Whitehot Magazine

Barbara Moore: Life, Lessons and Legacy

Barbara Moore, The Protector: Family Spirit (Acrylic and Paper Collage on Canvas), Courtesy of the Artist


By BYRON ARMSTRONG March 26, 2024

Why have I never heard of Barbara Moore?

Upon learning of her upcoming retrospective Barbara Moore: Life, Lessons and Legacy, this was my question. A Google search provides links to an exhibition of her family photographs as an archive of Black life, “Black Families & Historic Settlements”, at BAND Gallery in 2023. Although Moore took photography classes at OCAD University in the late 70s, she isn’t primarily a photographer. Her work spans a prolific practice involving watercolors, acrylic, and oil (which she’s stopped using due to an allergy), with an oeuvre that includes abstract and figurative painting, collage, and sculpture. Ink, pastels, paper, wood, cardboard, canvas, textiles, and wood are her materials of choice. Moore references Black history from the lens of personal memory, family history, literature, and mythology to reveal her experiences as an African-American woman with firmly established roots in her adopted home in Toronto, Canada. In the U.SMoore has exhibited work at the Scarab Club of Detroit, a supportive art gallery and community hub for Detroit’s artist community that remains in operation and is close to her heart. From 1995 onward, Moore was included in group shows through organizations like the Women’s Art Association of Canada and the Bantu Arts Collective, as well as four solo shows in untraditional spaces like the University of Toronto Faculty Club, libraries, and art centers. There is more history here than a narrative feature can cover. So why don’t you know who she is or understand the legacy she leaves behind?


“A gift by will, especially of money or other personal property.

Something transmitted by or received from an ancestor or predecessor or the past.

A candidate for membership in an organization who is given special status because of a familial relationship to a member.”

-Merriam-Webster Dictionary

Within art history, you will find a legacy of old masters and contemporary genius. Until fairly recently, this legacy was accredited to a sole group of male artists connected to the Eurocentric standard that came before them. No one can dispute the impact of impressionists like Édouard Manet or post-impressionist Paul Cézanne, the latter of whom Picasso dubbed the “father of us all” even though Picasso never dabbled in impressionism. Oddly, Picasso never gave that same due to the African craftspeople of ceremonial masks that directly inspired much of his work, an art form that predated the French master by thousands of years. Considering the “deepest, darkest” narrative of the continent at that time, why would he? Neither art historians nor art institutions applied any fair analysis of non-Western art made by Black or Brown hands — even though they “borrowed” liberally from them — and it was Picasso who famously asserted “great artists steal”. This isn’t a debate over whether we should retire the concept of appropriation in art. This is about the appropriation of art history to erase the legacy of Black artists (and craftspeople) who are worthy of their place in the canon. It’s easy to forget, with the relatively recent interest in Black artists — a market that expanded 400% between 2008 and 2022 but still only represents around 2% of acquisitions and 6% of exhibitions in the U.S., and less in Canada — that many Black artists only received “retrospectives” after death, or never at all.

Barbara Moore, Don Quixote in Detroit (Acrylic and Paper Collage on Canvas), Courtesy of the Artist.

Bill Traylor (ca. 1853 – 1949) was a formerly enslaved, self-taught artist who didn’t live to see the civil rights movement or see his 2018 Smithsonian retrospective, “Between Worlds: The Art of Bill Traylor”, 69 years after his death. Relegated to primitivism or outsider art, Traylor never cracked the art world before his burial in Montgomery, Alabama. Barbara Moore’s grandmother was part of the Great Migration of Black folks from the South to the North, settling in Detroit in the 1920s. She came from Alabama at a time when Traylor would have still been alive and making art. It’s in this way that Moore intersects with her forebear in artistry, their historical ties to transatlantic slavery, and the inexplicable ability of Black creativity to survive despite the nightmare of American racism. Legacies are borne on the backs of those that came before, with a goal of every successive generation feeling less weighed down than its predecessors. As such, Moore would go on to earn a Bachelor of Science in Art Education at Wayne State University while working as a supply art teacher in the Detroit Board of Education and preschool art program at community space Your Heritage House Museum. After graduation, she accepted an offer to teach art full-time at Vaughan Road Collegiate Institute in Toronto, where she moved with her young daughter in 1972.

No one could call Barbara Moore anything less than a classically trained professional artist. Yet, none of that spared her any struggle for recognition, much like her father, a university-educated bricklayer and construction worker whose segregated school photo serves as the inspiration for Who Are We? Why Are We Here? What Are We Supposed To Do? (Moore). To the left, a group of Black students, which include her father and uncle, stands apart from white students placed in front of them, a reality drawn from her father’s youth. To the right is an integrated schoolyard drawn from her memories as a teacher in Toronto, representing the struggles of past generations with the successes of the current. You can imagine the parallels between her father and uncle’s othering, and the exclusion of her artwork from galleries at the time — a subtle and sometimes not-so-subtle form of segregation suffered by Black artists across the diaspora. In Toronto, there was a push for more representation by Black artist collectives like the Diasporic African Women’s Art Collective (DAWA) which traveled across the country in 1989 with the first exhibition of Black women artists curated by Black women in Canada. The Canadian Artists Network: Black Artists In Action (CAN: BAIA) took more of a national, and eventually Pan-Africanist approach to the struggle. This international worldview led to the CELAFI (Celebrating African Identity) festival in 1992, which brought together Black artists and cultural producers from Africa, Europe, and the U.S. In the early 2000s, Barbara Moore became a founding member of the Bantu Art Collective that put on exhibitions like “Black: The Art Show” and participated in group shows including the “Mother Love” art exhibition alongside 40 other Black artists. Moore is part of what could be described as a Black artist renaissance in Toronto. Moore’s work deserves to be exhibited in a museum alongside other Black artists of her day, much like artists in “The Harlem Renaissance and Transatlantic Modernism” show currently at The MET. To be rewarded for 50 years of work with a solo show like Dindga McCannon, another Black woman artist with five decades or work who signed an exclusive contract with Fridman Gallery in 2021 at 73 years old, would be fitting.

Barbara Moore, Who Are We? Why Are We Here? What Are We Supposed To Do? Courtesy of the Artist.

Denyse Thomasos was a Black Trinidadian-born artist who eventually decamped to New York City (via Toronto) after years of struggle to be seen and have her work appreciated. She died a short decade before her artwork became one of the most talked about at The Whitney Biennale in 2022, followed by a traveling retrospective of her work. Thomasos has described her work as being ”about survival” and “how a psychologically broken spirit can thrive in spite of its own complexities.” Like Moore, Thomasos spent years as an arts educator while working toward success as an artist. Moore and Thomasos had actually met in Toronto as working artists, and Thomasos was a peer she held in high esteem. Moore shares another relationship with the Caribbean, albeit peripheral. A large percentage of the Black diaspora in Toronto can trace roots back to the Caribbean, and as such, engaging with the Black community meant meeting a lot of people from islands like Trinidad. Moore gained an appreciation for Caribbean culture and literature. This newfound connection moved her to manifest The Protector: Family Spirit (Moore), a representation of ancestral spirits referred to in the Caribbean as duppies. While often considered malevolent in the Caribbean — as depicted by  Christopher Welch and William Cummins's exhibition this past January at the Gallery of Caribbean Art — Moore reflects her positive bond with the community that embraced her with a “friendly ghost” that protects rather than haunts. It could be tempting to point out that the representation of the spirit in question is close to an African ceremonial mask, which would contain some influence from Picasso. It might be fair to say, but considering where Picasso appropriated his idea, it could be more accurate to say Moore is pulling from her own ancestral memory of West African practices that evoked spirits through the wearer of them.

Barbara Moore, The Bar at the Trane Studio (Acrylic on Canvas), Courtesy of the Artist.

“Legacy” is a complicated concept. It can connect you to times, places, and people that don’t always seem quite right. In “The Bar at the Trane Studio” Moore has injected herself into Édouard Manet’s “A Bar at the Folies-Bergère”, Manet’s last major work created while battling the terminal illness that would kill him a year later. While Manet was likely focused on the things he most enjoyed like revelry in French bars in the 19th Century, Moore “borrows” from the theme to place herself at the center of the painting. Considering the amount of time Moore has spent trying to be seen as a Black woman artist within a Western colonial concept of art, it is an act of rebellion to place herself at the center. To the far right, she has even painted someone of great importance to her, her partner of many years, Morris (since deceased), smartly dressed in a top hat and coiffed goatee. Her choice of artist to “appropriate” is also interesting when you look at how Manet has represented Black women in his paintings. In “Olympia” Manet paints a Black woman servant presenting flowers to the white, nude central figure Olympia, presumably a sex worker. The presentation is reminiscent of something like an offering to a goddess. The Black servant is relegated to the role of worshipper, pushed to the side, with the only thing blacker than the servant — a black cat — pushed further away from the bared beauty of the “white goddess” Olympia. By repositioning herself in a Manet painting where another white woman stood, Moore isn’t just making herself visible but is also giving agency to all Black women painted with the same brush under the white gaze. Both artist and muse, Moore centers Blackness in a Western art canon that has overlooked artists of her shade to its detriment.

There’s a direct line that connects the posthumous hopes and achievements of Black artists like Bill Traylor and Denyse Thomasos to the living retrospective of a still very alive Barbara Moore — hope that we are prepared to give our Black legacy builders their flowers while they still grace us with their presence. Unlike Black artists gone before her, Moore has survived past the period of being “too black” for commercial galleries and their collectors, or too Black for museums and major institutions. As institutions and art dealers move to diversify their artist rosters, Barbara Moore would be an unearthed gem that has always been here, buried just beneath the surface like a seed waiting to germinate. Her legacy is one that will grow in spite of an art world that has refused to see it.

Barbara Moore: Life, Lessons and Legacy — a retrospective exhibition of paintings, collages and watercolors spanning 50 years — is on view from Tuesday, March 26th to July 31st at Caliban Arts Theatre at CONTXT by Trane located at 254 Lansdowne Avenue, Toronto. WM


Byron Armstrong

Byron Armstrong is an award-winning freelance journalist and writer who investigates the intersections between arts and culture, lifestyle, and politics. Find him on Instagram @thebyproduct and on Linkedin https://www.linkedin.com/in/byron-armstrong

view all articles from this author