Constructing ‘race spaces’: Sheila Pree Bright talk directs Vancouver through spaces of racial inequality

Through her pieces critiquing societal conventions of beauty and physicality to those linking the new to the old, award-winning photographer Sheila Pree Bright led the audience of What Do Pictures Want through her beginnings as a photographer and to her current role as a social activist.

The talk was held at the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra School of Music on October

23 — the start to a multi-day International Research Roundtable conference hosted by UBC’s Peter Wall Institute for Advanced Studies.

Pree Bright had not visited Canada prior to her talk.

Unaware of whether the issues concerning racial inequality and discrimination so evident in American societies were also present in Canada, Pree Bright initially hesitated to speak of race in the context of Vancouver, instead calling upon infamous reputations of Canadian amiability and politeness.

But by the end of her talk, Pree Bright made one thing clear: Vancouver has a race problem. Vancouver has a race problem because, in the simplest sense, everywhere has a race problem.

Race problems are global, border transcending problems.

An open discussion evolved into conversations about misrepresentations of Canada as a ‘safe space’ isolated from racial discrimination, the demolition of Hogan’s Alley — and consequent displacement of Vancouver’s Black community — and the use of derogatory slurs in public areas.

Pree Bright insisted on the creation and maintenance of ‘race spaces’: domains in which individuals can openly and directly discuss racism, such as the What Do Pictures Want event. These areas would also allow people to actively grasp global issues rather than dismissing such challenges with ‘them, not us’ mentalities.

From her work “Plastic Bodies” to “#1960Now,” Pree Bright’s art helps construct these race spaces.

Occupying meaningful space through art

['auto'] Shelby Pree Bright

Etched onto the side of Stone Mountain in Atlanta, Georgia is a depiction of three Confederate figures. So, when Pree Bright visited the mountain to document white nationalist protests, she was stunned to capture a young Black woman holding a Confederate flag high.

“How does one occupy this space with so much symbolism?” Pree Bright said while telling this story at What Do Pictures Want.

A conversation with the flagbearer taught Pree Bright that the young woman was merely attempting to indicate the insignificance of the flag, but the nuanced meanings within the photograph further developed the artist’s interest in the power of an image. This power is also portrayed clearly throughout Pree Bright’s photography: her art-show debut included a photo of rapper Class C pointing a gun directly at her camera and to this day, she remains unsure of whether the gun was loaded.

Pree Bright’s black-and-white photographs disrupt viewers’ senses of linear history while also transcending temporal boundaries to portray an interconnectedness between the old and the new. At What Do Pictures Want, Pree Bright emphasized the need for past generations to share their stories and for present-day activists to be willing to seek advice and inspiration from their forebearers.

“The African American fight for justice and equality is a continuous fight,” said Pree Bright. “Current activists are still fighting the fights of their parents and grandparents.”

What Do Pictures Want taught audience members to “observe the love in the image” and challenge mainstream representations of that love to showcase individuality, beauty and power beyond the confines of racialized social norms and expectations.

The evening concluded with a book-signing of “#1960Now” and a continued discussion as audience members were left questioning their relocation from deafeningly silent safe spaces to Pree Bright’s active, powerful “race spaces.”