Anique Jordan’s Nowing: A Political History of the Present

Anique Jordan, Untitled (2021).Nowing: A Political History of the Present installation shot. Patel Brown Gallery. Courtesy of Patel Brown and the artist.

Patel Brown Gallery, Toronto

May 15 to June 9, 2021

CONTACT Photography Festival Exhibition

By Danielle Taschereau Mamers

Masked, sanitized, and alone, I entered Anique Jordan’s Nowing: A Political History of the Present (2021) at Patel Brown and was met with works of radically different scales. To my right, six Toronto Star newspapers framed in white lined the wall, while eight massive steel silhouettes hung in a suspended v-formation to my left. Uncertain about the steel expanses and drawn into the more familiar task of reading, I turned to the newspapers. An archive of moments from the past year, the white space between headlines, images, and text was filled with handwritten notes that offered an account of the present contesting those reported in the paper.

The questions, lists, and quotations that fill the newspaper pages assert the knowledge and varied affects of experiences of racialized communities. Jordan’s annotative strategy asserts that there is more to say than what is being said, more to ask than is being asked. In doing so, the Toronto Star series—also titled Nowing—forwards Jordan’s ongoing practice of staging interventions in archival processes that erase Black histories from public consciousness. Nowing not only draws its title from Fred Moten’s work but also its method: “to look with love at things.”[1] The annotated pages introduce practices of paying precise attention and reclaiming authority as acts of care in the face of ongoing grief, as well as the possibilities of urgent creation in response to racial violence and deeply unequal experiences of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Anique Jordan, Essential, 2021, Archival print on Canson Baryta, 17 x 20 in. Courtesy of the Artist and Patel Brown.

Anique Jordan, Edge of Town, 2021, Archival print on Canson Baryta, 17 x 20 in. Courtesy of the Artist and Patel Brown.

The Nowing series features photographs of a selection of front pages of the Toronto Star newspaper, taken above the fold from dates ranging from March 30, 2020, to January 10, 2021. Each front page is annotated in black ballpoint pen, with questions and quotations filling the white space between headlines, articles, and images. Drawn from Jordan’s reflections and conversations with friends, the annotations are an archive of ongoing political analysis, unfolding in situ: the images are the accumulated labour of sifting through public policy and mainstream news media discourse from situated experiences. To read the annotations, I stood closer to the framed images than feels appropriate, sometimes craning my neck to the side to see the questions and quotations written sideways along the paper’s borders. As I inched closer to one image, I felt glad to be here in person rather than accessing the work through the gallery’s digital viewing room. It is difficult to imagine reading these annotations carefully without being present with them, without being able to twist my body in the ways the legibility of the compositions requires.

Essential, which uses the 30 March 2020 issue, introduces key questions that recur throughout the series: “How do we deal with the ‘now’ of death? Where do we put things we ought to remember but would rather forget? How do we make sense of something that we know will be historicized but requires immediate attention in order to find a way forward?” In subsequent images, Jordan’s annotations probe the uneven exposures to and techniques of surviving the pandemic in Toronto. Responding to the shifting public health policies of last spring that introduced masking, social distancing, and requested residents to stay home, Jordan’s annotations remind of the challenges poverty poses to staying safe. People still need to work, still need to ride buses, still need to survive in jobs that are labeled “essential,” but workers are treated as disposable. Identifying the gap between public health protocols and the racialized publics struggling to comply, Jordan reflects, “I feel like the province is saying to us, ‘why don’t they just listen?’ [and] I keep thinking, “why don’t you?’” The reflections, questions, and demands Jordan adds to the Toronto Star pages remind us that, as residents of the city, we may all be going through a pandemic, but we are not going through the same pandemic and are not exposed or protected in the same ways.

Anique Jordan, Nowing installation shot, 2021. Patel Brown Gallery. Courtesy of Patel Brown and the artist.

The Nowing series is the most recent iteration of Jordan’s strategy for working with archives. Many of her projects confront seemingly closed texts—from newspapers to municipal planning documents—with a strategy of remediation. Remediation is a practice of representing one medium in another, creating opportunities both for articulating how the represented medium operates and for attending to how shifts in format and materiality affect the use and interpretation of a remediated image, text, or document. Newspapers, public planning documents, and other archival forms that appear in the works selected for the show are frequently treated as immediate—that is, a direct representation or direct way of accessing information that is not transformed through the processes of recording, circulating, and archiving. In Jordan’s hands and the space of public exhibition, the Star and other pieces of media and policy archives appear as partial. Jordan’s annotations generate “elaborated images,” re-inscribing ownership of Black histories and affirm community knowledge over dominant narrations of the political present.[2] Like other forms of elaborated images that disrupt claims to representational authority, these works enact a decolonizing, future-oriented politics of refusal. By annotating and transforming documents into photographs, Jordan recovers the materiality of news and policy documents, probing how unjust worlds are actively made. Insisting on an extended space of engagement, these works also demonstrate how such worlds might be unmade through practices of looking, narration, and refusal.

Like other forms of elaborated images that disrupt claims to representational authority, these works enact a decolonizing, future-oriented politics of refusal.

Anique Jordan. Ban’ yuh Belly series installation shot. Patel Brown Gallery. Courtesy of Patel Brown and the artist.

The Nowing series emerges from a specific place and constellation of relationships, taking on the newspaper’s claim to be a contemporary record of events and analysis—one version of the city’s political landscape. These works expand the practice of record keeping. Jordan refuses to let the nowness or present history of Toronto’s Black and racialized communities be erased from this moment. The reflections, questions, and demands Jordan adds to the Toronto Star pages form a connective tissue between the discourse articulated in the Star and deeper social, economic, and political contexts. For example, in Codes—created with the 02 August 2020 issue—Jordan elaborates on a map of COVID-19 hot spots in the city, using her black pen to outline Neighbourhood Improvement districts. These priority areas were identified by the City of Toronto as needing additional resources to combat high crime rates and lack of services. Continuing to make visible the interrelation of virus exposure and economic abandonment, in Future (from the 10 January 2021 issue), Jordan asks how these areas became hot spots and why they weren’t adequately prioritized before the pandemic. The transformation of the newspaper into first a space of dialogic encounters and then an exhibited record demonstrates the multiplicity of political presents and pandemic experiences in Toronto. Rather than a banal nod to diverse perspectives, Jordan’s annotations record how the policies enacted in one political present—the present of white wealth, gentrified neighbourhoods, and relative protection—have profound impacts on the political presents of hers and other racialized communities across the city.

Anique Jordan. Ban’ yuh Belly series installation shot. Patel Brown Gallery. Courtesy of Patel Brown and the artist.

The Nowing series builds on assertions made by the Ban’ yuh belly series, exhibited in the gallery’s second room. In five self-portraits, Jordan’s steady gaze looks ahead, meeting neither the viewer nor the documents pinned to the black wall behind her. Collected documents point to a history of exclusions and abandonments: the Malvern town plan from the 1960s that excluded a commercial centre, newspaper clippings reporting on gun violence and changes to carding policies, and a handwritten list of administrative language and racial epithets that normalize and trivialize anti-Black violence. Jordan has described the portraits as documenting “the design of structural violence in racialized communities across Toronto.”[3] In addition to displaying this archive, the images ask about the human toll of living through inhumane city planning, ongoing gun violence, and grinding racialized aggressions. Discussing the series with photographer Michèle Pearson Clarke, Jordan reflects that the work affirms her community’s ongoing grief, “giving a place for that loss.”[4]

Future, the final image in the Toronto Star series, continues a line of questioning that moves through the Ban’ yuh belly images and many of Jordan’s previous works. Written and circled in black pen, Jordan writes, “Who gets the right to think of a future?” As I looked at each cover, moving chronologically through the annotated archive, I turned and faced perhaps part of Jordan’s response to her own questions: eight silhouettes cut from raw, grey steel, each nine feet high, suspended from the ceiling with their feet just skimming the concrete gallery floor. The untitled series was created from portraits of Black artists and art workers taken during Mas’ (2016), a performance Jordan mounted in the Art Gallery of Ontario where artists and community members filled the gallery’s central Walker Court, moving in a minimalist choreography as the artist read out the names of Black ancestors drawn from census records and of more recent deaths by gun violence. The steel figures are an archive of the performance—itself a powerful assertion of Black lives and histories in the white space of the gallery. I found the shift in scale from the Toronto Star and Ban’ yuh belly works to the silhouettes abrupt, as were the blank expanses of grey steel in relation to the specificity of Jordan’s handwriting and profile of the two series of photographs. Drawing Jordan’s past performances into relation with the image works, perhaps the figures perform the presence of a few of those individuals who are already claiming their right to think and create futures. Extending beyond human scale, these figures find their precursor in arming by clara (2017), where Jordan used steel silhouettes on a similar scale to mount a monument to Black bodies, survival strategies, and creativity.

The expansive presence of the silhouettes draws attention to how the show presents multiple contexts and structures of violence and unequal exposures to vulnerability, but the show does not make a spectacle of suffering bodies. Jordan protects herself and her community from gazes like mine—white gazes, more insulated from the violence the works document. Bodily autonomy is asserted in other, less-spectacular ways. Jordan’s handwriting is a trace left behind from her hands as they moved across the surface of the newspapers, a record of bodies of her and her community held together in their analysis of urgent political conditions. Her profile in the Ban’ yuh belly photographs is an insistent and challenging presence against an archive of abandonment. Amid the silhouettes, a community fills the room and carries forward Jordan’s challenge. The figures fill in the white space of the gallery, like the annotations that fill the white space of the newspaper pages. Each of the works included in the show activates a technique of making present, of filling in the absences created from the erasure of Black lives and histories from the city’s archives, policy, and public consciousness.

[1] Fred Moten, “Black optimism/Black operation” (presentation, Anxiety, Urgency, Outrage, Hope…: A Conference on Political Feeling, University of Chicago, 19 October 2007).

[2] Laurence Butet-Roch and Deanna Del Veccio, “Elaborated Images as Decolonial Photographic Praxis” (presentation, Visual Research for Social Change conference, online, 15 April 2021).

[3] Anique Jordan, “Anique Jordan in Conversation with Joanna Joachim” (presentation, Discourse in Motion symposium, Départment d’histoire de l’art UQAM, Arprim, and Artexte Montreal, 29 November 2019, recording available online).

[4] Anique Jordan and Michèle Pearson Clarke, “‘Where Does Art Get To Live?’: A Conversation Between Anique Jordan and Michèle Pearson Clarke,” Momus, 30 May 2019, online.

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