When Joseph Ahissou first moved to Canada from his home in the Republic of Benin, he became distinctly aware of a part of his identity for the first time.
“I was not that aware of the colour of my skin. I was not even aware of the fact that I am a Black person,” Ahissou says. “As soon as I reached here, that became something right in front of me. It’s obvious. The first question when you meet someone and greet each other is ‘where are you from?’”
This instance of self-discovery prompted the idea for the inaugural Black and Proud Festival at Théâtre Cercle Molière (TCM). This February – concurrent with Black History Month – the celebration returns for its third edition, with four weeks of programming.
Along with co-founder Wilgis Agossa, Ahissou hosted the first edition in a limited capacity as a photo exhibition.
“Wilgis and I, we share a common passion for photography. We asked every person we photographed, ‘what is your story?’” Ahissou says.
“Some people came here because they are refugees, and there is war in the country. Others come because they started here. Others because they are professionals seeking international experience.”
This year’s festival includes a photo exhibition, gala dinner, poetry slam competition, a market for Black-owned local businesses, workshops, film screenings and more.
With six pieces on display, local painter Xavier Mutshipayi is one of several participating artists. He cites the work of Congolese artist Lema Kusa as a particular source of inspiration, among others.
“I get inspiration from everywhere in the world: pictures, different artists. People around me inspire me, as I usually work with portraits,” Mutshipayi says. “As an artist, it’s about more than staying in the studio and simply painting. It’s important to participate in the community.”
As this year’s theme is togetherness, the festival prioritized accessibility.
“We want everyone to be able to know what is happening and where it is happening. Everything we’re doing, we made sure to have the French and English version,” Ahissou says.
Beyond mere language accessibility, Ahissou encourages all, regardless of race, to be educated and celebrate the complexity of Black history.
“It’s not only about Black people. Being here, I’ve been supported not only by Black people and people from my country, but people who are not Black from Canada but who have helped me to discover this country, to have a better life here, to live a dream,” he says.
“You may be a minority, but at the same time, people need that minority to feel complete. It’s complementary. I feel I’m completing something in someone’s life.”
Ahissou hopes the success of the festival can, ultimately, give back to the community that has welcomed him with open arms.
“Long-term, the target is to be able to raise an amount each year as scholarships, as tuition for people. Not necessarily Black people ... this is our way of making life here better for everyone,” he says.
Visit exponoiretfier.com for a full itinerary on this month’s Black and Proud Festival events at TCM.
Published in Volume 78, Number 17 of The Uniter (February 8, 2024)