Interview by Adi Berardini
The focus and mandate of The Toronto Biennial of Art is to “make contemporary art accessible to everyone.” From March 26 to June 5th, local, national, and international Biennial artists will transform Toronto and its partner regions with free exhibitions, performances, and learning opportunities. Although the Biennial has its roots in diverse local contexts, it sparks global conversations through its exhibitions and city-wide programming. This years’ Biennial has the theme What Water Knows, the Land Remembers, expanding from the inaugural 2019 edition, A Shoreline Dilemma. In this interview, Candice Hopkins discusses her curatorial vision for the 2022 Toronto Biennial of Art and her exhibition ᑕᑯᒃᓴᐅᔪᒻᒪᕆᒃ Double Vision at the Textile Museum of Canada. Within the conversation, Hopkins speaks of the importance of the Biennial being place-specific and curatorial practice as a method of attunement.
Candice Hopkins’ writing and curatorial practice explore the intersections of history, contemporary art, and Indigeneity. Originally from Whitehorse, Yukon, Hopkins is a citizen of Carcross/Tagish First Nation. In addition to her role as senior curator for the 2019 and 2021 editions of the Toronto Biennial, she works as the Executive Director of Forge Project in New York. Additionally, she was part of the curatorial team for the Canadian Pavilion of the 58th Venice Biennale, featuring the work of the media art collective Isuma. She is co-curator of notable exhibitions including Art for New Understanding: Native Voices 1950s to Now; the 2018 SITE Santa Fe Biennial, Casa Tomada; documenta 14 in Athens, Greece and Kassel, Germany; Sakahàn: International Indigenous Art at the National Gallery of Canada.
Can you explain your curatorial vision for the 2022 Toronto Biennial of Art, with the theme of What Water Knows, The Land Remembers? How does it expand on the last edition focusing on the shoreline?
We’re a team of three curators myself, Katie Lawson, Tairone Bastien, and we also worked on the first edition. We always knew from the beginning that the curatorial team would carry over. And we always imagined that 2019, and what’s now 2022 because of the six-month delay of the pandemic, [would be] two chapters and two editions of a whole. That means that some of the artists extend their projects over 2019 and 2022 with a thematic extension as well. The title of 2019 was A Shoreline Dilemma, and most of the venues were centered on the shoreline and the shoreline as spaces of imagination, colonial construction, militarization and demilitarization, [and] various kinds of expansion into the lake. Also, shorelines aren’t fixed; they’re constantly shifting and moving, they’re fractal. And because of their fractal nature, they resist any conventional forms of measurement, because they are constantly changing space. We see the 2022 edition as stemming from these initial questions.
The 2019 Biennial was centered around the question of what does it mean to be in relation? In 2022, we thought it was important to think about how in this case, many of the works are situated up the various tributaries of those lost and extant rivers in Toronto. Toronto is located on one of the largest natural watersheds in the world, which means that there were a lot of creeks and there were a lot of rivers that were feeding that lake. We have been thinking collectively together with artists and curators what does it mean to be in relation to the water? And through that, what does it mean to think about the kind of deeper and in some cases, the sediment of history, on this land that we’re on?
In 2022, the title is meant to be a kind of lead into some of the explorations various artists were taking on, what water knows, the land remembers. One of the things that we were struck by when we were meeting and speaking with artists was one, as far as we understand it, water has memory. It contains and remembers anything that has happened to it on a molecular level. So, we can understand water as an archive, but we can understand the land as an archive too. Last fall, I was part of a meeting with a soil scientist who’s at Duke University and he said, certain soils slowly move upwards, like a river, over in some cases thousands of years. In a way then, it’s almost as though the soil is constantly revealing its past to us if it’s left undisturbed.
What does it mean to attune ourselves to these histories that might be located under concrete, underneath our very feet?
That was a moment of revelation for me and the curatorial team that if the land was always trying to reveal its history to us, what does it mean to attune ourselves to that? What does it mean to attune ourselves to these histories that might be located under concrete, underneath our very feet? I think one of the projects that we first initiated in 2019 that carried towards 2022 is a kind of direct response to this. So, that was what’s called Concepts and Contexts for Toronto and that was authored by Ange Loft with various collaborators. Ange Loft is a Mohawk artist, historian, playwright, and theatre director. And this year in 2022, we have been working together with Camille Turner and Yaniya Lee to add a kind of another layer to this idea of concepts and contexts for Toronto. They’ve been working on, a set of cards, like a deck, that looks at Black histories in Toronto. And one of the things that Yaniya and Camille noted was that these aren’t sedimented histories—that’s kind of an easy way out. They were saying that these pasts and these futures are right here in front of us, but not everyone pays attention to them. Sometimes we think that these histories are obscured, whether it’s the histories of people who are newcomers to these lands, or people who’ve been here for thousands of years, but they’re not for the people who’ve lived those histories.
We’ve also been very inspired by the fugitivity of water. The fact that even though something like Taddle Creek or Garrison Creek has been covered over, water still always finds a way home. It flows underneath houses, underneath real estate developments, it erodes concrete, it continues to flow. We thought of that fugitivity of water and what it carries with it and its insistence on its path. And I think that’s what we can learn, not only as curators but as artists too.
What are some considerations you have curating a biennial that’s place-specific, such as the Toronto Biennial? And a place that’s so diverse too. Do you have specific aspects you look for in artists and work and how it connects to place?
We knew that on embarking on the Toronto Biennial from the beginning, it needed to be place-specific. It couldn’t feel like an exhibition that could take place anywhere, it had to be done in relation to place. Whether that’s thinking about histories or various ways that we might shape the narrative of a place for ourselves. When we started in 2019, we brought artists together, especially those who were coming from outside of Toronto together with artists that were here. They met with Ange Loft, who generously shared some of the research she had done. And that Toronto context from Concepts brief was shared with all the artists who were working with the Toronto Biennial of Art as a kind of primary document. I think it’s really important to share histories, knowledge, and tools about a place. The pandemic shifted working models; we all went online like many teams. We worked with artists remotely, of course, some are still based here. A big part of that was being in dialogue.
Many of the artists that we worked with have created responsive works to this place or the Great Lakes, more in general, or to other narratives of lakes such as Great Bear Lake in Northwest Territories is one good example of work by Ts̱ēmā Igharas and Erin Siddall. Other projects looked very far into the future, such as part two of Syrus Marcus Ware’s Antarctica piece. I think every artist took it from their own perspective, but I think [most of the] work is grounded here. Part of that idea though was because a lot of biennials operate almost like a parachuting model that let’s say emerged in the 1990s with the proliferation of biennials around the world. What started with less than a hundred, is now I believe over 400 around the world. And there needs to be specificity to those, they can’t feel like there’s very little relation. I think audiences feel that too. One of our methods as well is that we are primarily a commissioning biennial, which differentiates us from some others.
In early 2013, I did travel to different communities in Nunavut, including Baker Lake. And I had already known, of course about ᔭᓯ ᐆᓇᖅ Jessie Oonark’s work, ᔮᓂᑦ ᑭᒍᓯᐅᖅ Janet [Kigusiuq]’s work, and ᕕᒃᑐᕆᔭ ᒪᒻᖑᖅᓱᐊᓗᒃ Victoria Mamnguqsualuk’s work. What I found when I was in Baker Lake was this matriarchy—The way that a lot of artistic production in Nunavut is done through mentorship, artist to artist, family member to family member, sometimes with the support of the co-op system, sometimes not. And the co-op in Baker Lake kind of operated in fits and starts. It was really production led by artists themselves. Jessie Oonark began making work only after she and her family relocated to Baker Lake. Baker Lake, as far as I know, is the only inland community in Nunavut so it’s not on a major water body, like other communities. And I was interested in how women’s perspectives were shaping the content of their work and how they made the work itself.
Jessie is primarily known for her textile work. She’s the only artist from Baker Lake to be included in the Cape Dorset print collection and she had her first prints included in 1960. They’ve all worked across media, drawing, prints, textiles, some sculpture even. What I was interested in was how pattern is both a tool and a technique for all of them. Janet later in her life, when arthritis didn’t allow her to make the kind of very high detailed drawings that she was known for began a different kind of practice. It began through a workshop in 1998 I think, with someone who was up there for a time teaching, making these paper collages. They are extraordinary because people might see them immediately as pure abstraction, but they’re not. Many of Janet’s collages are made to reference very specific places that they would visit, places where they’ve fished, for example.
Then Victoria Mamnguqsualuk, Jessie’s other daughter, was known for her narrative works. A figure that recurs in her practice is a migrant traveler–Kiviuq. He occurs a lot in her work and even intervened at certain moments like in the cold war. He’s a figurative legend, let’s say. [What is] fascinating to me about that was that Janet said in an interview that Victoria would stay up late at night, listening to their grandmother, Natak, tell stories. In a way, she became a chronicler through her prints and drawings, and textiles, of this oral history, which is fascinating. And then their mother, Jessie Oonark, is one of the best-known Inuk artists to have lived. What really struck me was the repeated representations of women, the tools of women, including the ᐅᓗ Ulu women’s knife, ᐊᑯᖅ amauti, ᖃᒧᑏᒃ qamutiik; and how pattern for her, again, became a kind of tool and technique, particularly in her textile works. But the title of the exhibition, in general, comes from, and I believe it was Jack Butler who said this, he described Jessie Oonark’s work as “double vision” because she used a lot of symmetry, but it was, I think quite deliberately, not perfect symmetries, so each side might look slightly different. In a way, what that does is it makes you pay attention to the variation of form. I feel like as the central point of the Biennial, we have a lot of matriarchal and matrilineal narratives. And I think that’s why Double Vision is one of the centerpiece exhibitions of the 2022 Biennial.
I also feel like personally, the work of Inuit artists isn’t always contextualized in this way, although increasingly more now. I wanted the audience to focus not just on the content of the work, but the kind of conditions of production in Baker Lake, who is teaching who, how they are communicating it, and seeing these pieces as a conceptual marker of art history.
Can you speak more about the practice of collaboration and listening in your curatorial practice and its significance while showcasing work by Indigenous artists and artists whose histories have been underrepresented?
I think sometimes curatorial practice is about resonances. We can understand resonances as part of an auditory experience, but also in many ways, curatorial practice can be a method of attunement. You’re attuned to not only what is taking place in society at any given moment, but [you are also] attuned to what artists are interested in communicating with their work. I think that you’re attuned to what ideas are forming and your potential audiences for an exhibition too. As well as the kind of practicalities of putting together a show in multiple venues where there’s different relations being formed in each of the spaces.
I think as well, and this happens very distinctly in the first edition of the Biennial too, we wanted to work directly with artists whose practices we were most excited about, of course. But it doesn’t necessarily mean that the artists that we worked with had a kind of corresponding place within what we might consider the larger artistic ecosystem. So, sometimes they might not have any commercial representation, for example, or maybe they’re just starting in their career. I think these kinds of exhibitions can be platforms for artists to make something new, for artists to make something responsive and I think for myself, paying attention to people who are making good, challenging work. We can use the exhibition as a kind of stage or a platform for what they’re making and doing. I think as well, curatorial practice is inherently dialogical. It’s in relationship to the ethos of our time, working in tandem with an artist as they develop something new.
Do you have any advice for emerging Indigenous artists or curators starting off their careers?
There are two different answers depending on whether you’re looking to pursue more of a curatorial track or an artist track. And that’s not to say that the two aren’t contingent or that people do both, because often people do both. I started out as an artist, for example.
I would say that for emerging curators, mentors have been the most important figures in my life and they sometimes come to you in expected ways. When I was very early in my career, I was grateful to have been mentored by folks like Lee-Ann Martin or Anthony Kiendl, or Sylvie Gilbert . I was able to work alongside them through my work at the Banff Centre. And I started at the Banff Centre as a work-study, that’s essentially like an intern. I think that we all start in various ways. I was incredibly lucky to have received a grant through the Canada Council for the Arts at the time. It was a grant that was for emerging Aboriginal curators, that was the terminology then.
I worked directly with Lee-Ann, and I learned so much from her, you know, she was one of the co-curators of Indigena, which is still a watershed exhibition. It was kind of like the political foil to Land, Spirit, Power that was on at the same time at the National Gallery of Canada, just across the river from one another. She was both the person who was one of the Project Coordinators for the Task Force on Museums and First Peoples that was in the 1990s that emerged out of the kind of conflicts and direct open protests around the exhibition The Spirits Sings in 1988, which was one of the first publicly protested exhibitions. So, she was one of the people at the forefront of trying to negotiate a different relationship between Native people and museums and our representation.
Choose your mentors and work with them, and these relationships are always reciprocal, right? What can you give in exchange or provide as an exchange? I’m not implying monetary of course. Developing relationships with artists is incredibly important as a young curator, because those are your peers, and they might be people that you work with for the rest of your life in various ways. That’s definitely been the case for me.
I would say as well, understanding if you do want to work with museums or artist-run centers, or other alternative or commercial spaces, trying to find out how they function is important too. I think that these institutions are not always transparent, they don’t always speak from that subject position at all. I think any experience you can get within those places is always beneficial.
If you’re an emerging Native artist, do whatever you can to make sure that you can maintain a dedicated studio practice, even if your studio is your desk. It’s important to put a lot of energy into your work. Find out what kinds of funding opportunities are out there if you’re living and working in Canada, which is a very different funding landscape that the United States. I would say, think of your peers as you’re sounding board.
I always encourage people, and this might be intimidating for younger artists, to reach out to a curator. If there’s a curator you like, send them your work, and see if they’ll do a studio visit with you, with no expectation. What you’re trying to do is develop a dialogue and a relationship. As a young artist, I think it’s incredibly important to see as much work by others as you can, especially those artists that you respect so that you can learn from how work is installed. You can learn from one another, including other ways other [artists] might be contextualizing their work. This is your field. Spend as much time looking and watching as learning as you can.
Check out the Toronto Biennial of Art from March 26 to June 5 at the 9+ Biennial sites across Toronto and Mississauga.