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Here's why you see curly tendrils of hair on this New Westminster map

Artist and photographer Rebecca Bair’s Anvil Centre art exhibit is a commentary on the lack of Black representation in the city’s archives

Anvil Centre is sporting a large public art installation featuring an old map of New Westminster with gaps shaped like curly tendrils of hair – all part of a project aiming to stress the need to acknowledge and repair the lack of representation of Black people in the city's archives.

The public art installation called Curl Mapped was installed in March in time for the launch of the Capture Photography Festival that launched on April 1. While the festival will wrap by the end of the month, the art exhibit will stay on for a year.

What do the curls-shaped gaping gaps on the map denote? Why is it important for New Westies to get curious about it? We decided to take these questions to Rebecca Bair, the artist behind the 24-feet tall and 66-feet wide artwork.

Bair worked on the project for almost a year — starting with a deep dive into the history of New West.

“I thought about New West being the quote unquote foundation of what we know as colonial British Columbia… its proximity to the Fraser River, and that being a huge part of not only Indigenous, but colonial histories as well,” she said.

“I thought about that situated and territorial kind of significance, and wanted to bridge it with my work,” she added.

Bair’s work broadly investigates Blackness and its alternative forms of representation, particularly for Black women, she said. The Vancouver-based interdisciplinary artist frequently uses “cultural tools and signifiers” like the hair and the sun to illustrate her exploration of identity and intersectionality.

Her first stop in the making of the work, commissioned by the City of New Westminster, was the New Westminster archives.

At the archives

Bair went through several leather-bound ledgers, handwritten notes and photographs while at the archives.

“Inevitably, my questions were around Blackness in this place, and in the archives… and how to situate the history of Blackness in this place. We (she and the archivist Erin Brown-Osterman) had great, dynamic and even, I would say, difficult conversations about the limitations of archives to hold those histories —  how those histories get omitted and erased, and that happens for BIPOC communities all over, particularly for Black people.”

As per Bair’s understanding of the history, Black settlers came from California up to Vancouver Island in the mid-1800s. They came to the mainland, following the Fraser River Gold Rush — “coming up on ships along the Fraser River to New Westminster, or what would have been known as New Caledonia, and settling here, not in huge numbers by any means, and then following the gold rush up in the north,” she said.

“Later, when the railways were built (in the late 1800s), they also established themselves in Vancouver. And that’s kind of the beginning, I would say, of the histories of places like Hogan’s Alley.”

Bair spent several hours in the archives looking for “traces of Blackness.”

“It’s a funny thing to be in those archives. It’s a wonderful, intimidating and such an intense space; there’s just so much information, and it feels as if you could be in there for a lifetime and still not get through all of it. But we did a pretty good job of getting through as much as we could and using the cues that the archivist had, to look in certain areas and spaces to try to locate evidence of Blackness.”

But Bair didn’t come across any.

“I want to be clear that there is definitely documentation of Blackness in the archives, and that comes through home deeds, newspaper articles, and those kinds of things. But as a young Black woman who spent several hours there, I didn’t touch any piece of archival material that documented Blackness. So, to me, that just means that in the kind of wealth of information that is in there, Blackness is so underrepresented and under-documented.”

“As a result, there are these limitations in defining, determining and properly representing Black history in this place and Black contribution to the foundation of what we now know as the city of New Westminster, also the province of British Columbia.”

Seeing that most of the documentation was predominantly of White people was not a surprise for Bair, but it was something that she and the archivist felt they could acknowledge.

“I know that the history of place makes it so that there cannot be Blackness in the way that we hope, but it’s a funny thing to go into an archive which is meant to document history and to recognize its limitations. And that is really where this work came from — in recognizing the limitations of the archives and the codification of the archives as they stand, and allowing for space for Blackness to exist not just within but also beyond the archive.”

But how do you represent the lack of something in a place that’s abundant with information? — thought Bair.

Laying curls on maps

Bair found a 1862 “detailed, organized and pristine” map of New Westminster, with house and block numbers, information on government reserves, municipal reserves, and more.

“There’s this categorization and holding of a particular history, a particular land use and negotiation and a way of life that excludes so many others. It’s not to say that that information isn’t significant or important, or even accurate; I don’t want to take away that value.”

“But I will say that they are not complete.”

She printed out a copy of the map and interjected it with photos of her curly hair.

“The gesture of breaking up the map was to say that this history is incomplete — that we need to leave space for more, we need to make room for more because there is so much more.”

Bair kept putting photos of trimmings of hair on the map, and soon the map started to morph.

Layers of photographs of her curls added up on the map, until the edges of those hairs became topographic — like the edges of water, she said.

“Thinking of the movement of settlers through this place, it just made so much sense to create a channel for movement, a channel to hold more information, and then also speak to water and land and the edges of our knowledge, and the capacity for it to continue to flow and to morph,” said Bair.

“That morphing and changing is reinforced again by the sun.”

How so?

“There’s a lovely thing that happens with this work when the sun comes out,” she said.

“When the sunlight comes in through the front windows (of the Anvil Centre), the shadows of the curls project into the space beyond the flatness of the windows… it stretches out onto the floor and onto the walls and all around it so that we become kind of part of the artwork. We become touched by the artwork without being able to touch it back.”

As for passersby looking at it from the outside, Bair hopes that the art piques their curiosity, nudges them to go in and experience the archives, and has them slow down.

“I hope that we can communally spend time, learn about the sovereign nations of these lands, particularly New Westminster, that we occupy, and begin to do the work to be more empathetic… to be better settlers.”

The art exhibit is at the Anvil Centre (777 Columbia St.). Artist Rebecca Bair will be giving a talk at the centre on Thursday, April 27, 5 to 7 p.m.