For a new exhibition at the Gibsons Public Art Gallery, the Sunshine Coast Black History Month Collective selected a Kenya-born artist seemingly drawn by destiny to the liminal landscapes of the Salish Sea.
“Our move to the West Coast came about like a gift from the divine,” said painter Ezmina Samaroo. “We were certainly guided.”
Samaroo’s collection of oils — Distant Shores New Horizons — opened with a public reception on Feb. 3 in the gallery’s newly-inaugurated Joe’s Lounge.
The arrangement of Samaroo’s paintings reflect her lifetime’s journey across three continents. In works like At the Morning Hour, diaphanous light spills onto murk-shrouded hills of East Africa. Verdant settings in England (represented in canvases like Spring Song) beam with earthy jubilation. Depictions of the Canadian prairies — inspired by her three decades of residency in Edmonton — portray the portentousness of clouds (as in the weighty vastness of What We Have Always Known). Finally, Samaroo’s recent move to British Columbia reveals distinctive moods of its mountain-rimmed coasts: a gossamer band of moonlight breaks over jagged peaks in It Is Darkest Before the Dawn; sunset hues warm the rippled sea in The Ocean Breeze Whispers.
Samaroo captures the essence of natural light that is characteristic to each locale. “My goal, if I have one, is to convey that feeling of where I am,” said Samaroo.
Identity and geography are inexorably entwined in her work. Samaroo’s great-grandparents emigrated from India, settling in Africa. She was born in Mombasa and lived on Africa’s east coast not far from the Indian Ocean until moving to the U.K. at the age of nine. Her paintings of the so-called Swahili Coast, inhabited by Bantu-speaking Africans who had migrated from the interior of the continent, reject staid stereotypes.
“These are paintings of Africa,” she said, “but there is no bush, there’s no safari. What’s important to me is the ocean. I’m inspired to show the essence of the world around me through simplicity and abstraction. And I strive to convey a sense of serenity and calm even within the stormiest seas and skies.”
Complexity is synonymous with Black heritage, explained Denise Brown, a leader of the Black History Month Collective.
“There are many, many ways to be Black,” said Brown. “The continent and the diaspora are huge. And we have all come here via many different directions.”
Samaroo went more than four decades without touching a paintbrush, busy with the work of raising a family and professional commitments as a realtor. Then, in 2021, she signed up for an online painting class with Langdale-based artist Marlene Lowden, followed by an in-person course.
“It took three days of being here to decide that this is where we wanted to spend the rest of our lives,” said Samaroo. The word Swahili literally signifies people of the coast. “When I read this, it just made complete sense to me,” she added. “That’s who I am. I’m a person of the coast.”
The theme for this year’s initiatives organized by the Black History Month Collective is Black Excellence. The group has worked in partnership with GPAG since 2020 to highlight artists who embody Black heritage and innovation.
Distant Shores New Horizons remains on display at the Gibsons Public Art Gallery until Feb. 29.