Crossing Thresholds: 45th Parallel by Lawrence Abu Hamdan

March 26 – June 4, 2022

Mercer Union

Installation view of Lawrence Abu Hamdan, 45th Parallel at Mercer Union, 2022 (courtesy the artist, photo by Toni Hafkenscheid)

By Sarah Sarofim

Among the many exhibitions that took place in the spring of Toronto as part of the 2022 Toronto Biennale was a powerful exhibition on the violence of borders at Mercer Union. Through a film with a brilliant monologue played by Mahdi Fleifel and two large paintings, Lawrence Abu Hamdan questions the nature and frailness of—what we know to be—borders. Drawing on incidents that have taken place on the Canadian-American border, the Mexican-American border and across the Atlantic in the Middle East, 45th Parallel unravels how surveillance and visibility toy with movement across nations. 

A big component of the exhibition is a film directed by Abu Hamdan (on Zoom) that is shot inside the Haskell Free Library and Opera House, a unique space that sits on the Canadian-American border. The monologue is performed in both spaces. While Fleifel stands on the stage that’s in the US, the empty room he’s talking to, full of wide wooden seats, is in Canada. A black line, probably 7 centimetres wide, is drawn throughout the space, marking a separation between Quebec and Vermont.      

The film feels like it has four acts. It starts in the library with Fleifel recounting how the space was used to smuggle guns across the borders. Two Americans bought guns in Florida and drove up to the library to get them through to Canada. Since the washrooms are accessible to both countries, one person walked through the washroom, left the arms in the third bathroom stall and Canadian Alex Vlachos took them and went back to Canada. Shots of shelves in the library and the bathroom are coupled with Fleifel’s narration. At times when we do see him, he’s sitting on a chair on one side of the black line with a table in front of him directly placed over it. The line, apparent and present, is irrelevant. Through this site and film, Abu Hamdan allows the viewer to visualize lines noting separations, before moving to two other cross-border cases, farther away from the Haskell Free Library and Opera House–where borders aren’t a black line on the ground.

Installation view of Lawrence Abu Hamdan, 45th Parallel at Mercer Union, 2022 (courtesy the artist, photo by Toni Hafkenscheid)

A woman on the stage of the Opera House playing the pedal steel on stage appears. Behind her is a backdrop of dapperly dressed people by canals in Venice that slowly begins to lift up, revealing another. If one paid close attention to the space when walking in, not eagerly passing through to get to the film, they’d realise that the backdrop is the same as one of the ones that they just passed. 

The music from the pedal steel carries on, slightly unsettling yet compelling, and the viewer can make out a large painting that says “la frontera donde debe vivir.” The slow reveal and interlude music come to an end as if announcing the start of Act II. Fleifel starts recounting the case of Sergio Adrian Hernandez, a fifteen-year-old who was shot by a US border patrol on the Juárez-El Paso border. Jesus Mesa Jr, the US border portal was standing in the states while Hernandez, and the friends he was with, were in Mexico. The bullet crossed the border and led to the murder of the unarmed boy. 

“Though Agent Mesa’s firearm was stretched out into Mexican territory, his feet were three inches behind the American border,” Fleifel tells the camera. He re-enacts the scene while standing over the black tape in the library, marking the border between Canada and the US, as to reinforce the absurdity of a line, lethal yet invisible, at the Juárez-El Paso border.

The Supreme Court in the US, 5-4, ruled in favour of the border portal, claiming that since he was on US soil and Hernandez died in Mexico, he could not be prosecuted in the US. The judges were concerned that ruling in favour of Hernandez would implicate complications with the US foreign policy, namely, drone strikes launched from the US in the Middle East. 

The steel pedal starts again, and another backdrop is revealed. Unlike the first two acts, Fleifel stands first on the stage listing, in great detail, the drone strikes that took place in Kabul (2018), Yemen (2013), and Makeen (2009). The camera stands behind Fleifel’s back and the audience isn’t granted the chance to look at his face. No backdrops are seen–the performance coming to an end. Fleifel’s tone is firm and demanding; “If the judges were to find Mesa guilty of this one killing, then what about the 48,308 murdered by hellfire?” 

The last act of the film brings the viewer back to the Haskell Free Library and Opera House. Fleifel talks about how during Trump’s Muslim Ban the library was “one of the last little cracks in the border.” Families and friends who couldn’t leave the US in fear of not being able to get back in met their loved ones who could get a Canadian visa in the library. Instead of a no-talking sign, the library had “no burgers and extra-large cokes” signs–signs of a place of gathering. The film ends with Fleifel recounting how one of the librarians said, “we are a library, but I don’t want to shush you when you haven’t seen your grandmother in forever.” 

Installation view of Lawrence Abu Hamdan, 45th Parallel at Mercer Union, 2022 (courtesy the artist, photo by Toni Hafkenscheid)

When the film ends, the viewer gets up and walks back as they entered. They are met–again–with the painted backdrop of an aerial view of Damascus followed by the backdrop of the Juárez-El Paso border, with the writing “the border where he should have lived.” The two massive paintings of landscapes where murder and injustice have taken place, stand tall demanding one’s attention. Abu Hamdan took inspiration from the Haskell Free Opera House, where the absurdity of sitting in Canada and watching someone on stage in the US was heightened by the painted backdrop of Venice, to create the two works. 

After having watched the film, the viewer is able to take in small details and break down the scene as a whole. Backdrops don’t become the suggestion of a place, a need for a suspension of disbelief, but rather a violent space, powerful in their placement and size. I remember being in awe walking out and stopping to look at them. The painting is a political ground where neutrality is eliminated. Abu Hamdan engages with the history of landscape painting and rejects its tradition of choosing aesthetics over honouring the site and its layers. 

The ceiling where the paintings are hung made me feel like I was in a theatre, and in fact, the space is the ghost of one. 1286 Bloor Street West, now Mercer Union, used to be the home of one of Toronto’s earliest movie theatres, called the Academy Theatre. It was built in 1913 in an Edwardian style and closed around the 1960s. Mercer Union has been around since 1979 and moved a bunch before settling on Bloor Street West in 2008. The space that now hosts the exhibition has witnessed many backdrops, suspensions of belief, and theatricals. 45th Parallel, borrowing elements of theatre and film, reads as a counter-narrative to the scripts that were performed in this space–exposing the consequences of American imperialism and border enforcement violence. 

Installation view of Lawrence Abu Hamdan, 45th Parallel at Mercer Union, 2022 (courtesy the artist, photo by Toni Hafkenscheid)

This arbitrariness of borders is especially relevant to Canada, where lines drawn by the British have led to genocide. 45th Parallel was part of the 2022 Toronto Biennial of Art titled What Water Knows, The Land Remembers, a continuation of the 2019 Biennale The Shoreline Dilemma. The locations chosen were an ode to the water and ravines that have mapped the city’s geography and inhabitants, that once bordered places we walked by. 

One of the central questions to the biennale is “what does it mean to be in relation?” and “45th Parallel” immerses itself in it. The exhibition does not just look at relations and their meanings but the hierarchies that exist when being in relation–a bullet, a body, a law in relation to a border, a country, a field. It looks at the dismissal and negligence of relations as well as the selectivity and decisiveness of being in relation. 

The title of the exhibition, 45th Parallel, also points to other ways of being in relation. In this case, the invisible line that treads a surface to mark it isn’t institutionalised or militant. The 45th Parallel denotes “the middle of the earth,” where every place that this abstract passes through is equidistant from the North and South pole. The Haskell Free Library and Opera House sit on this line. While latitudes are often used as tools for movements and navigation, borders are usually restrictive. They implicate race and class, and self-serve the state, never the vulnerable or the migrant. The title of the exhibition acts as a cue to question the notion of borders and their relation to land and soil. The incredibly well-written dialogue treads that line as well. The Haskell Free Library and Opera and House were referred to as the “granite and brick loophole in the longest border in the world” and the “400 metre anomaly.” This huge play on words grounded the site in its materials and reinforced the absurdity and lethal power of borders. 

Installation view of Lawrence Abu Hamdan, 45th Parallel at Mercer Union, 2022 (courtesy the artist, photo by Toni Hafkenscheid)

Today, the welcome page of the Haskell Free Library and Opera House website reads: “The library is opened [sic] for guided tours again! No family/friends reunions (cross-border visits) allowed.” What once embraced the frailness of borders, now complies with its authority.  

Abu Hamdan’s work continues to explore and reveal the neglected violence that happens across borders. One of his most recent projects is, an extensive research project showing the physiological effects of aircraft noise and the extent of the Israeli air force surveillance in Lebanon post-war. Although the film in 45th Parallel speaks of a specific site, the installation grounds the work in the layered history of Toronto and is still able to highlight global injustices. The exhibition is documentative, critical, and–theoretically and linguistically–so accessible. It is an incredible example of the kind of exhibitions that are a reminder of the importance of producing and sharing work—in relation to the spaces we can or cannot navigate, the lives that we live, and the lives that could have been lived. 

Reconnecting Through Recipes: Reflections with Meegan Lim

Meegan Lim. Harvest Garden Zine Interior View. Image Courtesy of the artist.

Interview by Aysia Tse

Meegan Lim is an illustrator based in Brampton, Ontario whose practice meets at the intersections of food, culture, storytelling, and social change. Since graduating from the illustration program at OCAD University in 2021, she has been working on zines, comics, illustrative work, various public and community art projects, and editorial initiatives. She was recently awarded the “Best Political Zine” for her publication Harvest Garden by the Broken Pencil Zine Awards in 2021. Lim spoke more about her love for food, zine-making, and the sometimes-bumpy journey of reconnecting to your cultural identity through art. 

You create personal and socially engaged zines that explore your cultural identity through discussions with food. Can you speak more about how you came to develop your practice at the intersection of these topics?

During school in my second year, there was more autonomy with the projects that I was able to tackle. I saw it as an opportunity to explore my cultural identity, but by food, it was kind of an epiphany moment I would say. I’ve always been a big foodie, always loved the Food Network as a child, and of course, familywise has been a way for me to connect to my own culture, but I never thought to combine it with my art. When I did, it was an obvious pairing. That was the start of it, it was just right in front of me and then I realized that there was just so much more beyond my own culture, of course. It’s beyond the actual physicality of food and tastes, it goes back to memory, it goes back to history, and it carries so many different meanings for all kinds of people. That’s what keeps me going back to it. 

Meegan Lim. MSG: The Craving for Cultural Embrace Cover. Photo Courtesy of the Artist.

In your zine called MSG: the Craving for Cultural Embrace, you reflect on the Asian minority trope and resisting these definitive boundarieof identity. Can you speak more about your reflective process when digesting these topics and then having them as a part of your creative projects?

I didn’t dive into these tropes or these histories until I moved away from home. That distance forced me to think about it more, I was researching on my own and trying to make it make its way into my own schoolwork as well, in my conceptual focus through my illustration work. I got into a big wormhole of the internet, going through big journals about all of these tropes, the history of Chinese restaurant syndrome. It threw me into a little crisis because it was the first time where I sat with those ideas and those concepts. I didn’t have that context, so once I was able to identify that, I wanted to document it because I have a hard time feeling my feelings. 

I don’t know if it’s like an Asian thing, but it was something that I just really wanted to capture in my art form, and it coincidentally lined up when I was visiting my family back in Malaysia. I wrote the majority of MSG while I was there. It was a mind trip of sorts because I was writing it in the same environment where I was experiencing those first cultural identity crises. The first time we went back to Malaysia I was maybe seven or eight years old and having that realization that you can’t fully communicate with your family, or you feel that big disconnect culturally, it’s an interesting feeling. It was like art journaling of sorts. I was not able to speak the language, but I [could] still understand that my family was talking about me, about how Westernized, how white, or banana I was. So, it was interesting to reflect on that 10 years later.

Meegan Lim. MSG: The Craving for Cultural Embrace Interior View. Photo Courtesy of the Artist.

I love the colorful and playful aesthetics of your personal risograph zines. I loved to hold it when I experienced it in person. What drew you to zines as the medium for the topic you address? I’m curious as I know you’re also a drawer, painter, and illustrator.

It’s exactly what you described. It’s the feeling you have of that physical item in your hands because it’s just so intimate. You’re like really intimate with the person, that person who’s reading it. I love how it can sometimes feel like those little notes your friends pass in class. It’s almost like having a direct conversation with the people who pick [it] up. I’m allowed to be as personal as I can. Zines were like a journal for me—It’s like art therapy of sorts. I had a box of zines where I just used old copy paper, no one has ever seen them, but some are just doodles, and some are just a bunch of words. It’s very much a very cathartic medium for me. 

Using food as a medium for storytelling can be the source of a very meaningful conversation for other people.

Are there specific things that excite you about using food as a jumping-off point for storytelling?

When I was identifying that food was something I wanted to focus on, I was also a bit nervous because with illustration, you can be focused on having a certain style or you get pigeonholed into certain topics or aesthetics. I was worried I was going to be known as the food illustrator, but also, I don’t mind it now. There is so much more than just food. Using food as a medium for storytelling can be the source of a very meaningful conversation for other people. It doesn’t really matter what my initial intention is with the illustration or the zine, it’s what carries on afterward because who knows what other people are going to get from it. I know you’re Singaporean, so you were able to get lots out of it [since] it carried back some other memories. And that’s something that I didn’t initially intend through sharing my mom’s recipes, but it happens and it’s really cool.

Meegan Lim. Red Pocket Recipes. Interior View. Photo Courtesy of the artist.

Yeah! In (Red) Pocket Recipes you share Chinese-Malaysian recipes, some of which are nostalgic for me, as I was born in Singapore! You included Laksa, a fish-based rice noodle soup that brought me back to some of my own childhood memories. Can you speak a bit more about your love for recipe sharing?

Recipes always just made their way through my childhood. Being able to share my mom’s recipes and some of my own recipes with other people, it’s the satisfaction of seeing other people create it or resonate it, or be like, “thanks for sharing this recipe with me, it turned out really good.” It’s almost a level of trust. Recipes are a form of oral and written history that isn’t captured a lot, especially in my family. It took a lot to get my mom to sit down and write the recipes with me. I locked my bedroom door and said, “sit on the bed” – we’re getting teaspoon, tablespoon measurements out of her.

It means a lot to be able to capture that because I’ll never hear the end of my aunts saying “oh, you better get your mom’s recipes, because she’ll go someday and you won’t have that.” You won’t be able to capture your heritage if you don’t actively practice it, right? 

Meegan Lim. Icing on the Cake. Photo Courtesy of the artist.

Do you have any advice for other artists who are just beginning to explore and reconnect to their cultural identity through art? 

I mean, I’m still figuring it out. My main point of advice would be to go at your own pace and be kind to yourself because it can be very emotionally heavy to discover all those different layers that you might not have realized were there when you were a kid. So just take your time. It can be hard to digest and uncover a lot of those memories that can be triggering and weird to uncover when you’re an adult. 

I guess my second advice point would be to just look to other artists, creators or educators who are talking about similar experiences, not only for comfort and relate-ability but also just inspiration for your own work. You’re most definitely not the only person experiencing that, so it’s important to recognize those other people, and use those avenues to understand what has already been shared, that way you’re able to really explore your own intricacies and details of your own experience.

When I was initially exploring it in my own art, I was very hyper-aware of self-tokenization and how it can impact how others see you. That shouldn’t be how you go about things, but it is something to consider, especially in an Asian community where tropes easily develop. After I published MSG, I was very hyper-aware of the lunchbox moment and I was like, am I just repeating the same thing in an echo chamber? So that’s something to be aware of but try not to let other people dictate how you are experiencing your own cultural identity because it is different for each person. 

What’s next for you?

I don’t think I’m going to stop drawing food anytime soon. I keep saying there’s going to be like a Red Pocket Recipes Two or I that I’m going to post new recipes, but it’s so hard to sit myself down to do that. Hopefully, I’ll be able to make that time in the next year or two to really distill all those recipes. I want to fulfill my own personal creative goals through those home recipes from my family. In terms of the rest of my practice, I just want to learn more of other cultures and how food is very much a catalyst for all those histories and memories. I’m consistently learning more and more, and it’s humbling because of course I’m not going to know the world’s culinary history. It’s very motivating to know that there’s always something new to learn.

I am doing illustrations for a Dumpling Anthology. It’s been really cool because I’ve been able to read essays from all these food writers about their favourite dumpling from their family. Dumplings are such a universal food! Hopefully, I can take on more projects like that.

Check out What We Talk About When We Talk About Dumplings, published by Coach House Books. You can follow Meegan on Instagram @meeganlim and see more of her work by visiting her website,


K. MacNeil. Natura Morta. Image Courtesy of the artist.

Interview by Adi Berardini

K. MacNeil is a genderqueer artist, educator, and curator working in a range of media including printmaking, video, performance, and drawing. Referencing their own experience, their work addresses grief, chronic and mental illness, and the supports within the Western medical system. Their latest exhibition at home apothecary: OR EXTRA STRENGTH + PAIN RELIEF at Centre [3] in Hamilton features an interdisciplinary body of work that started as sketchbook ink paintings. As they describe, the series grew in its scope over six years, capturing the everyday objects used to manage self-care. The exhibition also addresses the resiliency needed while facing marketing schemes of care products in a capitalist society and the actions taken towards healing.

Currently residing in Toronto, ON, MacNeil has an MFA from the University at Buffalo and a BA in Studio Art from the College of Charleston. They serve on the executive board of SGCInternational and work as the College Printer at Massey College. MacNeil’s work has been exhibited internationally in Paris, France; Beijing, China; Canada, and throughout numerous institutions across the US including the International Print Center New York, the Western New York Book Arts Center, and CEPA Gallery. Additionally, they are the Hexagon Mid-Career Artist in Residence at Open Studio in Toronto. Read on to learn more about their work and the exhibition at home apothecary: OR EXTRA STRENGTH + PAIN RELIEF.

AB: Your exhibition at home apothecary: OR EXTRA STRENGTH + PAIN RELIEF addresses the wellness industry and how it treats health care as transactional and the resiliency it takes to navigate this. Can you speak more about your thinking and concept around the exhibition?

KM: The exhibition is thinking about transactional healthcare and how to be resilient in this sort of late-stage capitalist world that we find ourselves in. Developed over six years, I started this work as illustrations in my sketchbook and I didn’t think that they were going to go anywhere. At some point — after about two or three years — I just kind of kept making them. I [felt that] I need to commit if I’m going to just keep making this work and see it through to some type of conclusion.

I realized that what I was focusing on with these paintings, these sort of still lifes of objects that I was surrounded by, were an autobiographical body of work focused on what I’m using to try to take care of myself. A lot of my work has always been about mental health and stigmas and my own daily struggles with depression and anxiety. Naturally, these were all the objects that I used to treat my anxiety and my depression and various other ailments. So, it was everything from pill bottles to sunglasses and Q-tips. Sometimes it’s vitamins or band-aids and other little things like books.

K. MacNeil. Gender Dysphoria Hoodie in the Morning. Installation shot courtesy of the artist.

One of my favourites is a painting of a sweater that says ‘Awful’ on it, based on an actual sweater I own. The title is Gender Dysphoria Hoodie in the Morning. It refers to the gender dysphoria hoodie that [many] people in the trans community use to manage their dysphoria. When you’re dealing with this dysphoria, you just kind of put a big hoodie on and hide within that. That’s a way of taking care of yourself and a way of being resilient as a trans person.

I decided to take a broad lens and address everything that I use to take care of myself in all these different facets of my life. Through that, I was also examining the way these things are branded and marketed to us and the language used around them—and how interesting and problematic it can be. The way I like to think about this exhibition is a Venn diagram of what it means to self-care and self-medicate and treat yourself that’s the intersection of where all these works fall. It’s not exclusively critical of the medical industry but it’s also not exclusively favourable.

I was also examining the way these things are branded and marketed to us and the language used around them—and how interesting and problematic it can be.

It’s just trying to take a realistic look at like, for example, how I need ibuprofen and I hate how much I have to take ibuprofen, but it’s part of my life. I was recently diagnosed with chronic pain and they basically [told me] you just have to take ibuprofen all day, every day, which is what I do. And there are a couple of supplements that help, but that’s about it. It’s frustrating, but it’s also like that’s the best that the medical community has got in terms of treating that illness, which is pretty sad.  

K. MacNeil. I think my cough drops are gaslighting me. Installation shot courtesy of the artist.

Your piece ‘I think my cough drops are gaslighting me’ has printed HALLS wrappers and the messages seem to address how manufacturing health and wellness plays into toxic positivity, especially during the pandemic. Can you speak more about this piece and the interactive aspect of it as well?

The piece is a pile of replicated HALLS cough drop wrappers that were printed using a linocut block for the logo and then letterpress for the motivational pep talks that they use. The whole thing is hand-printed and handmade. I say that because a lot of people thought that they were real cough drop wrappers and a pile of garbage on the floor. It’s art—I swear.  

I made just under 1,300 of them and all the phrases that are on them are phrases that I got from HALLS cough drop wrappers themselves. They’re from something called “a pep talk in every drop,” a HALLS marketing campaign that they wrap their cough drops in. And they’ve been doing it for years. The piece is installed as a pile on the floor and viewers are encouraged to take one of the wrappers with them and slowly deplete the pile throughout the exhibition. It’s a reference to the work of Félix González-Torres, who used depleting piles of candy in reference to the AIDS crisis and inter-personal relationships. I won’t get too much into his work cause there’s a lot to be said there. But I was interested in how Félix González-Torres was responding to a pandemic of his time, as I am with this work.

The idea initially came to me near the start of the pandemic in April of 2020. I had a cough, I didn’t have COVID, but I was still taking cough drops. I was opening up and reading these motivational statements when I was going through genuinely the worst month of my life. Several people I know had recently died and I had to quickly move over the border. I lost one of my jobs and just like everybody else, I was in a state of financial disarray as the entire world was ending. And it was like, what are we doing here? And this cough drop wrapper is telling me, “March forward,” “Get back in there, champ,” “Get through it,” and “Go for it.”

K. MacNeil. I think my cough drops are gaslighting me. Installation shot courtesy of the artist.

It’s a slap in the face, right?

Yeah, it was. I just [thought], “Wow, these don’t hold up so well in the pandemic.” The one that really got under my skin was the one that said, “You’ve survived tougher.” It hearkens back to that phrase that a lot of people like to say, “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”

It’s this kind of problematic idea that you can just withstand trauma after trauma and you’re going to be stronger for it. And it’s not always the case, but specifically with COVID, a lot of people didn’t survive tougher—a lot of people died. A lot of people got long COVID, and a lot of people’s lives were dramatically and permanently affected by this. And I think this culture of getting through it and surviving tougher is more harmful than just admitting, “Hey, we’re all going through a hard time right now.” We could use a little bit of softness instead of toughness, you know? The piece is kind of commenting on how those phrases are pretty gaslighting.

It’s also thinking about the amount of waste that’s produced by the medical industry. That’s a big part of this exhibition too, is just thinking about how much crap we accumulate from cough drop wrappers or pill bottles or random packaging. And how these things that we genuinely need to get through and to survive also come with a fair share of packaging and environmental waste that’s ultimately contributing to climate change. It was a way of encouraging viewers to take one of the wrappers home with them, instead of just mindlessly throwing stuff away in the garbage. What if we kept and took care of these things and tried to find alternate uses for them? I’ve been doing a lot of research into the zero-waste movement and trying to find how that works within my lifestyle. This is sort of my way of exploring that idea.

K. MacNeil. WITNESS MY SHAME. Installation shot courtesy of the artist.

Something that draws me to your work is how it fosters dialogue around mental illness and the stigma surrounding this. Can you speak more about how you address mental illness and mental health, especially in your piece ‘WITNESS MY SHAME which addresses how mental illness is discussed in society?

I would say that WITNESS MY SHAME and I THINK MY COUGH DROPS ARE GASLIGHTING ME have a lot in common. I was recently thinking about how it’s interesting to see this thorough line in my work because I made WITNESS MY SHAME many years ago and I didn’t think I was still working in that vein. Now I can see how that idea really stuck with me. 

WITNESS MY SHAME was a series of shadow boxes that highlighted phrases in a bold, black font that have been said to me personally, by close friends and family. I think they are phrases that you hear more frequently in response to mental health issues or chronic health issues. So, those phrases are, “I’ll pray for you,” “Just smile,” “Suck it up” and “You don’t have to talk about that right now.” Those were phrases that just shut a conversation down. If you’re trying to talk to somebody about what’s going on with you, whether it’s physical or mental illness, and the person you’re talking to doesn’t know how to respond, [they] use one of those types of phrases. It just completely shuts a conversation off—It’s their way of getting out of talking about something that might make them feel uncomfortable.

I took those phrases and I screen-printed them in these shadow boxes in this black font. And then over the top of them in the Plexiglas, I scratched several other phrases that might elicit those responses. Some of those phrases are, “I feel like I don’t have control,” “I just feel kind of numb,” “It feels like a life and death kind of thing,” “and “I can’t experience any more joy.” Those phrases came from a series of interviews I did for a sound piece, so they are phrases from other people who are experiencing mental illness trying to share what it feels like to have their mental illness.

What happens when you look at the piece, because you can’t see the scratched phrase super well, you have to look incredibly closely and come up to the piece and inspect it because you see it’s a bit blurry—your vision is slightly blocked. It was kind of interesting because a lot of people just walked right past the boxes and didn’t take that closer look. Then somebody would take a close look and then somebody else would take a close look and you’d see them kind of pull a whole bunch of people and [realize that] there are these phrases that are scratched on top of it. I appreciated how that happened because that’s what the piece is about. Some people are just oblivious, and they say these phrases that sort of steamroll over a conversation when you’re trying to reach out for help and other people stop and listen and take that closer look.

It’s more of a response to how people handle mental health and chronic illness in general. I think it kind of points to the stigma that it’s difficult to talk to people when they’re talking about mental health and that it’s something that we really shouldn’t even be talking about. It comes from that mentality that you should just suck it up, put a smile on, move on, and not talk about these things because it makes other people uncomfortable.

K. MacNeil. at home apothecary: OR EXTRA STRENGTH + PAIN RELIEF Installation shot courtesy of the artist.

I was wondering if you have any artists or other things that inspire you that you’d like to discuss?

I’ve already mentioned Félix González-Torres, his work is hugely influential to me. I don’t think you’d necessarily see a direct correlation when you look at my work but he’s one of those artists I’m always thinking about when I make work. He’s like the Patron Saint of printmakers. I don’t think he’s technically a printmaker, but every contemporary printmaker who is concerned with the multiple [loves him].

For this exhibition, I was also looking at a lot of painters. I technically did my undergrad in oil painting. In particular, Wayne Thiebaud: I have always been amazed at his sense of colour. Getting to see his work in person, find[ing] a subtle stroke of neon orange or a lime green underneath the form. I’ve always been fascinated by how his paintings come together and the little pops of colour that peek out. And certainly, I would say his composition is impactful on me too. I’ve spent a long time just looking at his work.

Another artist that I looked at a lot is Giorgio Morandi, a painter from Italy. His work is so lovely. It’s funny, when I would show his work to students, they were like “I don’t get it. It’s boring.” And that’s kind of what I’m interested in, the way he explores the banality of household objects. I’d say the last one for this exhibition is Philip Guston. I’m in love with the work that he does. I mean, especially the stuff he did later in life with the self-portraits and the more expressive caricatures that he was doing. But specifically, I’ve always been a strong admirer of the confidence of his painting stroke. You can tell that he just goes in, and he paints a line and that’s it, he doesn’t fuss with it. That’s something I always try to keep in mind when I paint because I fuss with things, and I want to get to the point where I’m not fussy. I want to paint a line and that’s the line.

One other artist that I wanted to mention is Shannon Finnegan. They do this piece called, Do you want us here or not which are these blue benches that they install in art spaces that say things like, “This exhibition has asked me to stand for too long. Sit, if you agree,”“I’d rather be sitting. Sit, if you agree,” and “There aren’t enough places to sit around here. Sit, if you agree.” You engage with the work by sitting on it. It’s just this brilliant and much-needed conversation about the accessibility of art spaces and public spaces in general.

Especially as someone who lives with chronic pain, I’m constantly telling people, “I’m sitting, I’m not lazy. I just have to sit, it’s just what I do.” I love those pieces because one, I wish there were more chairs everywhere in the world, and two, I think we’re on the same wavelength in terms of what we’re talking about with ableist language and spaces.

Do you have any upcoming or current projects you’d like to mention?

I’m currently an artist-in-residence at Open Studio. That residency is winding down, but I’m still working on that body of work, which is a series of etchings exploring waiting rooms and healthcare institutions. I feel like it heavily relates to this exhibition as well. 

It’s a commentary on the inaccessibility of healthcare spaces. Waiting rooms are some of the most boring places on the planet and yet there’s so much pain and trauma and suffering that happens [in them]. I’m very interested in the banality of pain and suffering and trauma and what that banality means. You sit in a room with a blank wall and generic seating that’s terribly uncomfortable for hours at a time, waiting to be seen by a doctor, and sometimes they catch your issue and sometimes they don’t.

I have this series of drawings of waiting rooms that I’ve collected over the past several years. I’m turning them into etchings, which I’m going to string together into one long, never-ending waiting room.

You can find more of K. MacNeil’s work on their website and their Instagram, @kit.macneil.

Muscle Memory: In Conversation with Michèle Pearson Clarke

Michèle Pearson Clarke, Still from Quantum Choir, 2022. Images courtesy of the artist.

Interview by Adi Berardini and Aysia Tse

Michèle Pearson Clarke is a Trinidad-born artist, writer, and educator working in photography, film, video, and installation. As Clarke describes, using performative gestures, her work “situates grief as a site of possibility for social engagement and political connection.” Currently based in Toronto, Clarke holds a Master’s in Social Work from the University of Toronto and received her MFA in Documentary Media from the Toronto Metropolitan University (formerly Ryerson), where she is currently an Assistant Professor in the School of Photography and Image Arts. Additionally, Clarke was the inaugural 2020-2021 artist-in-residence at the University of Toronto’s Bonham Centre for Sexual Diversity Studies and has recently served a term as the Photo Laureate for the City of Toronto (2019-2022).

In the following interview, Clarke speaks more about her most recent exhibition Muscle Memory at the Art Gallery of Hamilton. The exhibition features the film Quantum Choir, a piece exploring queer female masculinity and vulnerability through the shared experience of four participants learning how to sing. Also featured in Muscle Memory, is the photo series The Animal Seems to be Moving, which explores growing up and grieving her sense of boyhood, going from being read as a young Black boy to being seen as a middle-aged Black man. Clarke uses personally significant emblems of masculinity to reflect on both grief and the more playful aspects of queerness. Read on to learn more about the thoughts and process behind Muscle Memory.

Michèle Pearson Clarke, Still from Quantum Choir, 2022. Images courtesy of the artist.

Adi Berardini: Can you speak more about how Quantum Choir addresses queer kinship through the vulnerability of learning how to sing?

I’m not sure that it addresses queer kinship, but rather, it harnesses it because I knew I didn’t want to do this by myself. It’s always easier to do something difficult if you’re holding somebody’s hand. I knew that I wanted to harness that sense of togetherness and queer kinship, and that sense that it takes a village to do this hard thing that I wanted to do. I found three other people (participants Naisargi N. Davé, Kerry Manders and Kimiko Tobimatsu) who also wanted to do this hard thing, and I think none of us could have done it by ourselves. Maybe I could have hired a coach to get over my shame. It’s possible I eventually would have gotten there and just done it as an individual personal thing. But as an artist, you get to create these experiences and these processes, you can bring a process into being that is just so much more rewarding.

 I think a lot of people can relate to the shame of feeling like you can’t sing, but also lots of people will happily get up at a bar, sing terribly at karaoke, and think nothing of it. I think the four of us deeply understand how difficult this was for each of us. Even though I think some people in our lives, our community, may not understand. We feel bonded because I mean, everybody almost dropped out before each singing lesson. And as I said, I cried. One participant almost wasn’t sure she would be able to come and see it in person because she just wasn’t sure she could bear seeing herself singing publicly, even though she had been through the process. So, it is extremely challenging for all of us to share our voices. This is the first time we’re all singing publicly.

And I understand what it means to not just do it but to make something that you can share with an audience. Laverne Cox introduced the term “possibility model,” how you have to see it to be able to be it. We offer each other a sense of permission and possibility through all our choices and actions. That’s something I try to do with my artwork. Not to say that everybody in the audience needs to go and learn how to sing, but if these four people could do this hard thing, what hard thing in your own life might you want to harness, tackle, or work through?

Michèle Pearson Clarke, Still from Quantum Choir, 2022. Images courtesy of the artist.

Aysia Tse: You use performative gestures and repetition in your work. I’m wondering how intentional those choices that you make are, and if you see them connecting to your discussion of visibility and invisibility?

I would say performance is one of the bedrock strategies for me in my practice because I’m very interested in the relationship between looking and seeing, and thinking and feeling, so affect is something I’m always thinking about. How do I produce an affect in the work that I make? I find performance and repetition are strategies that generate a lot of affect. I’m just completely compelled by what repetition does. We learn, we gain knowledge, and gain experience through repetition.

Half of Quantum Choir is just us doing our vocal, upbeat exercises on our vocal warmups. We say words in the singing, but we never speak. So instead of interviewing those three people to ask them about their experiences of being masculine and the vulnerability associated with that, it’s like we’re expressing it through this metaphorical way of communication. For the first time, I worked with a choreographer having people do the same movements. We spent the day with our movement coach and did a workshop where we talked about our relationship to masculinity, our relationship to our bodies, movement, gesture, and performance. And then, collectively, we listened to the song that we were learning to sing. And we all just decided on these simple gestures, we performed for the camera when I shot.

I knew that with Quantum Choir, I was filming everybody separately, but that [most] of the piece I would have two, three, or four voices together. And I knew that in the scenes where it’s only one person singing, that is the peak vulnerability, right? Because when there are two voices, your inability to sing is a little bit lost by somebody else’s inability to sing. But at that moment where it’s just [one person] singing, I was thinking, how do I communicate and express an enormous amount of solidarity and collectivity? When the three of us are moving and one person is singing, I wanted that choreography and that intentional movement to emphasize that we are in sync, we are together. We got you. We’re not just standing there listening to a person singing. Almost like a boy band, there’s something about movement together that expresses we are all one, we belong, we are a group.

Quantum Choir, 2022. Four-channel 4k video installation (colour, sound, 12:46), soccer balls, and training cones. Photo credit: Natalie Hunter.

AT: I love how you integrate sport into your practice. I see that there are soccer balls in the exhibition, and it seems like you’re thinking through the architecture of the space very thoroughly. Can you explain these creative choices?

It’s exciting for me because when you’re an emerging artist, you’re not always able to realize your ambitions. Institutions don’t give you enough space and resources. Muscle Memory is the first time I could design my dream installation. But one of the things I have been grappling with in the first stage of my career is the power dynamic of consuming moving image work in a gallery space. Most video in the gallery is projected on a wall. You walk in, you sit on a bench, and there’s this kind of passive consumption of the work. I’m always thinking about what it means to share the vulnerability, the griefs, the pains of queer folks, Black folks, of people of colour in a gallery space that, as we know, has colonial power dynamics still embedded in it.

And when I think about that history, particularly of making Black pain a spectacle for public consumption we go right back to the circulation of the lynching postcard. Even though I’m not showing that kind of violent pain, I am still showing pain. This piece is more of an extreme step in beginning to think about how I introduce more opacity and refusal into my work. With this piece, I wanted to think about how I ask the viewer to be an active participant in bearing witness to this vulnerability.

I’m always thinking about what it means to share the vulnerability, the griefs, the pains of queer folks, Black folks, of people of colour in a gallery space that, as we know, has colonial power dynamics still embedded in it.

The soccer balls have two functions. One, for all of us, sports is the only place in our life where masculinity has been supported throughout our life and for three of the four of us, that sport is soccer. Beyond that, the grid on the floor is a small ask from the viewer since you have to pay attention to where you’re walking. It’s a bit of labour and effort on the part of the viewer to come into the installation. Because of this design, even though we’re always on screen, you can never look at all four of us at the same time. This is what I mean about opacity and refusal—how do I hold something back for each of us? As a viewer, you have to make decisions from second to second about where you’re looking and who you’re looking at. It’s not just sitting on a bench and it’s all coming at you.

Glitter Stache, 2021, Archival pigment print on Hahnemühle Hemp, Alupanel mounted, 40” x 50”

AB: Can you speak more about your photo series, The Animal Seems to be Moving, and how you use humour to address aging and racial stereotypes surrounding Black masculinity?

MPC: This is an ongoing project that I started in 2018, I was 45 when I started it. I decided that I would work on it for five years and finish the project next year when I turn 50. This series is just really rooted in how I’ve always been read as younger than I am. For [most] of my life, I have been read as a young Black boy. Then before I started working on this series, I was brushing my teeth one day and I thought, “Oh, your face is finally beginning to catch up to you.” And then I just found there was a span of particularly hostile encounters with strangers. Obviously, I don’t know what’s in people’s minds, but I started to surmise that I am moving from being read as a young Black boy to being read as a middle-aged Black man.

Even though Black boys do have their innocence robbed and often get read as older than they are, a Black man is to many people more threatening than a Black boy. I was thinking “Now I have to worry about more risks and less safety for myself in the world as I age.” Then I was just struck by how absurd that is. Using humour and leaning into the absurdity of oppression is not a new strategy, right? It’s something that if you’re a woman, if you’re queer, if you’re trans, or come from any minority position, if you face oppression, then humour is in your tool belt for coping with oppression. It might be you read some nonsense in the paper, and you just laugh. If we responded to everything with anger and grief, we wouldn’t get out of bed. There’s grief, right? Every time I walk into a woman’s washroom and a woman shrinks in fear because she thinks I’m a man coming to hurt her, there’s grief. There’s grief that people see me that way, that people respond to me that way, that [my presence] in their world can create that kind of interaction.

It’s absurd also that people see Black men as a threat but that gets transferred to me because of my gender presentation. Oppression, at the root of it, is absurd and I wanted to incorporate that. How can I work these ideas of performance in a photograph? But it also helped me, [that] with both pieces there’s play and there’s humour. Both pieces are about [the] vulnerability and grief of being seen in ways that are not how you feel yourself to be in the world. In both pieces, rather than foregrounding victimhood or a trauma position, they foreground the pleasure that’s part of the experience too. Both are trying to acknowledge that oppression exists, and the pain is real, but it was fun to make Quantum Choir. It is fun to be gay.

The absurdity is both trying to point to the absurdity of the gaze and the assumptions about me, but it’s also a way for me to express the joy, pleasure, and the fun that I’m having aging. And how do I prioritize that for myself? How do I let [myself] define my experience of aging and not that external gaze? I have to live with it, I have to contend with it every time I leave the house, but how do I foreground my pleasure and experimentation and play? And a little bit of that series is also melancholy in terms of feeling like I’m saying goodbye to my boyhood as well.

They’re also intentionally photographs because when I’m out in the world, I don’t want people staring at me trying to figure out my gender or trying to figure out if they should be afraid of me or not. The photograph freezes that moment. In the exhibition design, I put seating in the room with the photographs because it is an invitation to look and stare as long as you want at these photographs.

I wanted to play with tropes and ideas of masculinity, and many of the ideas are rooted in my childhood memories because I wanted to be a boy when I was a kid. And I remember the things that my child’s mind associated with manhood, like in one of them I’m wearing one of those tree-shaped air fresheners. As a kid growing up in Trinidad, I remember it was something that taxi drivers had. I’m wearing it on like a gold chain, which is another kind of Black manhood.

Little Trees (Hold), 2021, Archival pigment print on Hahnemühle Hemp, 24” x 30”

AT: I think that you’ve expressed beautifully how grief is personal for you and your boyhood and kind of moving through different stages of life. Do you also see it as personal and collective in your work?

MPC: Absolutely. As I said before, there’s nothing I feel that only I feel. My work is also ethnographic versus autobiographical because I feel like the things that I feel are not because I’m Michèle—they’re because I’m Black, I’m masculine, I’m queer, and I’m an immigrant. There are these systemic, historical, and cultural factors that mean that people respond to me in certain ways, which make me feel a certain way. Anybody who occupies my identities, those same cultural, historical, and social factors are [imposed upon them]. The feelings I’m exploring are not individual feelings. They’re political feelings, they’re public feelings that are produced by political and social forces.

To me, grief itself is something that in Western culture we are told should be private, not public. By bringing it into the gallery space, I’m bringing it into a public space. I do think that grief is one of those things where everything is politicized. We see it in the world’s response to Ukraine, not that the world shouldn’t have responded to Ukraine the way it has, but the world didn’t respond to Yemen in the same way. The grief of certain people has more value to a degree than other people. We’re not free of systemic forces with anything, even when it comes to grief.

I also feel that one of the ways that Black people have been robbed of our humanity is the ideas that white supremacy brought into being to justify slavery and similar for Indigenous people. We are not seen to have rich interior lives—That’s not a coincidence. It’s white supremacy [proclaiming] “Let’s reduce these people so that we can justify the way that we treat them.” This lingers in contemporary culture.

When I lost my mom, I couldn’t find anything that [spoke to] the experience of a Black queer person losing their mother. I couldn’t find a book; I couldn’t find a tool. I couldn’t find anything. Everything about Black loss is homicide or violence. The only grief that our culture wants to talk about is hurt and anguish, not just the everyday thing like losing your mom. We don’t get to be seen as having [that kind of grief]. It hurts since it’s just the most mundane kind of everyday grief. That’s what I mean about grief as a site of social engagement and political connection. It’s a way to connect to the impacts of these larger forces.

For people who feel like they are different from me in the world and that we have nothing in common to sit and watch Parade of Champions, which is the work I made about grieving my mother—It sounds so ridiculous but I’ve met the little old ladies who don’t understand, nothing in their life has ever prepared them to think that somebody who looks like me could feel what they feel. We are the same in that way and grief is the most universal human experience. And so, by sharing queer grief, by sharing feminist grief, by sharing Black grief, it is a way, hopefully, for people to feel that kinship across differences.

Michèle Pearson Clarke’s Muscle Memory is on view at the Art Gallery of Hamilton until September 5, 2022. This interview will be featured in our second print issue on Queer and Feminist collaboration, launching later this summer.

Meditations on “Positive Energy” with Jen Rao

xiukouxiaoxing, illustration by Jen Rao.

By Jen Kwan

正能量 (zhēngnéngliàng) [positive energy] rose to fame as a catchphrase on Chinese social media in the early 2010s. Anything – a TV series or news article – had zhēngnéngliàng if it could spark optimism and hopefulness. This is easy to apply to the creations of Jen Rao. But there is little to be said for taking art at face value.

“A lot of my personal projects are expressions of identity—as a woman, a queer femme, a sexual person, someone with Chinese diasporic origins…Marginalization is a big motivation for trying to express a darkness beneath the outward appearance of color and positivity.”

Jen left Chengdu in southwest China’s Sichuan province at the age of five. She lived in a few North American cities—mostly in Canada—in suburban, predominantly white neighborhoods. She graduated with a business degree, in her parents’ best interests.

“I struggled to connect with both the children of the Chinese immigrant families we had banquet dinners with and the white children that went to my school, from whom I desperately sought approval. I distanced from the Chinese kids, feeling deeply different from them, rejecting the behaviors and identifications that I felt were traditionally Chinese.”

Over the years, Jen’s perception of China has changed from what was presented to her as a child during trips to “the motherland” (“a patchwork of historical sites and commerciality”) to what she saw after relocating to Beijing in 2015. One night, a Tinder date brought her to School Bar, where she watched all-women Chinese punk band Free Sex Shop. It began a journey of rediscovering cultural identity through the discovery of subcultures she long resonated with outside of China.

“I was surprised to see these empowered and expressive women perform before me, completely uninhibited and unafraid to express their vulnerabilities. My eyes were opened to a scene that I had no idea existed.”

such a cafe, illustration by Jen Rao.

By the time Jen had moved to China, the concept of zhēngnéngliàng was shaping the country’s societal and political messages. It ran parallel with the government’s plans for economic development. In 2014, it announced a campaign to decongest Beijing through urban rejuvenation. Three years later, the “Great Brickening” in 胡同 (hútòng) [traditional alleyway] areas unfolded.

“Buildings that were deemed not up to code or operating under the incorrect zoning were demolished. Windows and doors were bricked overnight. I began, almost obsessively, documenting the changes in the hutongs through watercolor illustrations.”

Under the moniker “drift & dune,” she depicted shopfronts of businesses at risk through a series of postcards, which these establishments would display and sell as souvenirs. Most of them no longer exist. In 2018, she exhibited for the first time in a group show called “Hutong Art Project Vol. 1 — Vitality Remains.”

“The event felt like a collective goodbye to the hutongs as we knew it, and although we were brought together by something that was less than desirable, it felt unifying.”

Ironically, zhēngnéngliàng originates from the Chinese translation of a self-help book by British psychologist Richard Wiseman titled Rip It Up. Ironically, it was through this pivotal event—also colloquially known as the 拆 (chāi) [tear down]—that Jen had inadvertently carved a path for herself in the local art scene. One day, at an affordable art market, she met the co-founder of a Beijing collective that documents underground culture through illustration.

thinking of you zine by Jen Rao.

“Shuilam Wong encouraged me to put my work out there, and so I created my first self-publication, a mini-zine that could fit in your pocket that explored the sentimentality of inanimate objects. I printed 40 copies and sold them at Shui’s table for 5 kuai ($1) a pop. Despite the tiny physical size of the creation, it felt like a milestone.”

In Chinese media, narratives that appear to get a zhēngnéngliàng stamp of approval feature the quality of overcoming a setback. In Jen’s case, that anecdote likely begins with the rescue of a partially blind pug named 包子 (bāozi) [steamed stuffed bun], who sometimes went by “nugget.” When she and her then-partner Dave Carey lost their teaching jobs and studio to the COVID-19 pandemic, they took a leap of faith and invested their life savings into a business venture. The stylized name and image of Baozi’s face became the symbol of a cassette label called nugget records, with a quaint space that houses a café, bar, recording studio, and music venue.

baozi, illustration by Jen Rao.

“We were not experts on any of what we were doing, but everything was done with a lot of heart.”

nugget upholds a purpose to be an inclusive and accessible convergence point for Beijing’s local and foreign communities, which has somehow propelled Jen into a coincidental role as an ambassador for the Chinese diaspora.

“We occupy both of these spaces and I think that’s kind of rare [in Beijing] for someone from the diaspora, so I don’t take that lightly. I want to utilize and implement the things I’ve gained from experiences of my North American upbringing in a household of Chinese values…It’s important to me to operate a radically accepting space, especially in China, where that’s not always the case.”

While co-running nugget, Jen has expanded her creative practice and collaborations in digital art and live visuals. It has brought exposure on local media platforms, including the Chinese-language editions of the Wall Street Journal and Kinfolk magazine. But she often also speaks of the challenges as someone whose identity intercepts peripheral minority categories.

“I experience micro-aggressions and discrimination regularly due to being a young female business owner…Even though my work has been published, I still suffer from imposter syndrome.”

Less than a year after nugget opened, Jen found herself coming to terms with keeping a friendship and business with someone who was no longer a long-term romantic partner. Although she questioned her queerness for years, the breakup prompted a search for answers.

 “I started a journey of introspection. I started reading about comp-het (compulsory heterosexuality). I started sharing with people. They really encouraged and supported me, and it did lead to my coming out…I know how much chosen family and community is important to me. And I want to be able to extend my own communities in a way that might touch upon my insecurities and experiences of marginalization. But I am also compassionate to the fact that other people will want this, too, and I want to bring it to them.”

séance salon graphic by Jen Rao.

For six months, Jen lived in a housing collective, fondly referred to as Studio 702—a nod to the New York night club of the late 1970s, Studio 54. The storied 300-square-meter apartment, infamously known for its parties, has been home to a range of Beijing creatives in the past decade. There, Jen introduced the séance salon, a project aimed at creating a space for women and non-binary people to share knowledge and art and discuss topics related to intersectional feminism in a non-commercial and uncensored setting. The small 20-member gathering is a relatively big feat in a country where there are unpredictable consequences to crossing or even towing the boundaries of censorship.

“We’ve covered menstruation, fertility, birth, abortion, sex, sexuality, and relationships…It was my first time having to be able to speak about these things in such an uncensored way. And just being able to create that for other people’s involvement as well as my own was really rewarding, liberating, and empowering.”

While nostalgia and idealizations of periods, places, and objects have been key to Jen’s art, expressions of vulnerability have become the core of her work. In the process, she is reclaiming a once-rejected heritage, presenting a counter-argument to a homogenous vision of China instead.

火花 illustration by Jen Rao.

“I want to continue to represent and communicate things that are important to me—to strengthen femininity, female sexuality, subjects and themes of the Asian diaspora, and a sense of being embedded in our generational and locational context.”

In China, many are attuned to seek zhēngnéngliàng, even if it means overlooking the direness of a situation. Separate from its political stigma, zhēngnéngliàng denotes proactive optimism that should not necessarily equate to toxic and relentless positivity. For about two months, Jen lived in Guangzhou, southern China, where she opened another nugget under a government-sanctioned program. Since then, efforts have also been made to keep the flagship in Beijing afloat. Operating amid a pandemic has been accented with financial woes and noise complaints about the space’s signature tiny stage concerts and gender bender parties. But Jen believes there is hope to be had from the community she has integrated with, helped cultivate, and given back to in ways beyond business and art.

“It’s hard to say these things with confidence, especially in a time that is plagued with uncertainties. Even though operating from Beijing is so difficult, we’ve been granted a lot of opportunities and have a lot of exciting things on the horizon. So, I’m generally very optimistic, and I know that our community will come through in the end.”

You can find more of Jen Rao’s work at and on Instagram at @nekObean. Also check out nugget records on Bandcamp.

Connecting Community Through the OEV Main Street Mural Program

Artists and mentee/mentor pair Sylvie Verwaayen and Tova Hasiwar.

By Adi Berardini

The OEV Main Street Mural Program aims to build community and beautify the streetscape of Old East Village. Five artist mentee and mentor pairs have been placed together to complete murals down Dundas Street on the main strip of the Old East Village corridor. Through this program, new artist partnerships are facilitated, creating new mentorship opportunities. The mural installations are an integral part of the upcoming event series called Only in OEV Fridays, with the first event happening on June 10 from 3 to 8 pm. In addition to the live mural painting, there will be a Bike Rodeo in the Squeaky Wheel Bike Co-op Parking lot, live music, art and heritage tours, a photo booth, and even more on-street activities.

The first of the mural locations is on the east-facing side of 623 Dundas St. Owners Jeff Pastorius, Ellie Cook and Aaron Lawrence run On the Move Organics, a local, organic grocery service rooted in community and sustainability. As Ellie states, “We’re excited about showing a visual representation of how resilient and sustainable food systems can build community and enrich neighbourhoods. We’re also really excited about incorporating honey bees, since they provide an amazing model for how to live and work cooperatively.” 

Mentee Sylvie Verwaayen and Mentor Tova Hasiwar are pictured in front of their mural.

“The painting encourages and celebrates cultivating and eating locally grown food which brings us together in ethos and sustainability.”

Artist pair mentor Tova Hasiwar and mentee Sylvie Verwaayen describe how the mural “weaves 21 colours together to create a beautiful landscape just as diverse as our OEV community.” This artist pair demonstrates not only the power behind a duo of two women artists in a male-dominated field of mural art but also that age is just a number. Mentor Tova Hasiwar is an experienced muralist with seven years of experience, with large-scale projects for Pride Toronto and Nuit Blanche under her belt. Although Sylvie is a mentee, she is an established artist with many years of painting experience, looking to venture into the realm of public art. The partnership has shown that each artist has their own skills and experience to bring to the project—and one that isn’t a small feat since the mural is on a two-story wall. As the artists explain, “the painting encourages and celebrates cultivating and eating locally grown food which brings us together in ethos and sustainability.”

Mentor Amsa Yaro working on the mural located at K-laba.

Happening across the street is a mural that celebrates the beauty of a diverse community at K-laba Hair and Beauty Supplies Co. by artist pair mentor Amsa Yaro and mentee Rain Bloodworth. K-laba specializes in wigs, braids, weaves, and extensions, as well as a wide range of hair care products and beauty supplies. Recently, the store celebrated the exciting milestone of its 25th anniversary. 

As K-laba Hair and Beauty Supplies Co. owner Angella Kyabaggu explains, “We wanted to create something to represent the community as a whole and something to promote integration and inclusion because we started in the east end, and we were the ones who brought hair care to the London area way back 25 years ago for the Black community. But we’re also not just for the Black community. We’re for everyone, you know, reaching LGBTQ+ and clients with chemotherapy and alopecia. Something community-based that could represent London.”

Mentee Rain Bloodworth working on the mural located at K-laba. Drop by and see it at the Only in OEV Fridays event!

Mentor Amsa Yaro is from Nigeria and is active in the local arts scene here in London. She has prior experience with public art through participating in the Dundas Place murals downtown and traffic box art organized by the London Arts Council. She explains, “working on this mural is exciting. It’s not just about having a canvas this big but being able to impact the community with a celebration of talent and many colours.” Mentee Rain Bloodworth is a Visual Arts student at Western University who has a distinctive illustrative style that she brings to the mural design. As Rain adds, “Making work in public reconnects you with people and you remember why you make art. Art is more than the process or product, it’s also about how it makes people feel and the impact it has on a community. Everybody I’ve met has been so excited and grateful for this project; knowing my work has brought joy is what keeps me creating.”

Make sure to check out the upcoming Only in OEV Fridays event coming up on June 10th from 3 pm to 8 pm on Dundas St from Adelaide to Ontario!

Author’s Note: This article is documenting a Mural Program I have helped organize and is published in collaboration with the Old East Village BIA. You can also read it on

Talking ‘Fred: An Unbecoming Woman’ with Annie Krabbenschmidt

Annie Krabbenschmidt author photo, courtesy of the author.

Interview by Adi Berardini

The book Fred: An Unbecoming Woman by Annie Krabbenschmidt came into my life when I truly needed to read it. It didn’t take long before I began underlining passages of the book with a bright blue pen as if it was the guidebook for the slightly nerdy queer. I had never read a book that I could relate to on so many levels—I felt like the book put my experience of queerness into such relatable passages. I suddenly felt less alone while looking back at my coming-of-age story.

Fred: An Unbecoming Woman highlights what it feels like to “fail” womanhood with perfectionist tendencies and made me both laugh out loud and tear up at moments.  Krabbenschmidt traces the lineage of their journey coming out often using 2000s pop culture references, including Booksmart, Twilight, and Mean Girls. Fred highlights the importance of moving through fear and anxiety to arrive at self-love and acceptance.

Originally from the California Bay Area and a Duke University graduate, Annie Krabbenschmidt is a writer and artist currently based in Los Angeles. A natural storyteller, they have done stand-up comedy, improv, written op-eds, and hosted the podcast, “Love is a Softball Field.” The following is an interview with Krabbenschmidt about autotheory, humour and pop culture in writing, and how their debut book came to be.

There were many parts of your coming out experience that you detailed that I could relate to, which felt healing. From how you cherished your close friendships growing up to being unable to come out at first because of the anxiety. Can you speak more about how autotheory lends itself well to sharing these experiences? Can you explain your process of writing Fred?

I remember distinctly taking a journalism class when I was [17 or 18] and thinking that I was missing journalism. I was writing a long time ago before the book came into existence. I [thought that] maybe I’m missing journalism because I know that one of the beauties of journalism is talking about what’s going on and saying something that matters to people and it’s relevant. That relevancy was something I was trying to work into my writing.

I had these two teachers who were like, “Well, we don’t think first-person narratives should exist anymore. It’s over. Hunter S. Thompson already did it.” And I felt so frustrated listening to that. I think that it’s so silly to say something is over first of all, but I also feel like autotheory is like the genre of the underrepresented because who’s going to talk about us except ourselves? I am a little bit bitter that that was the take they took, [thinking that] no one wants to read it anymore. I think we’re just experiencing this kind of revolution of reading these stories.

I’m thinking of writers like Nikole Hannah-Jones, who wrote about choosing a school for her daughter in New York and seeing how segregation would impact her personally, which is hugely important because she’s an upper-middle-class to upper-class Black woman, so these choices are so multilayered for her. It’s one of those things where all the writers I looked up to were doing autotheory, whether they called it that or not.  I think we need to place a lot of value on writing that comes from that position and not overlook it.

I’m a big fan of autotheory as a lens to kind of like unearth stories that we need to hear.

If you think about it, we’ve been doing autotheory for the heteronormative and mainstream, whatever you want to call it. Like from the position of power, the white straight man, whoever that person is, whoever that biography is, we’ve kind of been doing that autotheory for a long time. We just haven’t been calling it that. We’ve just been letting it be philosophy, letting it be theory, or letting it be the Declaration of Independence. These have been autotheory without being called that because that’s just what they were.

I’m a big fan of autotheory as a lens to kind of like unearth stories that we need to hear. Carmen Maria Machado is a big influence and as a writer, I look up to her a lot. Her whole thesis in her book In the Dream House is about unearthing the archives. I think that being able to embrace autotheory and not having it be some code word for frivolous or unimportant, I wanted to embrace a personal narrative. I think it’s maybe clear throughout the book, but I have done plenty of academic work and school and research and I’ve read academic texts and enjoyed them. But then I was like, do they apply to me? For this first, big project I am working on I thought let’s write what I know. And I know myself or I will by the time this book is done.

I think autotheory is a way to lend credibility to people who are trying to grapple with their position, especially if they’re in an oppressed position. I think it’s an important avenue for people to—I’m not sure if this is the right word—but claw their way out from under this position. Not because they’re inherently low value, but because they’re being pressed upon. So, I think that it’s a beautiful way to give those identities more attention is to let people speak for themselves. For many reasons, the process of writing Fred [was] a lot of fear.

It must be hard to recount those memories.

I want to reiterate that I think I’ve come out of this as a much more confident and assertive artist. There are many years when I was just gaining the confidence to move forward and write. I read something at a reading night, and someone said, “Would you like to write a book?” And within that one moment of asking, my answer was, “Yes.” It was such an easy way for me to decide that this was something that I want to do. And I think that it’s too bad that I needed to have that question asked of me. But I’ve always been a storyteller, or I don’t know if [I was] specifically a writer in terms of a pen to paper writer, but I’ve always been sharing at family, doing annoying poems that little kids do at gatherings, and I’ve been trying to make the table laugh. I just didn’t know that I was allowed to call myself a writer.

Fred: an Unbecoming Woman by Annie Krabbenschmidt. Published by Radical Queer Dinner Party.

It was moving to me since I’ve never really seen that anxiety depicted around coming out explained in such thorough detail. I felt that I can relate to this, especially coming into my identity a bit later. I was drawn in by how you detailed queer loneliness and sexual repression, especially since these are not often included in the broader narrative of queerness. Can you expand more on why you unpacked these themes in Fred?

I’ve always been plagued by that. I mean, even now 19 was relatively early compared to many of my peers that come out even later than that. For me, I [thought that] if I’m coming out like I’ve seen it on TV, I should be 15. And I should be done when I come out of the closet. But it was so much more of a long journey of confusion, clarity, and shame. I mean, shame was there the whole time, but it was not clear cut until I wrote in the book, like the exact moment I went to college, and I was like, “Oh, duh, of course.” Maybe it was in the back of my head, but it was never clear. One of the reasons I wanted to write the book was that I’ve never read about someone really untying every single fibre of their being and being like, “where did the gay part get in here?”

All of those things that I was grappling with held me back in terms of declaring myself. I felt lonely and I was confused because I had kissed boys and not been attracted or had [feared] physical intimacy with women. I had never seen it before. It was a matter of wanting to make sure this experience was documented, just so that other people can know that shame can be a huge part of coming out and not everyone can come out. I would probably say it’s more rare than people think to come out confident and declaring oneself. I had just never seen it so meticulously turned around and examined in such a way. So, I [thought that] this is a good story just because I’ve never read it.

And people are always kind of coming out, whether it’s for the first time as queer or another time as non-binary or any other way that you might be exploring your identities. It was about six months before finding out that I was going to be writing a book that I owned my identity as a writer and this realization that I was very intimidated by women and sexual activity. I don’t know how else to explain it, except that it’s possible that I’m on this demisexual spectrum. I’m more of an intimate person, a romantic and intimate non-physical person. I’m not interested in one-night stands. And I think more people would [think] you add another sexual identity to yourself and you’re like, “God, there’s just so much to explain,” but I think that’s an actual all-encompassing theme, is explaining yourself. That was a part of my preoccupation was I feel like I need to explain myself over again.

I think I’ve arrived at I am both things, I’m no longer sexually repressed, but I can acknowledge that I was repressed and scared of exhibiting sexuality and exhibiting desires specifically. I think that word is the one really scared me. It was desire and imposing your desires, announcing your desires, and telling people that you have desires—all of that scared me. Now I can acknowledge that I am able to have desires and I can support my own desires.

You incorporate humour in your writing so seamlessly. Can you speak more about your thoughts on humour and writing, especially when discussing more serious and difficult-to-talk-about topics?

I’m going to start by really reversing this question just because I think as opposed to incorporating humor and serious writing, I had to start by trying to incorporate seriousness in humour writing. At one time was a wannabe comic. I started my whole writing dream wanting to be a TV writer. Tina Fey was my big idol and I wanted to do that. I kind of planned on doing that throughout college and was trying to set myself up to go write at a TV show like 30 Rock or SNL or something like that. I started off being quite dedicated to just humour.

And when I was in high school, I used humour as a shield and to keep people at an arm’s length, which is very commonly understood at this point. I think I punched down a lot more and for one thing, I was much more sheltered as a 17-year-old than I am now. I don’t think I was ever mean with that humour, but I was keeping the attention away from me. I was making self-deprecating jokes about myself. I think I used to use humour to avoid honesty, And I think one of the things I’m most proud of in the book is that humour comes around in the most honest moments, like genuine things that I did that I cannot believe. It’s embarrassing, but to not include it so that I could be taken more seriously would feel too serious.

I think I started off being too funny. And then I was like, you know what? I have a lot of feelings and I need people to know this, so then I got serious. And then now I’m kind of blending it in a way that I feel more comfortable with. I think the actual question for me is how challenging it was to incorporate super serious moments in the book. The challenge of writing about self-harm later as not a climax, but it kind of is. For me, it felt like the emotional climax of the book was revealing that I had hurt myself on purpose and acknowledging there’s shame around that. There’s societal shame around that and I had never talked about it even before writing.

I just wanted to touch and not [fear] the things that were the most serious because my biggest fear was that people read this book thinking it was a comedy book. And then being like, “Oh my God, I didn’t expect this.” The reverse is what drove me, like how I can brave being very vulnerable in writing as opposed to hiding behind humour. I think it’s a question of balancing that.

An aspect that stands out in the book is the varying formats including graphs and illustrations, which helped capture my attention as a reader. I also enjoy how you used pop culture to make the book accessible. Can you speak more about how you use pop culture (like Twilight and Booksmart) to tie in your personal experiences?

Like I mentioned, I’m in-between the non-academic world and I’m very much into pop culture. And I also kind of fancy myself an intellectual, even though that is loaded. But I’m glad that I just decided to put that essay on Twilight in because I feel like there’s this meta experience going on, where I want to prove to you that I’m smart, but I’m talking about Twilight.

The joke of that chapter is how much I was lost trying to be intelligent or trying to understand things without really understanding theory or philosophy very well. But a scholar named Jack Halberstam writes about how important it is to understand pop culture. And I couldn’t agree more with that because it is an immediate reflection of what’s going on in our lives. Why wouldn’t it be an artifact that we talk about? I can think about every time I’ve heard someone make a gay joke in a show and how that impacted me. Of course, I need to dissect these things as we’re moving forward.

And I believe in the power of symbolism and symbology, not as in Dan Brown, but the power of words and how they can affect people. And I think that something I wanted to explain to people as soon as I came out was “Hey, these jokes, weren’t that funny to me. And here’s why my self-loathing is more severe than your need to crack this joke. Let’s talk about this so we can all be a little more sensitive.” And I think I wanted to tackle all the ways that we get the subliminal messaging through pop culture, because pop culture is the thing that we see all the time. It impacts me and everyone [engaging in it].

Jack Halberstam is the one who can articulate this better, but it’s the subconscious mirror, as opposed to [how] the university attempts to really theorize, pop culture is the more instant, subconscious, immediate response to what’s going on in our lives. I think it’s super important and that ties into my desire to include drawings. Once I had the authority to write a book, which is arguably self-permitted, I was like why wouldn’t I include the drawings? And some people would say, well, [you will be] taken less seriously as a “writer.” But at the same time, I don’t know if I want to be taken seriously as a writer. I won’t be taken seriously as an artist perhaps. And as someone who has things to say, a huge part of me is that I like doodles, and cartoons, and visuals, and I was always a math person. Having graphs made sense to me. And having the musical theater interlude for me, I had to draw a theater scene and acknowledge the fact that a huge part of my sharing experiences was about singing and trying to enjoy all the different ways that we express ourselves.

I think in that same way that pop culture gets overlooked or undermined, a population of writers and scholars doesn’t love the idea of not taking your own books seriously and adding these cartoons in. But for me, trying to undermine the seriousness and preciousness of the writing and the book was a huge, important thing that I’ve only recently been able to embrace. I’ll be silly, and you might think that I don’t know what I’m talking about, but I am processing things more than you think I am. I don’t announce it as a theory book, but I do think there’s some theory in it and it’s also accessible. I hope more art gets made that incorporates multi-media because I think we’re all better off for it.

Make sure to check out the book Fred: An Unbecoming Woman by Annie Krabbenschmidt, available on June 3rd, 2022.

Quantifying Sakoon with Tazeen Qayyum  

Sakoon by Tazeen Qayyum. Installation Views. Courtesy of the artist and Zalucky Contemporary. Photography by Toni Hafkenscheid. 2022.

Sakoon by Tazeen Qayyum

Zalucky Contemporary

February 12 to March 19, 2022

By Ignazio Colt Nicastro

Sakoon, Zameer, Brabri/Bartri, Yaqeen, Sabr, Hasil, Zarf, and Fikr are nine Urdu words meticulously drawn out through intensive, repetitive labor by Pakistani-Canadian artist, Tazeen Qayyum. These nine words encompass the walls of the Zalucky Contemporary, each evoking a personal reaction from Qayyum. Visually, the echoing Urdu characters wrap in an annular structure with a calligraphic form on sheets of paper, swirling towards the center like a vortex. In her debut Toronto solo exhibition, Sakoon, Qayyum engages viewers with this series of ink drawings that speak to her relationship with Urdu linguistics and her exploration of these words. 

Qayyum presents the work linearly across the gallery, providing rough translations of these Urdu words that are meant to illustrate something quantifiable. When viewers enter Zalucky Contemporary, they are met with the first work and the title of the show: Sakoon, meaning Peace/Calm/Tranquility, which sets the tone of the exhibition. To truly immerse oneself in this space, it is essential to understand that Urdu is not always meant to be consumed literally. With this in mind, viewers can now see that Qayyum is inviting them to dig deeper within themselves and to seek the quantity of tranquility within and around themselves.

Sakoon by Tazeen Qayyum. Installation Views. Courtesy of the artist and Zalucky Contemporary. Photography by Toni Hafkenscheid. 2022.

Next to this introductory piece, viewers are met with a triptych that harnesses a deeper presence thematically and visually in the space. From left to right, viewers stand ahead of Zameer (Conscience)Brabri/Bartri (Equality/Privilege), and Yaqeen (Belief). These three works are synergetic, as sentiments of equality and privilege cannot be discussed without having an underlying conversation of one’s conscience and beliefs. Surprisingly, these works were not made for one another, but over time Qayyum found a shared theme between them. This sequence of drawings forms a dialogue around the centerpiece of Brabri/Bartri

As a woman of colour, Qayyum found herself placed within emotional, personal, and public turmoil during the rise of heightened civil rights movements in response to the murder of George Floyd in 2020. Furthermore, as an artist, Qayyum reflected on the performativity of statements of solidarity that appeared from art institutions across the globe during this time. Screens of text flooded Instagram, Facebook, and arts-based platforms, yet it begged the question, why did these institutions feel the need to prove their core values? Are their values as an institution not visible through their actions? Qayyum began to question her own place in the art community as these statements began to feel more like a checklist rather than a statement of integrity. When connecting with art spaces, she now wondered what was being assessed: her merit or the colour of her skin. As these thoughts came to surface, Qayyum turned to her practice to reflect on these feelings. 

Sakoon by Tazeen Qayyum. Installation Views. Courtesy of the artist and Zalucky Contemporary. Photography by Toni Hafkenscheid. 2022.

Out of these experiences, Qayyum pulled out two contradicting words that exist within each other’s opposition, as the unbalance of privilege cannot subsist in an equal world.These words work against but also alongside each other, just as they do in the ink drawing Brabri/Bartri. As she does for almost all of her works, Qayyum began in the middle of the page, drawing Brabri (Equality) in black ink in a circular, clockwise direction. As she reached the end of this section, she then inverted the experience. Now drawing in white ink and counter-clockwise, Qayyum fills the page with Bartri (Privilege). She continues to do this for another five rounds, purely in black ink, filling the page with this new vessel of equality and privilege. It is the laborious act of repetition and rhythm that allowed Qayyum to turn from moments of disparity into a meditative trance. 

As time went on, more world issues were raised or persisted, furthering this claim to Brabri/Bartri. The rampant development of COVID-19 highlighted the disparities within marginalized communities, further exposing how our judicial systems overlook and reinforce structural violence against those who do not fit the quota of cis-gendered, straight, white, able-bodied, men or women. Qayyum pondered on the quantity of Zameer (Conscience) and Yaqeen (Belief) in society while considering this imbalance. In response, she is asking her viewers to consider their Bartri (Privilege) in order to obtain Brabri (Equality).

Sakoon by Tazeen Qayyum. Fikr (concern/thought), 2022 Archival ink on paper 29.5 x 23.25 inches (framed). Courtesy of the artist and Zalucky Contemporary. Photography by Toni Hafkenscheid

As these older works of Qayyum’s still resonate with audiences today, her newest piece, Fikr (Concern/thought) continues the series that speaks to her audiences and herself. Looking at this word closely, viewers should consider how deeply they reflect on the world around them. What is interesting about this piece, however, is Qayyum’s execution of the work. As aforementioned, Qayyum’s previous works are created from the center to the exterior. This was because the word choice itself was often a result from the world around her. Although Qayyum’s work often encourages her viewers to contemplate the phrases ahead of them, when she created Fikr she decided to focus inwards on herself. Even after finding solace in her therapeutic practice, Qayyum joins her viewers as we all seek Sakoon. 

A Method of Attunement: In Conversation with Candice Hopkins

Portrait of Candice Hopkins.

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.

Jeffrey Gibson, I AM YOUR RELATIVE, 2022. Installation views, MOCA Toronto. Courtesy of Jeffrey Gibson Studio, Kavi Gupta Gallery, Roberts Projects, Sikkema Jenkins & Co. and Stephen Friedman Gallery. I AM YOUR RELATIVE is co-commissioned by MOCA and the Toronto Biennial of Art.

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.

Installation view of ᑕᑯᒃᓴᐅᔪᒻᒪᕆᒃ Double Vision: Jessie Oonark, Janet Kigusiuq, and Victoria Mamnguqsualuk. Photo by Darren Rigo.

Can you discuss the Biennial exhibition ᑕᑯᒃᓴᐅᔪᒻᒪᕆᒃ Double Vision that you curated at the Textile Museum of Canada and its focus on sharing Inuit histories?

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.

Installation view of ᑕᑯᒃᓴᐅᔪᒻᒪᕆᒃ Double Vision: Jessie Oonark, Janet Kigusiuq, and Victoria Mamnguqsualuk. Photo by Darren Rigo.

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.

Installation view of ᑕᑯᒃᓴᐅᔪᒻᒪᕆᒃ Double Vision: Jessie Oonark, Janet Kigusiuq, and Victoria Mamnguqsualuk. Photo by Darren Rigo.

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.

Tough Conversations: (un)happy objects at Artcite Inc.

(un)happy objects Installation photo, ArtCite Inc. Photo by Adrienne Crossman.

(un)happy objects

Artcite Inc. Windsor, ON

October 15th – Nov 20th, 2021

By Adi Berardini

How one approaches tough conversations can be telling of who one truly is. When I first came out to my parents, I blurted out that I was queer while in the passenger seat of the car. I think that my reasoning behind this was that if there was a negative reaction, I could quickly escape after we had arrived. I worked up the scenarios in my head beforehand and often let the anxiety get the best of me. It’s a common desire to want to avoid difficult conversations for fear of rejection. Strategies, such as humour, can be used as a deflection for these anxiety-ridden conversations that are difficult to put into words.

Humour, intentional opacity, and inclusion versus exclusion, are demonstrated as themes in the exhibition (un)happy objects at Artcite Inc. featuring artists Madelyne Beckles, Vida Beyer, Kaythi, and Shellie Zhang, curated by Adrienne Crossman. Through the framework of Sara Ahmed’s Happy Objects, which claims that we value an object based on how it affects us, orienting us towards what makes us happy and away from those that don’t,[1] the artists encourage viewers to face their anxieties around potentially “unhappy” topics relating to homophobia, racism, and white supremacy. As Édouard Glissant advocates for the “right to opacity” in Poetics of Relation, the oppressed, and those historically labelled as the “Other” should be allowed to be opaque, to not be completely understood, and to simply exist as different, challenging the reductive transparencies that classify others using dominant structures of worth.[1] Often referencing pop culture and focusing on text, the artists use accessible media such as textiles, video, and neon signs to address these topics.

Kaythi. Our Lady of Profound Failure. Photo by Adrienne Crossman.

Walking into the exhibition, the first work I encounter is Kaythi’s Our Lady of Profound Failure, a brightly coloured rug that reads “DYKES ONLY.” The rug was created as part of a workshop on ‘Unwelcome Mats’ by artist and curator Lauren Cullen that introduced artists to rug hooking, featured in the exhibition Productive Discomfort at Xpace Cultural Centre. The piece features a figure in orange bent over with the text in black letters overlayed. At first glance, the rug reads as humorous, like a comment on how few lesbian spaces there are still surviving, carving out a specific queer-only space in a largely heteronormative world. The bent-over figure alludes to either prayer or oral sex. However, Kaythi is also interested in the politics behind lesbian-only spaces and how they have been exclusive to trans women through Trans Exclusionary Radical “Feminists” (TERFS) throughout history. Although the word dyke has been reclaimed, it’s also still a loaded term that resonates differently for everyone. As a femme, it also brings up some of my past feelings of discomfort in queer spaces, afraid that I seem out of place or simply not “queer enough.” The piece references the queer failures of the past, evoking potential feelings of inclusion and exclusion the phrase implies.

On the screen in the back left corner, the pastel aesthetic of Theory of The Young Girl by Madelyne Beckles brought me back to my teenage years, like a time machine back to my teenage bedroom. A large pink dice sits on the table and Beckles’ hand reaches out to touch a pink book with “theory” across the cover. While spraying her hair with hairspray, Beckles rehearses lines in response to the text Theory of the Young Girl by Tiqqun,[2] such as “When I was twelve, I decided to be beautiful.”[3] The film evokes the archetype of femininity as a cultural construction and its connection to heteronormative whiteness. In the panel discussion corresponding with the exhibition, Beckles explains how this work is connected to figuring out her place in femininity, particularly being mixed-race in her small town growing up.[4] The film juxtaposes the vapidness that one might attribute to sexist stereotypes of femininity with theory, commonly attributed to seriousness. Using humour, Beckles critiques how womanhood is prefabricated and marketed in a neoliberal society.

Vida Beyer. Nightmoves: Too Many Windows Open Feeling. Photo by Nadja Pelkey.

Vida Beyer’s adjacent textile work Nightmoves: Too Many Windows Open Feeling, mimics the overloaded sense of scrolling through the internet. Reminiscent of a karaoke night at a bar, the imagery spans from sensual lesbian hookups to song lyrics embroidered in the style of a karaoke sing-along. Beyer uses a mix of pop culture and more personal references, relying on intentional opacity which creates a sense of interest and intrigue. I couldn’t pinpoint the lyrics referenced at first, but after a google search, I determined that they are from “Head over Heels” by Tears for Fears and an Alice Cooper song. Many queer people who have grown up in the digital age can relate to looking things up on the internet as a means of finding some connection, especially while growing up in the 90s and early 2000s when queerness was not as represented in mainstream media. This piece connects to Beckles’ Search Herstory work on the far back wall, which exposes her past search history in an act of vulnerability, bringing the personal into the public sphere. These media references connect communities that can otherwise feel disparate.

(Un)happy Objects Installation photo, ArtCite Inc. Photo by Adrienne Crossman.
Shellie Zhang. I am Terrified /我担心. Photo by Adrienne Crossman.

Shellie Zhang’s piece, I am Terrified /我担心 consisting of a bright orange neon sign, addresses diaspora and intergenerational cultural erasure in western society. The piece reads: “I AM TERRIFIED THAT MY MOTHER WILL SEEM FOREIGN TO MY CHILDREN,” although there are two parts to this piece: one in Mandarin and the other part in English. The piece addresses white supremacy and cultural assimilation, and the anxiety of losing culture and shared understanding. Since they are displayed on two different walls, they also draw upon a sense of intentional opacity to some viewers because only viewers who understand Mandarin will understand the phrasing of the first sign.

In the exhibition panel, Zhang also explained how she was interested in how diasporic communities also use this sense of intentional opacity through shared experiences or jokes.[5] Her second work, It’s Complicated, reads “DIASPORAHAHA” In gigantic, gold lettering. If this seems like it’s something you’d view at an event, then you’ve guessed correctly since it was originally displayed at an event hosted by the queer Asian art collective, New Ho Queen.[6] Causing small rainbows to ricochet off the concrete, the glittery letters address using humour to relate through shared diasporic experiences and the sense of inclusion, and exclusion, this can bring.

By using culturally familiar and accessible methods such as neon signs and rug hooking, un(happy) objects encourages the audience to face their anxieties and difficult concepts head-on. The exhibition proposes the idea that working through discomfort can bring us closer together and forge new connections and healing. There won’t always be a clear escape plan and social isolation can’t be solved through a mere google search or doom scroll through an app. Sometimes it’s necessary to face what’s uncomfortable, even if it’s with the aid of an awkward laugh.

 [1] Édouard Glissant, Poetics of Relation, trans. Betsy Wing (Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1997). (p.190).

[2] Ahmed, Sara. “Happy Objects.” The Affect Theory Reader, by Melissa Gregg and Gregory J. Seigworth, Duke University Press, 2010.(p. 42).

[3] Formed in 1999, Tiqqun is a French collective of authors and activists.

[4] Beckles, Madelyne. “Theory of The Young Girl.” 2017.

[5] un(Happy) objects online panel discussion. Nov 6, 2021.

[6] Crossman, Adrienne. “un(Happy) objects exhibition essay,” ArtCite Inc. 2021.