no different than people trying to look like Drake or Beyoncé today.”


A Weight Carried, Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, 2015.

“I was one of Lynette’s early collectors, and certainly one of her first black collectors. She promised this piece as a wedding gift for me and my wife in 2013, but I was only able to pick it up in London last summer. You can’t just put something like this in the mail: I visited her in her studio in London and then personally carried it back on the airplane.”


Foreground: Grace Jones, Christopher Wahl, 1998. Background, bottom: Black Lives Matter, Alicia Nauta, 2014.

“The theme of our hallway is black performance. When you see this image, you hear the music. You can imagine the bass rattling in a basement party. For Jamaicans, it’s a community service of sorts—people often hold basement parties to help raise the rent for new immigrants. Everyone pays a little bit and it all goes to the new person to help them settle.”


Nadja, Shannon Bool, 2014.
Nadja, Shannon Bool, 2014.

“Shannon Bool was born and grew up in Canada, but she’s based in Germany now. This one is an edition of three. I bought one, another local collector bought the other and the Met bought the third. It’s hard to describe. It’s haunting, like a ghost of a person. You can see a human form—it’s actually a mannequin from Paris’ 1920 Expo—under fabric, which is from Papua New Guinea. I bought it right after that first terrorist attack on Paris last year, as a response to what was happening.”


Left: Series by Lebohang Kganye, 2013. Right: Nuit de Noël, Malick Sidibé, 1963.

“Most of these Kganye prints are sold out now. She inserted herself into photographs with her mother, who had passed away—she’s finding her mother’s old dresses and shirts, putting them on, and appearing like a ghost beside her in these photos as if to say she’s still with her.

“The photograph above the bed is one of Time’s top 100 images of all time. It was taken in Bamako, Mali. I acquired it in 2007, after meeting the artist, Malick Sidibé, at the Venice Biennale. I think it’s iconic because it’s universal. He’s teaching her how to dance, their shoes are off, and it’s towards the end of the night. There’s a record player, there’s even a speaker in the palm tree, and you can almost imagine those red cups, just like at a party in Scarborough. It doesn’t matter if you’re Indian, Ukrainian or Jamaican—you look at this picture and you know, ‘This looks like that picture I have of my aunty and her old boyfriend dancing at some party.’"


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January 29, 2017

This post has been updated from an earlier version.


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