Connected \\ July 25, 2023
How a private art collection became As We Rise: A word with collector Dr. Kenneth Montague
Dr. Kenneth Montague is a Toronto-based dentist and art collector, and the founder of the nonprofit Wedge Curatorial Projects. Just in time for celebrating Juneteenth, PEM opened As We Rise: Photography from the Black Atlantic, dedicated to artists of the African diaspora. The exhibition looks at the myriad experiences of Black life through the lenses of community, identity and power. We sat down with Dr. Montague to learn how and why he started collecting and what living with and exhibiting these photographs means to him.
Kenneth Montague at the opening of As We Rise at PEM. Photo by Kathy Tarantola/PEM
Q: What is the Wedge Collection?
A: The Wedge Collection is an art collection. It's primarily photography, but it's also branched into painting, sculptures and some video art. It's a collection that I started back in 1997, so it's over 25 years old now. There's a line that runs through all of these works, and that line is around this idea of artistic practices that are peripheral to the Atlantic. This idea that the U.K., Africa, South America, the Caribbean, United States, Canada – these are places that obviously reverberate with the legacy of slavery. In a lot of ways, the Black Atlantic is my story, and it's what I was interested in as an art collector: hearing more stories, hearing the many different ways of being Black over time and through that geographic region. The collection is a reflection of my own story, which is that my parents came to Canada as immigrants from the Caribbean. We were like an island in our small town of Windsor across from Detroit, Michigan. It was a way for me to explore my own identity.
Zun Lee, Jebron Felder and his son Jae’shaun at home, Harlem, New York, September 2011, from As We Rise: Photography from the Black Atlantic (Aperture, 2021). Courtesy Zun Lee, from the Father Figure Project.
Q: Why is it called the Wedge Collection?
A: The name Wedge started because I used to hold these Sunday afternoon salons, a kind of a meeting place/art opening in my loft in Toronto. It was a wedge-shaped space where I was showing the art, so Wedge Gallery. Over time, these events became successful. The name stuck as a way of thinking about wedging artists who I was passionate about into the mainstream of contemporary art, into the story of art.
Q: What do all of these photographs have in common?
A: As a collector, I was never interested in images of oppression. I grew up with so many images of Black people that were about hunger, starvation, war, oppression. I felt, in a very inherent, very personal way, that my mission was to pull out more images about uplift and about achievement, more images about the beauty of ordinary Black life, which were lacking in the media when I was growing up. For me, the Wedge Collection is this sense of moving forward in time, support through community, and the sense of brotherly, sisterly love.
James Barnor, Drum Cover Girl Erlin Ibreck, Kilburn, London (detail), 1966, from As We Rise: Photography from the Black Atlantic (Aperture, 2021). © James Barnor / Courtesy of galerie Clémentine de la Féronnière.
As a 10-year-old, I would go across the river to the Detroit Institute of Arts, and I can remember seeing beautiful works like James Van Der Zee's Couple in Raccoon Coats, a 1930s Harlem Renaissance photograph that was burned in my brain even as a little kid. I carried these ideas of almost a Black imaginary, like “what could life be like in different places and different eras?” It was an education project for myself about my own community, not having it so present in my life day to day, growing up in a small Canadian town.
Dr. Kenneth Montague being interviewed by our team. Photo by Ellie Dolan/PEM.
Q: Tell us a little bit about the music in the gallery.
A: I was so thrilled when the curator at PEM, Stephanie Tung, called me to say she had a vision for the show here that would be revolving around music. She had visited me in Toronto and saw how important music was to me. We drove around in my car playing music. She knew how deeply music affected me. As a collector, I can't think of these images without seeing them in my home, above my bed, in my private study, music playing while I'm with my family in my home. In my dental clinic, music playing while I'm seeing images by Jamel Shabazz in my waiting room, or a photograph by Kehinde Wiley at the reception desk. Always the music playing in the background. Music is for me almost like I can look at the picture and hear the sounds, hear the music. It's all one thing for me.
Stephanie ended up going back to soundtracks that I'd created, some of them 20 years ago. In the galleries, you'll hear music by artists like Sean Paul, who's a dancehall singer, DJ and producer from Jamaica. There'll be music that you'll hear from various artists from Brazil, from the U.K., like Massive Attack, groups that I love, music that I grew up enjoying. For me, music has always been right there as an artistic expression, just like art collecting.
Kennedi Carter, Untitled (Self-Portrait), 2020, from As We Rise: Photography from the Black Atlantic (Aperture, 2021). Courtesy Kennedi Carter.