From LGBTQ+ equality to combatting police brutality, meet a handful of artists working with some of the world’s most pressing issues
It has only been three decades since the Canadian government began to acknowledge the crimes – not to mention the injustices – caused by the Canadian Indian Residential School System which had been in place since 1884. Ten years ago, then-Prime Minister Stephen Harper offered a public apology on behalf of his government. A lot of the truths surrounding the conditions and treatments of the school and its students remain unknown. However, it is estimated that between 3,000 and 6,000 deaths occurred in the system. In the two centuries that it was in place, it pried thousands of Indigenous children from their families in an attempt to wash them of their cultures.
Toronto’s art scene is making conscious and active social amends, and the recent iteration of the city’s Nuit Blanche, which took place last month, was no exception. The theme You Are Here encompassed its programme, which detailed “a city of change. A city in progress. A city of endless personal, collective and cultural histories: of journeys and arrivals, of borders and crossings, of memory and history, of past and future, of centres and edges, of community and communities”. It was a nod to the mass movement of refugees and those who have come to call Toronto home. Not just contained to the centre of Toronto, a series of art installations and commissions led visitors up to Scarborough and back – a suburb brimming with multiple ethnicities and cultures – in an attempt to bring the city together as a whole.
Alongside Nuit Blanche, was the re-opening of MoCA in its new location; a towering ex-factory called the Tower Automotive Building. Communicating a clear mission as “a welcoming place where our artists and their work will pose provocative questions”, its launch show BELIEVE explores “the beliefs and systems that shape our values and behaviours”. And the museum promises to continue to “reflect the world we live in now and are sensitive to the differentiated nature of the communities we serve”.
While there is still a long way to go in terms of reparations in the city itself, we look to a handful of Toronto-based artists who are ensuring it is moving in the right direction.
Ekow Nimako is a Montreal-born artist who has been using Lego as a vehicle to grow awareness since 2014. For this year’s Nuit Blanche, Nimako created “Cavalier Noir”, a monument of a “black warrior child” on the back of a unicorn from more than 80,000 Lego pieces – the sculpture remains on display at Toronto City Hall. Having lived his adolescence in Scarborough, Toronto, his artwork forces viewers to question who we consider our heroes to be, and, if the city were to commemorate theirs, who would that be? The work stands boldly “as an emblem of hope for the disenfranchised”, and borrows from “hip hop’s creative strategies: taking existing, discarded, and often overlooked elements and flipping them to inspire and amplify voices of the oppressed”.
Dedicating her multi-disciplinary practice, which includes installation, video, performance, and sculpture, to challenging inaccurate representations of black and brown male bodies, nichola feldman-kiss utilises oppositional images built on “tenderness and vulnerability”. Her ongoing, large-scale portraits, titled “an initial aversion to the plight of the sufferer (pietà)”, began in 2015 and recently showed at Nuit Blanche. Described as a “direct reference to historical representations of Mary cradling the body of Christ”, the image features a young man clutching a human skeleton, which we are told is approximately the same age as the holder. kiss’s work explores ideas surrounding masculinity, race, and humanity, and asks the viewer to think about “what it means to care”, particularly in the light of an increase in the murders of black men, global terrorism, and the Black Lives Matter movement.
Canada-raised, Kenya-born artist Brendan Fernandes’ discipline lies at the crossroads of dance and visual art. His immersive sound and light installation, On Flashing Lights – which debuted at Nuit Blanche 2018 – is an homage to Toronto’s queer, immigrant, and radicalised communities. While surrounded by police cars in an attempt to signal “the historic tension between these groups”, local minority DJs – such as Nino Brown, Maneesh Bidaye, Bambii, and Karsten Sollors – performed for the open crowd. By using dance as his medium, Fernandes invited “an expression of solidarity and community in the heart of the city”, while acknowledging that the dance floor can be “both a sanctuary and a space of anxiety” for queer bodies. For 60 seconds of every 49 minutes, a silence fell over the space to honour the victims of the Pulse Orlando shooting victims. The flashing lights of the police cars starkly juxtaposed with the expressive freedom of the dancefloor raising questions of what constitutes the idea of a safe space and, ultimately, who is it for?
being who you are there is no other is a hypnotic, two-channel visual poem by Jessica Karuhanga, a multi-disciplinary artist working with drawing, movement, and video. In this particular work, she uses the wilderness as her background and blackness as a protagonist. Through the movements of two black bodies, intertwining with nature, she allows the audience to meditate on ownership, particularly, that of the land. While the power of black heritage had long been denied in Canada – and in many places across the world – Karuhanga uses film to rewrite a painful history of erasure.
Utilising sci-fi as a storytelling device, Alyssa Bistonath’s film Portals elevates the “everyday gestures of members of the Guyanese diaspora” who are living in Toronto’s Scarborough. Bistonath opens up a series of portals in order to “warp time and space”, to allow viewers to transport to a place of solace: “in the past of a country left behind, in the present experience of home in a never-quite-familiar country, and in the future expectations of safety and prosperity”. As Scarborough hosts the largest Guyanese diaspora in Canada, Bistonath traverses the tension between home and hostility that migrants often experience.
Artist Rajni Perera creates works relating to hybridity, sacrilege, irreverence, monsters, dreamworld, gender, sexuality, and ethnography, to name just part of a spectrum of their wide-range ideas. Painting, collage, drawing, and photography are all employed in the artist's “deconstruction of the non-European, female body image”. Born in Sri Lanka, but residing in Toronto, Perera’s fascination with science fiction began in childhood, which she now meshes with Indian miniaturist art. Speaking to canadianart, she explained, “The canon, during my school years, started to fail me as an immigrant. It’s really Eurocentric, it’s very white-centric, and I stopped seeing myself in what I was being taught.”