Professor's Canadian BIPOC Artists Rolodex vision comes to life

Faculty of Arts
Equity, diversity and inclusion
Visual arts
Research and innovation
Students attending a class presentation
From left to right: Tia Carey, Fatoumata Bah, Felicity Taler, Kayla Eli, Ming Tiampo, Celina Jeffery, Ashley Carmichael, Candide Mawoko. Photo by Jinny Yu
When Jinny Yu, a Full Professor in the Visual Arts Department, suggested that her colleagues teach more BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Colour) artists, their immediate reaction was “But they’re so hard to find.” Jinny set out to prove otherwise.

Thus began the Canadian BIPOC Artists Rolodex project, which she describes as part knowledge creation, part advocacy, part dissemination and part Digital Humanities. As an artist whose research takes the form of painting in order to understand the world and her place in it, Jinny recognized that she needed collaborators in order to bring this new project to life.

She connected with her departmental colleague art historian and curator Celina Jeffery, along with Felicity Tayler, the university’s research data management librarian, whose scholarly and creative work is recognized in contemporary art communities, and Ming Tiampo, professor of art history at Carleton University. Together, they successfully applied for a SSHRC Insight Development Grant in 2022 to fund their project, entitled “Canadian BIPOC Artists Rolodex: Towards Decolonizing Canadian Art History.”

The project uses an Airtable database – the “rolodex” – to create an open-source digital platform, and is a consultative system of gathering, presenting, and using knowledge concerning Canadian BIPOC artists. This information system makes a fundamental contribution to decolonizing pedagogy and research in the Fine Arts.

The research takes place in a series of iterative steps. First, a team of research assistants gathers information about artists from various websites, then writes a profile about each one. Notably, the team made a point of hiring BIPOC students, including their current RA who is a PhD student in the History Department. This alone augments the scant documentation available on BIPOC artists and at the same time, mentors a new generation of BIPOC researchers and writers.

Next, the team verifies the information and contacts the artist to ask if they wish to feature in the database. Requesting permission is a very important step since, as Jinny points out, they never add artists who don’t agree to be included. Finally, the team asks the artists to provide three images of their work and compensates them accordingly.

One serious issue that came up at the beginning of the project was the categorization of artists. To avoid perpetuating colonial harms, the project’s 19-member advisory board, made up of primarily BIPOC art historians, curators and artists from across Canada, decided that artists should self-identify to avoid having an identity imposed on them. Jinny says that it is important that the researchers and the RAs do the initial work to build a base of knowledge about an artist and their work and then approach them to verify their profile and make corrections; this takes a significant burden off the artists.

So far, 54 profiles have been completed and added to the database. The Canadian BIPOC Artists Rolodex is not yet public, but the team expects to find a permanent home for it in 2024. The researchers have gathered the names of another 300 contemporary visual artists but, as Jinny says, they are only “just scratching the surface” because there are still so many more to include.

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