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Curating with Care in Calgary

Updated: Sep 13, 2023

Portrait of a Black woman named Kadra Yusuf wearing a flat-brimmed hat
Kadra Yusuf, Artistic Director of EMMEDIA

This story was written by oualie frost, arts editor at Afros in Tha City for The Rozsa Foundation. frost writes about ​​Black and biracial experiences, mental health, and anything related to arts and creativity. Since 2020, there has been a welcome increase of Black arts workers in Alberta. Though this hopefully signals positive changes towards increases in the breadth of experiences represented in the arts, there is more to it than simply hiring more diverse employees. Kadra Yusuf is a mixed media artist with a heavy focus on film based in Calgary/ Moh’kinsis and is the inaugural Artistic Director for EMMEDIA, a non-profit media arts center in the Sunalta area. Over a few conversations, I had the opportunity to discuss with Kadra various ins-and-outs of what it is like working as one of Alberta’s few Black arts administrators as well as how it impacts her curatorial approach.

The Start

“I didn’t have a conventional start,” says Kadra. “I didn’t get any formal training at AUA or SAIT. I was working many different jobs until I applied for the Herland Female Mentorship Program. It was through Herland that I got connected with and started working for a grassroots collective. There, I ended up facilitating between the artists and the contractors who hired us. It felt similar to producing in a way. Looking back, that was my start in arts admin.” While Kadra’s start in arts administration came about somewhat organically, her path has been anything but easy. Pearls of incremental change amongst what at times felt like a sea of performativity and complex internal “politics” (drama) had been occurring regarding Blackness and the arts in Calgary/Alberta since 2020. Discussing what we had seen happen and our frustrations surrounding those times, Kadra and I learned that we both have had periods of giving up on the arts world as an act of self-preservation. “I basically told myself I wasn't going to work in the arts at all,” Kadra recalls. “I got a job working minimum wage at a restaurant. Because I was like, I would rather work in any other field.” Passion, however, and a desire for change brought Kadra back. When the position at EMMEDIA opened up, she saw the chance to affect real change in the arts community and pursued the idea. “Then there was the opportunity to actually be an arts leader, which allowed me to create the change I wanted to see,” she says. “I was so frustrated beforehand, but I didn't have any power or say and that was really the reason I applied [to be Artistic Director], and it's still what I advocate for in my role. Who are we not reaching? It's our job to reach them, not to have them have to come to us. It's our job to fill in those gaps and meet people where they're at and find those people because I don't want to have it be the same six people I see all the time. There's more than six Black artists and yet, how many can people actually see?”

The Keys to an Empty City

Being the first person hired into a new role and feeling like she had to be a “model minority,” Kadra struggled with a lack of training and clarity.

“When I said ‘what does the job look like?’ they were like ‘you get to create it’,” Kadra remembers. “But that also meant that there was no one there to train me. So it felt very much like ‘We did it. We hired a black person here.’ You have the keys to the office, you have the keys to the city or whatever, but the city is empty…they didn't have training and they didn't have BIPOC specific training. I had to demand that.”

Thankfully, EMMEDIA was very receptive to the things Kadra needed to do her best work.

She quickly realized that her ability to self-advocate was one of the most important skills for success. Through expressing the need for things such as the ability to travel and attend conferences that allowed her to meet other racialized arts workers, Kadra builds blocks that allow her to succeed at her job, hopefully suggesting new standards to help future racialized art workers as well.

Despite many of these hopefully good-faith efforts at decolonizing arts administration, issues with racism unfortunately still exist alongside a frequent, general lack of preparedness to handle Black employees in organizations with very white pasts.

“I need arts organizations to realize that their job doesn't end the minute they hire someone of colour,” Kadra explains. “That's when it starts…For example, an organization might end up accidentally putting this huge legacy of racism onto a Black director. The fact that I now feel I have to represent everything…That's so much pressure to put on one person.”

Kadra and I each shared multiple instances, both personally experienced and witnessed, of racism/microaggressions in the workplace, a lack of adequate ways to address them, and in issues regarding attrition of Black arts administrators.

“There needs to be a focus in the arts on BIPOC retention,” she remarks “If you can't even keep them because they're so overworked and stressed out [or experiencing workplace trauma] that they won't be here two years from now, then the [way we are currently doing things] needs to change.”

Curating with Care

Despite the challenges of being not only an organization’s first Artistic Director, but also a Black employee working in a racially charged and turbulent, yet almost forcefully placid sector, Kadra finds herself happy and grateful for where she is.

“All that being said, there is much joy in what I do,” she explains. “I love that I get to create the change I wish to see within the local arts sector, and have the resources to do so. As the Artistic Director of EMMEDIA, I get to create opportunities for equity deserving communities. I’m more interested in dedicating my time towards that [than the negative aspects].”

The passion Kadra has for this and her personal experiences also affects her curatorial approach.

“There is always a level of care when it comes to my curation and management style. By virtue of my own anti-Black experiences, I have to go into each decision with a level of care… I would say that being Black informs my curatorial practice in the same way that it informs everything that I do. But it started with instituting systemic changes and big shifts at my current organization. Because I have experienced a lot of anti-Black rhetoric working in this local arts industry, removing it and creating a safe work environment had to come first. It was only then that I was able to create the programming I hoped to see in the city. And this is something that has mostly only occurred since around 2020.

“Another thing is that as a Black arts leader, it is important for all communities not to feel exploited… According to 2020 data, EMMEDIA has been showing more Black artists on average than other artist-run centers in Calgary, but like all arts organizations, [EMMEDIA] has a lot of work to do. For example, when it comes to diversifying exhibitions, I won’t only exhibit Black artists in February to fit some sort of programming schedule. When it comes to other people of colour, The term ‘Nothing About Us Without Us’ is at the forefront of my mind at all times. Therefore, partnering with curators from other communities also has to occur.

“Oftentimes institutions can feel rushed to exhibit/showcase diverse artists and they do it quickly, but not correctly. For me, it is important to take the time to program correctly. Do it right, not fast. This isn’t a race, there is no award.

“Lastly, I am always willing to expand the conversation. At times it has been embraced, and other times, it has been challenged. But finding ways to showcase local diverse artists is something I feel called to do. Because in a population of 1.3 million, it doesn’t make sense not to.”

We do not want to see the energy and changes 2020 sparked to fade merely into memory, nor do we want to see the same oppressive systems of operation be reenacted with different players. Through self-advocating for a more psychologically sustainable work environment and practicing critical care in curation, Kadra Yusuf is taking firmly-planted steps in the right direction.


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