Shift Disturbers: Ashley McKenzie-Barnes makes space for BIPOC creators

Through her agency D.PE and the D.PE Sho Art Foundation, the CD and curator brings creatives into spaces they aren't usually hired into.
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This story is part of Shift Disturbers, a profile series exploring the successes, creative contributions and off-the-beaten-path work talent are doing to challenge the status quo in the marketing and advertising industries.

Ashley McKenzie-Barnes found that after nearly two decades of working in the corporate and agency sphere, she still rarely saw Black or people of colour as co-workers or in senior positions. It was only when she came across the Walton Isaacson agency in the U.S. that specialized in diversity and inclusion that she saw something different.

“I was so mesmerized by the whole notion that there can be Black leadership in a creative agency and have so many BIPOC counterparts to work with,” says the Toronto CD and art curator.

Unfortunately, in Canada, it just wasn’t the norm, she says. Disappointed that she couldn’t attend an interview with the company when COVID-19 hit, she decided that if she couldn’t join them, she could at least strive to do something similar here in Canada.

“I thought, if I can’t go to it or I don’t have it here, why not build it myself?”

That’s when D.PE (pronounced “dope”), a full-scale creative agency which stands for “diverse progressive experiences,” was born. D.PE aims to be more reflective of a diverse creative community, one that will give opportunities to art and creative directors, photographers, designers and to copywriters of colour by hiring them as freelancers for specific jobs and projects, McKenzie-Barnes says. To date, the agency has worked with clients like Walmart, Luminato Festival and 19 Crimes on everything from cultural activations to integrated campaigns and branding.

McKenzie-Barnes is also behind the non-profit D.PE SHO Art Foundation, which works to support BIPOC programming and artistry across Canadian contemporary art and culture. D.PE Sho launched earlier this month through a $20,000 donation from the Toronto Raptors, and its first project is a mural located in Toronto’s Yorkville neighbourhood by Black queer American artist Nina Chanel Abney and will be displayed until late November as part of the Yorkville mural festival and ArtworxTO revitalization program.

“The mural asks pedestrians to stop for a moment of consideration on how we can embark on a communal process of healing through art and intentional contemplation,” says McKenzie-Barnes.

McKenzie-Barnes started her career working on Sway, a lifestyle magazine for African and Caribbean Canadians. After six years in the publishing world, she realized that most people in the industry did not look like her, and that she would have to build her own opportunities.

A Scarborough native and a part-time visual and digital arts professor at Humber college, McKenzie-Barnes has worked on several large-scale projects across the city. For two years she worked as an art curator for Toronto’s Harbourfront Centre, and in 2019, she curated for Nuit Blanche at Scarborough Town Centre. She explains that during her time in the industry, she hardly ever worked alongside another Black person.

Earlier this year, McKenzie-Barnes was one of a few individuals selected by the city to give advice to creative agencies and cultural sectors within Toronto. During her role, she took over Mayor John Tory’s Instagram, and made a series of posts for Black History Month where she explained that when addressing discrimination, references to institutionalization and working on anti-racism policies was not enough. Often, conversations like these are short-sighted, dismissive or missing the point, says McKenzie-Barnes. The underlying message is that “when topics are hot, companies want to hire for very specific projects, and try to appear more inclusive, but aren’t really addressing the source.”

She explains there isn’t enough hiring into spaces where change can take place and take root. “Real change isn’t something that’s immediate, and it’s not something that can be done quickly. It’s not a race, it’s a marathon.”

This summer D.PE SHO is working on a few projects, including curating artwork for the new CIBC Square, the office complex under construction in the city’s South Core neighbourhood. It will also curate for Bombay Sapphire Art Projects across Canada, which are launching this July.