The shape of a name: Guyanese-Canadian artist Sandra Brewster

For Guyanese-Canadian artist Sandra Brewster, the phone book, with its long lists of names, sums up the way individual lives can disappear into

Sandra Brewster. Photograph courtesy Sandra BrewsterUntitled (Plain Black) (2011–12), mixed media on wood, 48 x 60 inches. Photograph courtesy Sandra BrewsterUntitled (Smiths) (2012), mixed media on wood, 60 x 48 inches. Photograph courtesy Sandra BrewsterWall drawing at Alice Yard from Brewster’s Mohammeds installation. Photograph courtesy Sandra Brewster

“The history of Buenos Aires is written in its telephone directory,” suggested Bruce Chatwin in his book In Patagonia. The insight is true of most places. The phone book’s catalogue of names, democratically alphabetised, is an everyman’s census not only of the present, but of the past: the raw material for a story about how our forebears got here, where they came from.

But a list of names hides as much as it reveals, generalises as much as specifies. Take, for instance, a surname like “Smith,” the most common in many English-speaking places. The profusion of Smiths in, say, the Toronto telephone directory have thousands of personal stories, hopes, anxieties, desires, but ranked together in six-point type, all their individualities and idiosyncrasies melt into a grey mass. “The name Smith,” says artist Sandra Brewster, “conjures up ideas of sameness and commonality and invisibility, as there are so many.” But “of course not all Smiths are related, or look or act the same.”

For Brewster, the phone book both literally and metaphorically sums up the reality of a large, urban, multi-ethnic society, where individual lives are too easily subsumed into stereotypes about ethnic background, physical appearance, or geographical origin. As a member of Toronto’s Caribbean diaspora community — her parents migrated from Guyana in the late 1960s — Brewster understands this dilemma all too well. Her Smiths series of multimedia works, begun in 2004 and still evolving, is a playful attempt, as she puts it, to “offer a questioning around concerns of identity and representation.”

Brewster’s parents were part of the wave of northbound post-Independence migration that has left an indelible Caribbean imprint on contemporary Canada. When Brewster was nine, her family moved from Toronto — where she was born — east to Pickering, then a small town. During her adolescence, Pickering grew rapidly too, fed in part by other emigrants from around the world. After high school, Brewster joined the fine art programme at nearby York University, with one of Canada’s most diverse student bodies.

Brewster was an adult before she visited her parents’ home country for the first time, but growing up in the midst of an extended family — her grandparents and most of her other relatives had also moved to Canada — Guyana, or at least a remembered version of Guyana, never seemed far away. At the same time, as part of a “visible minority” in a cosmopolitan city, she was acutely aware of how media representations and public perceptions of the black Toronto community ignored the differences between people of various backgrounds, ideas, and tastes.

Brewster’s early work tackled this problem head-on. “I wanted realistic representations of folk,” she says, “and to question notions of beauty.” Her Cool series (1997–2000) collected large-scale and close-cropped portraits of what she called “cool demeanours — the tendency to wear invisible masks as a form of silent rebellion and protection.” “As time went on,” she later recalled in an interview, “I realised that the work was also a self-portrait. The people I represented were also a reflection of myself, of my family. There were all these solemn kinds of looks, introspective, reflective, very different from our images of happy-go-lucky, smiling, being cheerful all the time.” Her later Stance series (2003) of charcoal and Conté drawings documented the ways Caribbean immigrants to Canada from the 1950s to the 1980s presented themselves in their new country — “the clothes we wear, our public demeanour, gestures and speech,” she wrote. Again she employed close-cropped compositions, focused on her subjects’ torsos, and the small decisions about dress and posture with which they invent their public selves.

Eventually, Brewster found her creative interest wandering from literal portraiture. She began drawing faceless figures dressed in anonymous garments, their distinguishing features erased, apart from afro hairstyles — “which I was always interested in, as a visual form and a symbol.” The Smiths series emerged when she began cutting the “Smith” pages from the phone book and transposing the monotonous columns of type over the faces of her afro-headed characters. Rendered in acrylic paint and gel transfer on wood slabs, the characters — each identified only by a number — seemed caught in candid snapshots, paused in moments alternately mundane and fraught. Their expressionless faces and ambiguous gestures hint at narratives that remain unfathomable.

As time went on, Brewster began incorporating her Smiths characters into larger and more elaborate works. A newspaper image — a montage of faces of young black men killed by gun violence in Toronto — inspired a sequence of works assembling numerous faceless Smiths into tight grids. Sometimes these were juxtaposed with gel transfer images of young people that pointed back to Brewster’s earlier portraiture.

In early 2012, with the support of a grant from the Ontario Arts Council, Brewster took two months’ leave from her job at SKETCH — a community arts non-profit working with homeless youth — and boarded a plane for Trinidad. She arrived in Port of Spain just before Carnival, to take up a working residency at the contemporary art space Alice Yard. She’d come prepared to push ahead with the Smiths series, eager to see what fresh ideas this different location might suggest.

One new direction suggested itself as soon as she reached for the Trinidad and Tobago phone book. Alongside the expected slew of Smith listings, Brewster discovered the most common surname in the book was Mohammed — suggesting different kinds of stories and historical trajectories. She promptly decided that the works she made in Trinidad would share the new name.

Meanwhile, the Carnival season was swelling to its climax, and the streets of Woodbrook, around Brewster’s base at Alice Yard, were filled with music and the purposeful chaos of preparations for the masquerade. She fell in with a small artist-run mas band, joined in the final creative stages, and headed out into the streets of Port of Spain on Carnival Monday and Tuesday.

Brewster had participated before in Caribana, Toronto’s summertime Caribbean-style Carnival, but the scale of what she experienced in Port of Spain was something else. “Carnival allows you to think big,” she says. Going back to her temporary studio in the aftermath, Brewster asked herself how she could use this sense of expansiveness to push the Smiths/Mohammeds series further.

The answer was to go three-dimensional. Introduced to a metal-fabrication workshop in downtown Port of Spain, she designed sculptural versions of her Mohammeds figures, aluminium silhouettes that could be replicated in the dozens. At the exhibition which marked the end of her residency, Brewster arranged these in the courtyard at Alice Yard, alongside paintings on white fabric banners, installations of works on paper, and large wall drawings in the modest gallery spaces.

Lit with spotlights at floor level, the aluminium Mohammeds threw shadows across the small space that seemed to shift as viewers walked through the installation. The audience’s own shadows joined the panorama of silhouettes, each person’s form refined to a faceless shape — walking versions of Brewster’s anonymous figures.

It was a masquerade and a shadow-play at the same time, and eerily beautiful: mysterious manifestations of Brewster’s drawings brought to life. And for the few hours of the exhibition, whoever its viewers might have been, their shadows had no names.