Most first dates take place in a neutral, average setting — a coffee shop, maybe a chain restaurant.
But this first date was a more elaborate affair. The meeting scene was a sectioned-off exhibit in the Art Gallery of Ontario, with a host of vividly patterned chairs and ottomans in one of the living rooms designed by artist Mickalene Thomas for her solo exhibit.
Left and right, knots of Black women and gender non-conforming artists sat, and chatted, grinned at each other and looked around for someone to talk to while they waited for their photo to be taken before moving downstairs for a meal.
Admittedly, with 100 attendees, it was more a party than a date. But it was no less intimate and butterfly-inducing as a first date, because it was an important first. Some of those in attendance knew each other prior to the event, but this was the first time that we as a group all pulled ourselves from behind a phone screen to a physical place. It was a party with maybe some unfamiliar faces, but, at the very least, everyone would probably know your name.
In April 2016, artist Anique Jordan started a group chat on the messaging app Whatsapp and titled it "Black Wimmin Artist," for black artists who identify as women or non-binary. "It started out as a way to be able to offer a space that never existed, that I thought would have helped me," Jordan said.
It became a place that connected black artists across disciplines where we would share opportunities, advice, celebrate successes and, as Jordan puts it, "allow us to believe that we are entitled to work as artists." All through the screens of our phones.
Pretty soon, there was a desire to finally meet up in person, and rather than your everyday dinner date, it became The Feast: an affair hosted at the AGO, with a meal curated by Eden Hago of Black Foodie, and planned by an advisory committee of seven women from the group: Jordan, Kosisochukwu Nnebe, Ojo Agi, Sadora Asefaw, Setti Kidane, Raven Lam and Najla Nubyanluv.
Black women often deal with multiple hurdles in many fields, and the arts space in Canada is no exception.
Nnebe recalled when she was starting out showing her art part-time, she'd get opportunities, but usually just around February for Black History Month. She then talked to other black artists who were doing art full-time: "They told me they had approached a gallery in Montreal and they'd say, 'Aw, this work is really good, but we can only show it in February.'"
Over almost three years, this online group has helped strengthen bonds between these women and created a positive reason for them to reach for their phones.
Nubyanluv said being constantly connected can ironically be one of her least favourite things about the internet, but not in this case.
"When it comes to this, it's such an amazing thing. I am constantly connected to other black women artists. I am constantly learning about great things that black women artists are doing, being able to celebrate and just become aware," she said. "But there's no pressure there, you can jump in or jump out."
Professional networks like this among women can have great career benefits across industries. A study by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that the majority of high-ranking women working in business all had a tight circle of other women. Meanwhile, women who had mainly men in their inner circle tended to hold lower ranking roles.
Having a network like this online makes it all the more accessible, particularly for Black women who rarely exist in big numbers in a workplace. And Black Wimmin Artist isn't the only professional group chat for Black women out there.
In 2017, a Canadian media debacle over an appropriation prize spurred Vicky Mochama to connect Canadian Black women who were writers like her. It started as a Twitter thread and soon, she, Huda Hassan and A. Harmony had put together a Black Women Writers account to help promote each other's work, along with a direct message group on Twitter.
It's as much a place to share opportunities and advice as it is a place to commiserate, crack jokes and just feel less isolated.
"This is sort of like a continuum of how black women have always organized," Mochama said. "It's just taking it to a space that makes it easier to do, easier to track and easier to invite people in to."
Digital communities like this still have flaws, namely that there can still be barriers to access — for instance, these groups can still be centralized in the cities where the founders reside, such as Toronto in this case. But these issues aren't lost on either of these groups.
"Who is being left out by the fact that we're on Whatsapp, or who's being left out by the fact that we're on Twitter? Who's being left out by the fact that a lot of us are in Toronto? And can we organize to make sure that they still feel like they're a part of a community and a group?" Mochama asked.
While these groups exists over wireless signals, what these black women have created for black women is vital and as real as anything. "Done properly," Mochama said, "online communities are also just communities, period."
Listen: 'Feast' dinner host Eden Hago talks about the Ethiopian food parties she throws.
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