Kenneth Montague: 'Wear your culture on your sleeve'

Toronto's art gallery-curating dentist on 'blending personal goals with societal need' with the Class of 2016

Dr. Kenneth Montague (Markian Lozowchuk)

Dr. Kenneth Montague (Markian Lozowchuk)

Kenneth Montague’s commencement address to OCAD University in Toronto:

Good afternoon everyone. I would like to thank OCAD University President Sarah Diamond, Chancellor Kiki Delaney, and of course the selection committee, for awarding me this Honorary Doctorate. It is truly a privilege to receive such recognition.

We exist in a time of profound change—in technology and the environment, but also socially and spiritually. The need for art that inspires and design that serves the public in tangible ways has never been greater.

You are embarking on career paths that may well blend personal goals with societal need—and from my perspective, this is ideal. Some of you will choose direct paths: opening your own studios, forming collectives, working for established companies … or becoming educators for the next generation. Others will use their knowledge in less traditional ways: working as volunteers or facilitators both here at home and abroad, or moving away from your area of expertise and bringing your energy and new ideas to other fields. These are all possibilities … and every one of you has the option—and privilege—of doing anything that you want to do, from this day forward. My hope is that you’ll choose happiness—not prestige, not money—but happiness, as the foundation of your life plan.

Most often, personal happiness flows from the decision to be yourself, that is, to follow your heart over your head. It’s about what feels good, what feels right versus what everyone else thinks is best for you. For many of us, this is not such an easy and straightforward thing—we have personal and family responsibilities, and financial commitments to honour. But we should always be moving towards happiness. It’s about getting to know yourself and determining your own identity; choosing that path will create a deeply satisfying life … and one that might ultimately inspire and enrich others.

My own family story is instructive: I was born in Windsor, on the border of the United States, and raised by parents who emigrated from Jamaica. My father, Spurgeon Montague – who is with us today – first studied education at the University of Toronto, then completed his master’s in Industrial Arts in Detroit. He became one of Windsor’s first black high school teachers, and influenced an entire generation of students with his motivating style: a pursuit of excellence mixed with humour and a genuine love of his art and craft. All of this was achieved during a time of overt prejudice against new immigrants and visible minorities. His success was largely a product of hard work, self-belief and natural charm. He was proudly Canadian but never forgot his roots; as a family we spent nearly every summer back in Jamaica. He wore his culture on his sleeve simply by being himself. And yes, he retired a happy man.

My mother, who passed away last year, was a full-time dietician who gained her degree from New York University. She filled our home with books, and would regularly take my brother, sister and myself to the Detroit Institute of Arts, among other cultural institutions. Perhaps my parents’ greatest legacy was to instill in us a sense of curiosity and wonder. Even as a 10 year old, I loved the experience of public libraries and art galleries – and saw my own family story reflected in the photography of James VanDerZee and Gordon Parks, and in the mural art of Diego Rivera. From these seeds grew a serious passion for art and design – but also a desire to become a dentist, just like my older cousin back in Jamaica. Arriving at U of T’s dental school in the mid-80s was a memorable experience—not just for the academic program, but for the many surprises that moving to the big city afforded. I recall seeing a dynamic performance by the Jamaican singer Grace Jones at the Art Gallery of Ontario, meeting the artist Jean-Michel Basquiat in a nightclub, and being introduced to the cultural theorist Stuart Hall – a personal hero. These encounters echoed my rich experience with black culture in my teenage years: catching Blackspoitation films like Shaft, witnessing the birth of hip hop, and playing guitar with my reggae/punk band. I started to read about the civil rights era of the 1960s, the Black Power movement of the 1970s, and sought out the emerging scholarship around Black Identity Art of the 1980s.

Ten years into my dental career, with an increasing interest in contemporary African photography, I could no longer resist the internal voice urging me to create a space for black artists in Toronto. I opened a commercial gallery in my downtown loft that I called the Wedge—ostensibly for its appearance, but also as a metaphor for creating space for artists who didn’t have any. Over time, I discovered that storytelling was more satisfying than selling art, and Wedge Curatorial Projects was born. Our many exhibitions, workshops, lectures and panel discussions have introduced Torontonians to both emerging and established artists from the African Diaspora, and our touring shows have brought the African Canadian message to the world. In recent years, the global art market is finally recognizing the value—and brilliance—of contemporary African art and as a curator and collector of this work for the past 20 years, I feel so proud to have been part of this process.

Of course, it is deeply satisfying and endlessly enriching to live with art, but for those of you who create it—well, you get the added satisfaction of moving from concept to realization—and you can employ your talents in endless ways. The world will benefit, and you will be happy. What can be better than that?

Today you graduate from OCAD U—an internationally renowned university. You have earned the keys to a brilliant future. And so I say to all of you—and especially to those who have felt marginalized, or are visible or not-so-visible minorities—to you I say: be exactly who you are … and wear your culture on your sleeve with pride. Your difference is, in fact, your strength. And in the years to come, in whatever you do, your strength will make a difference.

In the words of the late, great Muhammad Ali: “I don’t have to be who you want me to be; I’m free to be who I want.”

Thank you for this great honour. Congratulations and peace and love to you all.

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