Artist Oluseye Ogunlesi builds a Black Ark to explore Canada’s colonial history


What looks like the hull of a long-lost ship has appeared at Toronto’s Ashbridges Bay – a haunting installation by Nigerian-Canadian artist Oluseye Ogunlesi exploring Canada’s ‘forgotten’ role in the Trans-Atlantic slave trade.

Dubbed Black Ark, the 12-ft-tall immersive sculptural installation is presented as part of the Luminato Toronto Arts Festival. It’s conceived as a ‘symbolic home’ to commemorate the survivors of slavery, with its form evoking both the pitched silhouette of a chapel and the bow of a ship.

Most Canadians are familiar with the Trans-Atlantic slave trade when viewed through the lens of the US and subsequent civil war, and children are taught about the Underground Railroad at school – the secret network which transported enslaved African Americans from the States to ‘freedom’ in Upper Canada.

But the pivotal role Canadian shipyards had, building over 60 ships to transport stolen people from Africa to the American continent, is less well known. Or that ports such as Halifax hosted slavers ships (according to The Coast, the last ship to transport Africans to slavery was actually helmed by a Nova Scotian). 

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Black Ark’s charred, weather-proof skin is inspired by the beach houses along the Ivory Coast, which are stained black using diesel sediment. The interior, meanwhile, features an intricate, triangulated skeleton inspired by the wooden ceilings of the Diola people’s homes in Senegal, inset with polished aluminium that distorts the viewer’s reflection.

And while viewers enter the artwork through a 12-ft-high doorway, its cavernous interior becomes smaller and more claustrophobic as you move deeper into the space towards the exit, which at just under 5 ft tall, makes most the viewer duck down as they tumble out into the daylight. It’s a disorientating though intently curated experience elicited by the sculpture.

Oluseye Ogunlesi tells us how a broken mirror led him on a journey of reflection and how he hopes Black Ark will encourage visitors to lean into their discomfort – and celebrate Black culture.Photography: Cassandra Popescu

Tell us about the genesis of Black Ark? How did the project evolve into a physical structure?

Oluseye Ogunlesi: I’ve been collecting broken mirrors for three years. I wasn’t entirely sure what I would do with them when I started, but I knew I wanted them to represent the lives of enslaved people sold into the Trans-Atlantic slave trade in exchange for mirrors.

The idea for Black Ark really came from there. I was thinking of a more refined way to communicate that idea that wasn’t just plastering mirrors on a wall. Me and the architect, Toluwalase Rufai, decided to use the mirrors as the inspiration for the structure and recreate that shattered mirror effect and the sense of distortion you get from the mirrors by using polished aluminium [on the Black Ark’s interior].

Describe being inside the Black Ark.

Ogunlesi: We can never emulate the experience of being on a slave ship, but we wanted Black Ark to have a disorientating effect. We achieved that through the mirrors and how sound travels in and echoes inside the structure.

When you walk into the Black Ark through its 12ft high entrance – the ‘freedom’ end – you can see your reflection inside, at the correct scale of 1:1. But as you progress into the structure, your reflection is broken up into many more pieces – it is distorted. That’s how I wanted to capture that stripping of one’s culture and identity, as with enslavement.

The shorter end [of the structure] is just under 5 ft tall. During my research, we found that 4 ft was typically the maximum height enslaved people had in the hold of these ships. As you exit Black Ark through the shorter end, the idea is that you make yourself smaller for a very brief moment. Again, not to emulate. But to evoke a feeling of discomfort that brings to the forefront the reality of what life might have been like on a slave ship.

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