Blind Contour Homage “Sweet Peas” 1911 – Edith Hester Macdonald-Brown
Thanks to a frustrating tangle of social, historical, and geographical circumstances, very little is known about the African-Canadian artist, Edith Hester Macdonald-Brown.
Born in Nova Scotia in 1880, Macdonald-Brown may have attended art school in Montreal before returning home, where she married William Brown. Because her works are signed “Edith Macdonald,” it is generally believed she painted them before marriage.
However, although she must have created many pieces, few survive. The rest fell victim to the racist policies inflicted upon her community, Africville. A neighbourhood founded in the mid-1800s on the outskirts of Halifax and populated predominantly by African-Canadians (many of whom settled in Nova Scotia after escaping slavery south of the border), Africville suffered for decades from deficient infrastructure. According to the Canadian Museum for Human Rights (CMHR), the City of Halifax denied requests from the residents of Africville for clean water, appropriate sewage systems, and garbage removal. Yet, despite their social and political neglect, Africville was a thriving and close-knit community, building together a school, church, and shops.
But in 1964, the City of Halifax decided to take Africville’s land for its own development. Claiming interest in Africville’s health and living standards, it forced all residents to relocate to different neighbourhoods across Halifax. Some home-owners were paid for the price of their house; most were forced out with little or no compensation, all while their homes were bulldozed and their sense of community was torn apart.
Sunday Miller, the Executive Director of the Africville Heritage and Trust, explained to Mallory Richard (a blogger for the CMHR), that the citizens of Africville had tried “to create a community that the government wasn’t willing for them to have. When they took them off this land and forced them to be a ward of the government, which is what happened for those who went into social housing, you took their dignity from them.”
Dignity was not the community’s only casualty. While some of its artifacts remain—displayed in the Africville Museum—many were destroyed, including all but four of Macdonald-Brown’s paintings. In fact, hardly anyone even knew that Macdonald-Brown’s art existed until David Woods, artistic director of the Black Artists Network of Nova Scotia (BANNS), curated the 1998 exhibition In This Place: Black Art in Nova Scotia. Through his own “door to door” research, he uncovered Macdonald-Brown’s work in an effort to counter the widely held assumption that Nova Scotia doesn’t “have any black art.”
The only Macdonald-Brown painting ever to be exhibited is Sweet Peas (1911), a still life of a vase of flowers, but it has gone missing. Macdonald-Brown’s granddaughter, Geraldine Parker, now holds the four extant paintings—one still life and three landscapes. They depict a vibrant Romantic countryside—scenes whose inspiration remains a mystery. For instance, her 1906 untitled oil painting of a herd of cattle suggests not only a rich pastoral setting, but also, perhaps, a metaphor for colonial conquest—an observation about race and power that would bear great relevance on the fate of most of Macdonald-Brown’s oeuvre.
1880 – Halifax, Nova Scotia
1956 – Halifax, Nova Scotia
Canadian Women Artists History Initiative: Artist Database. “MacDonald-Brown, Edith Hester.” https://cwahi.concordia.ca/sources/artists/displayArtist.php?ID_artist=5711
Johnson, Adrienne. Through African Canadian Eyes: Landscape Painting by Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Century African Canadians. MA Thesis, Concordia University, 2015.
Richard, Mallory. “The Story of Africville.” February 23, 2017. Canadian Museum for Human Rights. https://humanrights.ca/blog/black-history-month-story-africville
Simmonds, Veronica. “Uncovering History.” The Coast, February 16, 2012. https://www.thecoast.ca/halifax/uncovering-history/Content?oid=2958695
Virtual Museum Canada. “1906: Expanding History: Edith Hester Macdonald-Brown.” https://150ans150oeuvres.uqam.ca/en/artwork/1906-untitled-by-edith-hester-macdonald-brown/#description