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UTSC alumna makes waves with striking exhibits on race issues

A still from "Try A Little Tenderness" where the artist places cotton candy on herself, in an attempt to highlight stereotypes against Black women. (Photo courtesy of Danièle Dennis)

You see the face of a young Black woman. She begins to place pink cotton candy on her eyes, nose and cheeks. As the camera pulls back, opera music plays louder and louder. A bright pink background surrounds her as she continues to place more of the pink candy all over her face. The piece is meant to highlight the stereotype of the “angry black woman.”

The woman is artist and U of T Scarborough alumna Danièle Dennis. The installation is called Try A little Tenderness, one of three video performances that were showcased at the New Gallery in Calgary this past May.

The performance art piece will be featured once more at La Centrale Galerie Powerhouse in Montreal until June 26th. Dennis’s other works also delve into racial identity issues. Recent tragedies such as the Black Lives Matter protests in Toronto remind her that the messages raised by her work are more important than ever.

“There’s so much systemic oppression that still perseveres. Because it’s not something that’s necessarily visible to the naked eye, people are quick to assume that racism has been abolished, especially in Canada,” she says.

Seeing the way her male family members, including her younger brother, are treated by police inspires her performances.

“There’s always a level of fear. Because of factors like the way they dress, baggy pants and hoodies for example, they have to adhere to respectability politics when dealing with police,” Dennis explains. “There are certain ways in which you are almost told to act in order to prevent certain things from happening.”

The dangers that come when people are labelled under a certain category make Dennis aware of how identifying as a Black female artist can be problematic. Dennis explores how that identification influences the way audiences interpret her installations.  

She worries that her title will be ascribed to pieces do not necessarily speak about race and gender issues in the Black community. Dennis says that race can lead to these difficult conversations, which she hopes to spark through her work.

“For me, art is creation. Creation gets certain thoughts out. Maybe you’re not great at articulating exactly what it is that you wish to say, but then through art, you have a different language. It’s a visual language that triggers people on a different level,” she says.

Dennis, who specialized in Arts and Culture and minored in Art History, says that her time at UTSC was instrumental in her growth as an artist.

“I caught the feeling that the professors really cared about my progress and success. If you were a student who was really invested in your work and you gave 120%, they were matching that level with you.”

Aside from her solo projects, Dennis along with three other UTSC alumni founded Y+ Contemporary, an artist-run gallery based in Scarborough that aims to mentor local artists. In September, she is headed to the University of Pennsylvania to pursue her Masters of Fine Arts after receiving a full scholarship.

For Dennis, her art will always be about exploration.

“I don’t necessarily want to tell you how to think. I want to get you to start thinking.”


© University of Toronto Scarborough