In Discussion with Lêna Bùi: Changing Cities, Changing People

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Lêna Bùi good infinity, bad infinity installation shot. Courtesy of the artist.

By Devana Senanayake

Concrete jungles, urban rivers, preserved city spaces, and dynamic mountain villages are all totems in Lêna Bùi’s umbrella project Home. The Vietnamese multi-disciplinary artist takes the audience on her mental journey of processing urban change through breathtaking visuals. Though Lêna is a multimedia artist, her videos function as visual essays that pinpoint the complexities of human life in concrete ecosystems.

“I think that video is very seductive. You have so much to play with: visuals, sound, and light” Lêna says. “Video is perfect for narrative, but also for abstraction. It can be a story but it does not have to be completely linear. It can also be poetic.”

She focuses strongly on urbanization particularly as her home country, Vietnam, has undergone unprecedented change over the past couple of decades.  Statistics by the World Bank confirm that the country’s extreme poverty rate has declined to under 3 percent and the GDP has increased to 7.1 percent in 2018 as a result of a rise in economic activity.

Lêna understands that all change, even positive economic change, comes at a cost to the environment and to the people occupying it. Through her project good infinity, bad infinity, she uses Saigon as a starting point to explore the relationship shared by physical environments and people.

Through this point of focus, her audience is invited to join her on her personal journey to understand human behaviour, relationships, resilience and belonging across the globe.

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Lêna Bùi. good infinity, bad infinity. Home series. Courtesy of the artist.
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Lêna Bùi. Diagonal Time. Courtesy of the artist.

I am interested in the depiction of humans and their relationship to urban spaces in your art. Why does this dynamic interest you?

Everyone tries to situate themselves in the environment to make sense of it—this is my way of making sense of existence. Urban development is a tangent of human relationships with the environment and their surroundings.

Saigon has changed so much since my childhood. When I was a kid, it was still mostly bicycles and cyclos [and] there were hardly any cars and very few motorbikes. In the past five to seven years, they started building high rises everywhere so the landscape has transformed.

In Vietnam, the growth rate is very high. However, what are the costs of very rapid development without well-rounded consideration for the future?

I think this is happening all over South-East Asia. Change is inevitable but once we’ve knocked the old things down, we cannot revive them even if we come to regret it.

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Lêna Bùi. good infinity, bad infinity installation shot. Courtesy of the artist.

Waterways are an important totem in good infinity, bad infinity. Why did you focus so strongly on this component?

Both cities developed along waterways. Sharjah is right by the sea. They both have big ports and there is a lot of commerce and exchanges happening there. Saigon is a big port city and along the river are shipyards and ports.

Water is synonymous with life. Large water-bodies connecting to the sea like the Saigon river and the Sharjah creek enable the constant exchange of goods. Nowadays, construction materials are not sourced locally and a lot of it is imported. I was curious about how things were linked and connected to each other.

I was also looking at sand. Sand is a crucial component in the production of concrete [in particular]. For concrete to work, you have to use a particular type of sand with the right texture and size, which is river sand. Though Sharjah has a lot of sand, they cannot use their sand for construction and have to import it.

Vietnam exports sand, often mined illegally, which creates a lot of corrosion along the river-banks. Houses have crumbled along the riverbanks because sand was extracted from the middle of the river without any regulation. In the case of Saigon, you just have to go downstream to see multiple barges extracting sand. If you go a bit further, you see an abandoned cement factory and houses sunken in the water. At the same time, along the riverbanks are booming construction and increasingly large high-rise complex. There’s a full circle of construction and destruction going on here.

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Lêna Bùi. Diagonal Time. Courtesy of the artist.

What impact did urban developments have on human communities?

In Saigon, over the past ten years, very old structures and areas have been demolished. For example, the oldest shipyard built during the 1790s, during French colonialism has been replaced by villas and high rises.

I’m sure modern high rises caters to certain modern needs, [however] I’m interested in its effect on people. In the past, community networks were very tight which had both good and bad impacts. There was no privacy, everybody was involved in your business. However, people looked out for each other. What modern housing does is, it gives people [the] anonymity and freedom. But does it help people build community? Or, is it detrimental to our ability to connect with each other?

When I was invited to Sharjah for the residency, the reverse was happening there. They experienced a very rapid development phase in the 1970s. Then they realized that they wanted to preserve their old quarters, so they moved everyone out of the area. The old quarters are preserved but they are not lived in. They have become a museum, frozen in time. Even when we want to preserve the old, it changed into something else.

All these old men who had grown up in the area were dispersed all over the city and this broke the social network their old neighborhood provided. Now that they have retired, they regularly come back to the last original teahouse to chat with each other. They do this to find a sense of belonging and to find a community.

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Lêna Bùi. Diagonal Time. Courtesy of the artist.

I would also love to touch on your upcoming project based in Nepal, Diagonal Time. What did you learn about people in Nepal, particularly as it is lesser developed than Sharjah and Saigon and has a greater sense of community?

Nepal seems to be changing rapidly but it is a very special place. It’s old but it is alive, it’s not a museum. People still live in old structures, in small and winding alleys, maintaining many old traditions. I think it is immensely rich in culture.

I speak in the film as an outsider looking from the outside in. Many of the shots are through door-frames or alleyways. Then the viewers feel as if they are peeking into something private. Being a foreigner is being ignorant. It’s good because you don’t take anything for granted. It’s bad because often you can’t fully understand, or you misunderstand. My film is a documentary, but in the end, it is also a personal essay.

I was trying to understand human resilience. What aspects of our life contribute to our sense of wellbeing? I focused on the people who have found strength in something or who gave strength to others.

A character featured in the film is a female woodcarver. She spoke of how she learned to carve. Her trade gave her financial independence and agency. She worked hard and with her skills, made enough money to build her house and put her children through school. There was also an astrologer. People went to him with a problem, got his advice and then felt better. I think he functioned like the Asian version of a psychologist.

A solid sense of community is crucial in helping us find meaning in life. There are all sorts of festivals in Nepal that provide opportunities for people to connect and to feel connected. Rituals, music, and dances are all part of a language of unspoken understanding.

Of course, I cannot make a film about Nepal and not include mountainsthey definitely belong to the sublime. I don’t care much for the spirituality that is woven into tourism in Nepal but the mountains give a good sense of scale. They let us register how small and fragile human beings are. Traditional mountain villages are inaccessible harsh environments and can be a symbol of human resilience.

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Lêna Bùi. Diagonal Time. Courtesy of the artist.

What do you hope your audience notices, particularly in relation to the theme of home and changing cities?

In terms of home, home can mean people, home can mean the land and the water. As for changing cities, I’m resistant to changes but also pro-change. A city is a living thing, so it has to change and adapt to keep up, to stay healthy.

I make work about things I don’t understand. I am trying to solve a problem for myself. There is no overarching message and there’s no solution because it is unresolved. I want the audience to look at something they think they know, that they take for granted and see something else in it.

Making Waves with Melissa McGill and Red Regatta

 

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Preview performance of Melissa McGill’s Red Regatta on May 11, 2019, in front of the Associazone Vela al Terzo on the North Lagoon at Fondamente Nove. Photo by Matteo De Fina.

By Chiara Mannarino

A week after graduating from the Rhode Island School of Design in 1991, artist Melissa McGill travelled to Europe for the very first time. This independent voyage, beginning in Venice, Italy, would unexpectedly lead her to an abundance of friendship, love, and creative inspiration, all of which have coalesced to inform her most recent project, Red Regatta.

Red Regatta is an independent public art project presented in collaboration with Associazione Vela al Terzo and Magazzino Italian Art Foundation. It activates Venice’s lagoon and canals with large-scale regattas of traditional vela al terzo sailboats hoisted with hand-painted red sails. The visual combination of fifty-two carefully crafted and applied red hues swimming and swirling together through Venice’s unmistakably distinct greenish-blue water is an unforgettable sight, leaving its imprint on the “Floating City” forever.

Such ambitious, grand, and site-specific public art projects are central to McGill’s artistic practice, which redefines each landscape it touches through physical interventions seeking to illuminate rich histories and traditions and to foster a greater understanding of our surroundings as well as our relationship to them.

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Melissa McGill with the first sail at Atlas Studios in Newburgh, NY. Courtesy of the artist.

CM: Can you speak a bit about your connection to Venice?

MM: I lived in Venice for two years from 1991-1993. Right after graduating from the Rhode Island School of Design in the sculpture department, I went to Europe for the first time. Venice was the first place that I landed. I went by myself and that helped me learn to speak Italian. I made many friends, who are now like family, and became part of a community of Venetians. I have been going back and forth for 30 years for inspiration, for friendship, and for work.

CM: How did you become so invested in the longstanding Venetian sailing tradition and how did the project come to light?

MM: Two years ago, I did an exhibition based on the Campi in Venice. Through doing this project, I was lucky enough to meet Giorgio Righetti, the president of the Associazione Vela al Terzo Venezia, and Silvio Testa, who wrote a wonderful book about vela al terzo and to spend a day in their boats exploring the small canals in the city. On the plane back to New York, I just completely fell into Silvio’s book and was so inspired by the tradition and these boats. These two became my core collaborators in the Red Regatta project, and it was really from that moment that the project started to unfold.

 

CM: Can you speak a bit about how the project has developed since then?

MM: Last month, we did sail painting workshops with art students from IUAV (University IUAV di Venezia) and my collaborating sailors from the Associazione Vela al Terzo Venezia in Spazio Thetis in the Arsenale, which was very generously donated for the project. We painted 104 sails in 8 or 9 days, and the reason it was done in such a timely way is that we had such incredible enthusiasm from the students and the sailors. To see and be working with the actual sails in space and to have this community form together between the students and the sailors painting together created this wonderful feeling of collaboration.

CM: It must have been quite a feat to complete all of that work in just 8 or 9 days! What did the actual painting of the sails look like in terms of technique?

MM: While testing a prototype sail in my studio in New York, I realized that I wanted to have the hand evident in the painting rather than it just being a flat color field, so we used brooms and brushes to create these big, beautiful, expressive brushstrokes. Each sail became a painting on its own. The idea to use brooms to paint the sails was something that came to me at 5:00 in the morning on the second day with jetlag. After testing a few types of brooms, we bought all the brooms of this one type from the Ferramenta on Via Garibaldi. The guy was like, “What on earth are you doing with all these brooms?”

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Melissa McGill painting the first sail at Atlas Studios in Newburgh, NY. Courtesy of the artist.

CM: Was he excited when you explained what they were being used for?

MM: Oh yes, he was very excited. He even asked, “Can I come and see? I’m really interested!”

CM: It seems like so many are drawn to this project. The workshop collaboration itself involved people from all different walks of life. Can you speak about the significance of this unification of young and old through painting the sails?

MM: We had sailors of all ages, including those who are in their 70s, participate, and between the university students and these people there was a huge age range. Some even brought their kids to see the sails being painted. It was just this incredible community that formed. They were all getting to know each other, the students were asking the sailors questions about the maritime traditions, and there was this exchange, collaboration, and connection created between all involved.

CM: Why did you choose to involve young Italian art students specifically?

MM: Involving students in a public art project provides a unique opportunity to invite young people to participate and engage with the work in an intimate way. That opportunity, I think, is community-building, which is really important to me and my public art project. The sailors were so moved by the students’ interest and their involvement and passion for the project that they invited the students to be crew members in Red Regatta!

CM: That must be so exciting for them! The students’ enthusiasm alone demonstrates just how significant this tradition remains today, and your project and process really honor it and bring it into our current moment in a new and exciting way. What does the Venetian sailing tradition mean to you and what about it excites you?

MM: This is a tradition is about the lagoon and its history. Many of the boats have been passed down through generations and restored, and they’re so beloved. These boats are very specific to Venice in that they are very low draw, so they have flat bottoms and can go in very shallow water, and the mast can be removed and laid down so that they can go down under bridges or be rowed. It’s a tradition that really involves the rowing or sailing and the wind and the water. It’s important to keep this tradition alive.

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Melissa McGill painting the first sail at Atlas Studios in Newburgh, NY. Courtesy of the artist.

CM: I feel that this project is crucial to have in Venice at this time. How do you see Red Regatta fitting into the unfortunate realities of the city today?

MM: The timing for this project is now. There are issues with rising water, climate change, mass tourism. There are many things that are having a huge impact on Venice. There’s also a shrinking native population and a rising tourist population. This is a public artwork, and this work is not meant to presume to solve the many problems Venice is dealing with. However, it is meant to raise awareness about a lot of these things.

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Preview performance of Melissa McGill’s Red Regatta on May 11, 2019, in front of the Associazone Vela al Terzo on the North Lagoon at Fondamente Nove. Photo by Matteo De Fina.

CM: The project celebrates Venice and the qualities that make it unique in so many ways—one that really stands out is your consideration of Venetian colors. Can you speak a bit about your selection of red as an emblematic color of the city?

MM: Red is a color that I associate with Venice, and reds refer to an enormous range of things in the city. From Rosso Veneziano, Venetian red, to traditions like the Festa del Bòcolo with the roses, the terracotta rooftops, Tiziano and Tintoretto paintings with that rich red, and the pigment trade, there are all types of things that we can talk about in terms of the color’s direct physical associations with the city. But then there’s also the emotional. Red is a color of energy, of life force, passion, alarm, warning, love. It represents a huge range emotionally, so for me, a core decision in the project is that it’s not one thing, it’s many things, and all of those colors and all of those possible references are sailing together in this work.

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Preview performance of Melissa McGill’s Red Regatta on May 11, 2019, in front of the Associazone Vela al Terzo on the North Lagoon at Fondamente Nove. Photo by Matteo De Fina.

CM: How have you chosen and procured the shades of red that you use in the project?

MM: I’ve walked around taking photographs of all of the different reds as reference material, I developed about 100 shades of red, and finally chose one for each of the 52 boats we have participating. The range of the reds goes from orangish to brownish to purplish.

CM: What were you most excited about as you sailed closer to the project’s official launch?

MM: The moment we see the sails on the boats reflected in the water, against the city, against the sky, against the lagoon, that is it for me! I’m excited about seeing it in its context because I’ve seen the sails hanging in the Arsenale in Spazio Thetis, I’ve done all these experiments in my studio, but when the sails are actually on the boats and when we’re there with the boats sailing together, that’s when the project will come to life. Doing a project like this is a long and challenging road, but when the sun illuminates these red sails, mixing and blending together in Red Regatta…that makes it all worth it!

Red Regatta officially commenced on May 8 with an artist talk and community open house at Ocean Space and a preview regatta on May 11 on the northern lagoon at Fondamente Nove. Additional regattas will sail at various points throughout the duration of the Venice Biennale until November, including during the annual Regata Storica in the Bacino di San Marco and the Regata di Burano in September.

To follow the Red Regatta project, please visit the artist’s website where you can find an interactive map, additional details, and updates.

 

Profiles on Practice: Shawna Davis

By Nadia Kurd

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Shawna Davis, Studio shot. Courtesy of the artist. 2019.

Scholar Sherry Farrell Racette notes that given the aggressive history of European colonialism in Canada and the US, a number of traditional Indigenous arts have survived because individuals and families had carried out cultural practices covertly. “The simple act of retaining and protecting knowledge was political,” writes Farrell Racette, “the materials themselves often believed to be living and potent.”[i]

For Gitxsan/Nisga’a artist Shawna Davis (also known as Hayatsgan), her beading practice followed a slightly different trajectory and began shortly after seeing the beadwork that adorned her partner’s home in 2014. Davis notes that her partner’s community of Old Crow, Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation “is a place where beadwork is life, and historically, a sign of wealth” and that he “was surrounded by it: moccasins, his baby belt beaded by his late Sitsuu Ellen Bruce hung in his apartment, medicine pouches. I had never really seen beadwork like this before.”[ii] Such beadwork practices were uncommon in her traditional territory of the Gitx̱san and Nisg̱a’a Nations as she was accustomed to the unique aesthetic characteristics of Indigenous west coast visual culture, which is well known for its form lines, button blankets, woodcarvings, and cedar weavings.

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Shawna Davis. Salmon necklace design: Lianne Charlie (Northern Tuchone). Courtesy of the artist. 2019.

Davis’s skills were first developed when she participated in a workshop hosted by the ReMatriate Collective in 2017. Since then, she has been creating vibrant beaded works that are primarily meant for personal adornment. As a Gitxsan/Nisga’a person and non-traditional beader, Davis is conscientious about her practice and the implications of using distinct patterns and processes, explaining, “I understand the significance of coming from a place. To come from a place means that your sovereignty rests in your land, your language, your laws, and your art.”[iii] Each design that Davis creates is inspired by the work of other Indigenous womxn, her family, and the land, as well as the “Li’liget (our feast hall) and all of its teachings of our laws, governance and knowledge systems that we have practiced since time immemorial.”[iv]

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Shawna Davis. Courtesy of the artist. 2019.

The process to create each work may take days to develop and finish. Beads are fastened to felt—which is thick enough so that it provides a strong base to stabilize the beads and other items such as porcupine quills, and abalone buttons. Each object features an array of bead colours and sizes. Sometimes these designs are also stitched directly on animal hide, quilting interface or fabric, which can contrast with and change the overall composition of the beadwork design. Once the design is fully beaded and the edges of the item are complete, the item may be gifted, traded or sold online.

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Shawna Davis. Courtesy of the artist. 2019.

For the past year, Davis has been working on a much larger and more personal endeavor. She has been steadily creating objects for her upcoming wedding, which will include various items for the wedding party, herself and her groom. Not simply decorative in nature, Davis says that some of these items “will be gifted according to our clan system, laws, and protocols.”[v]

Another long-term beadwork project will include a more pointed examination of the politics and policies that continue to shape the Canadian settler state. Davis intends to make works that focus on how the government has exercised control over the lives of Indigenous people and its exploitative attitude towards natural resources, land, and agreements.

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Shawna Davis. Courtesy of the artist. 2019.

Currently living as an uninvited guest on Unceded Musqueam, Tsleil Waututh and Squamish homelands, Davis continues to work as an artist full-time. For her, the process of beading is much of a creative act as it is a deeply personal one. “Beadwork is medicine to me, a strong medicine,” writes Davis, “it gives me the ability to learn patience, discipline, focus, and perseverance.”[vi]

 

To see more of Shawna Davis’s artwork, follow her on Instagram @strikingstick

Nadia Kurd (she/her) is an art historian and curator based in Edmonton, Alberta. She occasionally tweets at @nadia_kurd

 


[i] Sherry Farrell Racette, “Tuft Life: Stitching Sovereignty in Contemporary Indigenous Art,” Art Journal, 76:6, 114-123. 2017.

[ii] Artist correspondence, April 2019.

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Ibid.

[v] Ibid.

[vi] Ibid.

Virginia Lee Montgomery: Ponytails, power drills, and political action

By Laura Demers

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Deep See (2017), video still. Courtesy of Virginia Lee Montgomery.

A blinking eye peers through a circular opening in a foam board seabed. A manicured hand then reaches through the hollow, extending its fingers towards a disembodied ponytail that dangles alluringly (Deep See, 2017). The suspended blonde prop appears again on another display screen across the hall. The viewer is transported from a natural environment to a sterile business setting; this time, the prop slithers through a corporate landscape of hotel furniture (Pony Hotel, 2018).

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Pony Hotel (2018), video still. Courtesy of Virginia Lee Montgomery.

Texas-born, New York-based artist Virginia Lee Montgomery’s video practice has recently received great acclaim; her work is accurately described as an exploration of “the economic, ecologic, and emotive uncanny”[1] that characterizes both psychic and daily life under capitalism. Upon first seeing VLM’s work in the New Museum’s Screens Series, I quickly became captivated by the narratives she conjures. Palimpsestic historical references, found footage, sensuous sound samples, and idiosyncratic visual motifs come together in surprising ways, thus “enabling surreal awakenings.[2] Drawing from materialist philosophy, metaphysics, semiotics, psychology, environmental activism, and personal experience, VLM makes masterfully layered videos. Beyond their initial hypnotizing effect, these pieces left me pleasantly bemused. I revisited her work online, again and again, eventually noticing the cyclical themes underpinning her works; psychic loops, redundancies in history, geological and meteorological patterns, the reproduction of labour, the circulation of symbols and signs, etc. Most striking, I think, is VLM’s way of showing how feminist and elemental agencies are affected by —and implicated in — these cycles of hope and oblivion.

Most of VLM’s videos are set inside hand-built maquettes. She perforates the walls of these fabrications with a Dewalt hole saw, producing holes wide enough to allow parts of her body to interact with objects and substances embedded within. Fingers stretch, stroke, prod, and probe, sometimes wielding power tools or other instruments, while viscous liquids such as tar and pastry frosting drip across various surfaces. Her works bear the same magnetic effect as ASMR youtube clips; uncanny yet appealing.

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Water Witching (2018), video still. Courtesy of Virginia Lee Montgomery.

At first glance, the works also remind me of Mika Rottenberg’s absurd video installations where female bodies and body parts are compartmentalized according to their function in the production chain. Rottenberg exposes, with perverse humour, the structures that feed off of Sisyphean forms of labor and that embroil women across the globe in complex and rather dubious relations of power. In No Nose Knows (2015), for example, “female workers cultivating pearls on an assembly line [in coastal China] take sustenance of noodles that are sneezed out of the massive nose of their [North American] manager.”[3] Likewise, with works like Innovation Porthole (2015), VLM is interested in the ways in which the body —and perhaps even more so, the psyche —experiences daily life within a neoliberal economy that “emotively engineers [its] employees.”[4] The artist drills through the fabric wall of an office cubicle to grab a gooey pastry from a platter that rests on the opposite side. She drills another hole in the back of a protective helmet in order to better accommodate her ponytail, adjusts the gear on her head, and proceeds to navigate her corporate surroundings like an obstacle course. “The activities you see in the video are […] portrayals of ridiculous hoops that I must jump through, reach through, squeeze through in order to be acceptable”[5], she says. It is important to mention that aside from making art, VLM does graphic facilitation at conferences across the United States. In this particular professional context where women are largely underrepresented, she is required to present herself as a “businesswoman”, an identity that is somewhat at odds with her own —hence the “Business Witch” persona that occasionally makes an appearance in her artistic work.

 

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Innovation Porthole (2015), video still. Courtesy of Virginia Lee Montgomery.
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Innovation Porthole (2015), video still. Courtesy of Virginia Lee Montgomery.

In one of her latest works, VLM’s focus seems to shift away from the corporate realm of cubicles and conference rooms, and towards the natural world. Water Witching (2018) suggests a scenario where the elemental world and feminism, together, take action against patriarchal structures of instrumentalization and domination. Weaving together images of nature and of feminist protests, this work is about “conjuring the strength to weather chaos.”[6] The artist re-contextualizes the ancient pseudoscientific practice of dowsing — a method by which diviners would, with the help of rudimentary instruments, locate underground rivers and buried minerals — to address current climate concerns. VLM’s interest in dowsing is the result of her foray into the history and philosophy of various elemental materials such as rock, water, and metal, historically activated within theological or medicinal contexts by priestesses and healers. In her video, VLM cuts a wire coat hanger borrowed from a women’s march protest sign (a poignant plea for reproductive justice and for the right to access safe abortions) and bends it into two L-shaped divining rods. The artists’ manicured hands reappear once again, this time covered in blobs of black and blue dye, and re-enact the ritual so as to summon a stream of moving images depicting exploitative operations that continue to endanger the environment and women’s lives/livelihoods. Documentary clips of decaying nature, habitat destruction, and resource extraction cascade at a rapid pace, along with current and historical footage of feminist manifestations, to the sounds of wind chimes, tornadoes, power drills, and field recordings.

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Water Witching (2018), video still. Courtesy of Virginia Lee Montgomery.

The manifesto titled Feminism for the 99% was recently recommended to me by a friend; this book concisely addresses some issues that are also at play within VLM’s work. Like the artist, the three authors advocate for feminism that does not lean into the capitalist ideology (by “empowering” select privileged women within corporate positions), but that instead seeks to dismantle it. Furthermore, the authors state that “if today’s ecological crisis is directly tied to capitalism, it also reproduces and worsens women’s oppression.”[7]

Indeed, statistical data has shown that in situations of ecological catastrophe, women with precarious incomes and housing situations often become the sole supporters of their families and communities. Their exposure to poverty, displacement, and violence are also disproportionately exacerbated. Using self-organized women’s groups who have struggled for potable water, clean air, and habitat conservation in their communities as case studies, the authors of the manifesto explain that:

“In their refusal to separate ecological issues from those of social reproduction, [grassroots] women-led movements represent a powerful anti-corporate and anti-capitalist alternative to ‘green capitalist’ projects that do nothing to stop global warming while enriching those who [contribute to its abstraction]. Women’s struggles focus on the real world, in which social justice, the well-being of human communities, and the sustainability of nonhuman nature are inextricably bound together.” [8]

Similarly, through visual meta-structures and a panoply of signs that elegantly slip into one another, Water Witching (2018) points to the intimate connection between the exploitation of natural reserves, and that of women’s bodies and social reproductive labour[9] — especially as both are seen as infinitely renewable resources. More broadly, the looping video alludes to circular rhythms and to humanity’s perpetual indebtedness to nature’s processes.

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Water Witching (2018), video still. Courtesy of Virginia Lee Montgomery.

VLM’s practice as a whole proves to be rather difficult to pin down and can raise more questions than answers. Yet her work, to me, begs for political action that encompasses ecological issues and shows us that for any iteration of feminism to fulfill its mandate (that of emancipation) it must necessarily align itself with environmentalist and anti-capitalist ethics. Her interests, as varied and wide-ranging as they seem, are embodied in the props, gestures, and visual associations that reappear from one video to the next, producing an overarching narrative in which feminist and ecological concerns are tightly enmeshed in the most whimsical and jarring of ways.


[1] http://www.shefolk.com/creatorinterviewsrss/2017/8/17/8y1l5msefksjvf3wanv5mqld34xziz

[2] https://www.banffcentre.ca/articles/its-okay-be-many-things-once-conversation-virginia-lee-montgomery

[3] http://www.leapleapleap.com/2016/02/mika-rottenberg-no-nose-knows/

[4] https://www.banffcentre.ca/articles/its-okay-be-many-things-once-conversation-virginia-lee-montgomery

[5] https://www.banffcentre.ca/articles/its-okay-be-many-things-once-conversation-virginia-lee-montgomery

[6] https://virginialeemontgomery.com/WATER-WITCHING

[7] Feminism for the 99%: A Manifesto, by Cinzia Arruzza, Tithi Bhattacharya, and Nancy Fraser. Verso Books, 2019. p.47

[8] Ibid. p.48-49

[9] The labour that occurs in the domestic sphere (and is therefore relegated predominantly to women, especially women of colour). This unpaid labour, despite being devalorized and taken for granted within capitalist societies, serves to sustain the economic profit of others in the long run. These “people-making” activities, according to Arruzza, Bhattacharya, and Fraser, include, among many other things, the raising of children who will one day become compliant adults fit for the workforce, education, and healthcare work.

Enchantment by Greg Ito at Arsenal Contemporary

January 26-March 30, 2019


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Greg Ito, Enchantment installation shot, 2019. Courtesy of Arsenal Contemporary Toronto.

By Adi Berardini

At the opening reception of Enchantment by Greg Ito, I met a woman who was very intrigued to discover what the symbolism in the show meant. As a result, she wanted to find the artist and have him explain it to her. Courteously, he did and explained to her not only the general symbolism but also how the neon lights and the tinted glass windows worked. He went into detail about how the warm and cool colours correspond within the paintings. There’s a sense of theatricality behind the exhibition—once you entered you could tell that you’d see photos splattered on social media of people posed beside the life-sized neon candles or beside the gigantic frog. But what’s underneath? Surely something so seemingly strong is inspired.

This woman disclosed to me afterward that although it was kind of him to explain, somehow having the exhibition explained to her ruined the mystery of it all. Ito’s paintings are technically amazing, so crisp that they first appear like silkscreened prints rather than acrylic paintings. However, the magic that elevated the show is its surreal quality and the wonderment within it. The exhibition engages in the emotionality of his family history, Ito’s grandparents falling in love despite being imprisoned in an Arizona internment camp. The symbols used in the paintings such as a rabbit, a spider, and snake, could symbolize rebirth and resiliency, addressing love as a powerful force of spiritual rebirth after significant trauma. The following is a text that I wrote as a response to the show in a Toronto cafe. 

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Greg Ito, Enchantment installation shot, 2019. Courtesy of Arsenal Contemporary Toronto.

Within a warm bog, an oily frog leaps

mushrooms grow on the peripheral.

A romance ignites, the lovers’ hands reaching out for each other.

If you wander deeply enough, witness the neon flames

Fire growing from tragedy, candle wax trapped in time and space

 

The lovers met entrapped

the cell gave way to a new life.

Still together, their hands joined

since the night is long without one another.

Without hope, life becomes a perpetual spiral

 

Black and white swim with cerulean, teal, rose and blood red

The blood the colour of the hourglass tipping

acting as a thread.

Whatever time they had they spent it together

 

The snake with two heads are the memories haunting them

slipping and sliding unexpectedly

they can never prepare for when it arrives.

They gaze at themselves through a magnified keyhole

sailing on a ship across the Pacific

 

What does it mean when from great suffering, love grows?

Could there be anything more poetic,

than two lives binding after the panic?

Is there anything more powerful

than love emerging from darkness, a white rabbit running

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Greg Ito, Enchantment installation shot, 2019. Courtesy of Arsenal Contemporary Toronto.

Productive Discomfort at Xpace Cultural Centre

By Rebecca Casalino

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Productive Discomfort, 2019. Installation view, works by Jessica Watkin, Anne Ruccetto, Susan Blight, and James Yeboah in view. Photo credit: Polina Teif

March 1-30, 2019

Anne Rucchetto, Kaythi, Seiji, Susan Blight, Jessica Watkin,

Heidi Cho, and James Yeboah

Curated by Lauren Cullen

As part of Myseum Intersections Festival: Revisionist Toronto.

 

Women’s craft and labour is a topic explored in feminist circles, yet we do not see it often directly reflected in the mediums of contemporary artists’ practices. I myself am guilty of this, citing women’s labour in my own work, and comparing the repeated actions in my practice to sewing or knitting. Walking into Xpace and seeing Productive Discomfort for the first time I was happily surprised by bright colours and political discourse. This was not the women’s craft I had grown up learning.

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Susan Blight, An Unwelcome Mat for these Times, Niwiiji Anishinaabeg, 2019. Photo credit: Polina Teif

One of the carpets that caught my eye hung from the west wall and had long trails of pink and red yarn streaming down from a rectangle emblazoned with an Anishinaabemowin phrase. The artist, Susan Blight, lifts the rug from the floor indicating to the viewer they are not easily welcomed by the artist. This challenge presented by Blight is delivered with an object filled with labour and embroidered with a language foreign to a settler audience. The anger surrounding Canada’s relationship to the Indigenous communities is felt in Toronto with protests supporting Wet’suwet’en land defenders gaining momentum and residents choosing to call the city Tkaronto, a Mohawk word meaning “where there are trees in the water”. Land acknowledgments have become the standard at gatherings to keep the history of colonial violence in our minds. This infusion of Indigenous politics into the urban settler mainstream discussion is long overdue. In my own primary and secondary education, the history of Turtle Island’s Indigenous peoples was a hasty stereotypical sketch of a complex culture the invading settlers refused to acknowledge. It was only in university, through my own course selection, I began to learn about the rich art historical canon of the Aboriginal, Metis and Inuit peoples. As settlers, we must pressure our institutions to engage with Indigenous voices so we can honour the flourishing communities on the land they cared for long before settlers landed here.  Blight’s refusal to lay down her welcome mat reads as a message to myself and fellow settlers that our presence is still not welcome, and our support is too little and too late.

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Kaythi, Our Lady of Profound Failure, 2019. Photo Credit: Polina Teif

Our Lady of Profound Failure created by Kaythi was another rug that drew my attention. It’s deep red subject popped against the blue background. The rug had oranges and greens, woven as a kind of collage, dancing around the edges making the composition playful and fun. Visitors are encouraged to kneel on the rug; this made me giggle, thinking about kneeling in connection to prayer and oral sex. The rug pops with its bright colours and DYKES ONLY is written in bold black across a bent figure. The red distorted figure bends with its back arching along the top of the rug. This work claims space by welcoming an exclusive social group. Spaces reserved for ‘dykes’ are rare and usually very fluid, for example, The Beaver, a gay bar/café. I don’t consider myself a dyke, but I feel the word hooked into a rug allows queers like myself to be in on the joke.

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Kaythi, Our Lady of Profound Failure, 2019. Photo Credit: Polina Teif

What interests me most about this exhibition is the dedication to labour and the dissemination of knowledge. For the exhibition, Lauren Cullen taught the artists how to make hooked rugs, a craft she has been practicing for nine years. This passing of knowledge without the platform of a classroom or the internet is labourious and intimate, creating an immediate community. I attended Cullen’s event at Xpace to learn how to make hooked rugs and happily sat at a table with a graphic design student, an architect, a jeweller, and a comedian. Cullen stood in front of the video projecting artists in the show making their rugs. Each of us peeked up at the video from time to time to compare our tiny squares to their work. Cullen came around to each table spending time with attendee’s offering them tea and cheezies. The room was filled with light conversation as everyone concentrated on their tiny rugs. Materials were spread across a table complete with leggings, shirts, yarn, and pre-sliced striped of cloth. At the end of the session, we were all hesitant to leave and crowded around Cullen to individually thank her for such a lovely day of bonding and making. Cullen’s practice seems to revolve around these kinds of exchanges and community building as she discussed with one of the participants her passion for “unlearning”. Artists from the show were also in attendance and sat at the tables with participants happy to talk about their experiences learning with Cullen for the show. Cullen created a learning environment of balance and calm.

 

Cullen uses “the social practice and conventions of rug hooking as a tool for critical education, grounded in anti-racist, anti-colonial and feminist queer crip frameworks” to replace traditional institutional and academic methods of teaching. In creating these ‘unwelcome’ mats Cullen leads artists Rucchetto, Kaythi, Seiji, Blight, Watkin, Cho, and Yeboah in their rug hooking practices to convey their own political narratives surrounding craft, textile works, and labour. Productive Discomfort engages with a myriad of political topics allowing each artist to harness textiles to hook their point of view. My relationship with textiles has never been so complex and politically engaging. As a child, I sat with my Nonna on the couch watching her crochet blankets and listening to stories about her younger more nimble fingers embroidering sheets, handkerchiefs, and pillowcases for her wedding chest. Cullen uses feminist theory and rug hooking to identify, “a significant site of matrilineage: a site of material culture gaining legitimacy through an inter-generational practice of passing down rugs and skills between women.” This summarizes my experience with textiles and shapes textile art in a feminist light allowing myself and other contemporary artists to engage with rug hooking on a new level. Productive Discomfort brings the conversation around textile arts into the conversation surrounding community, marginalized narratives, and women’s labour.

Dana Buzzee: The Coven on Her Back

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Punishment Rituals, installation view. Dana Buzzee. 2019. Size varies. Courtesy of the artist and LEFT Contemporary.

Punishment Rituals

LEFT Contemporary March 1-May 4, 2019

By Lucas Cabral

I walk in and I get a little excited. This excitement has been growing with every image the artist and LEFT Contemporary have posted of works and installation progress leading up to the opening. The imagery and energy are something I’ve been looking for (and missing) since I moved from my Toronto-adjacent hometown whose proximity to Toronto’s queer density granted me easy access to bondage and fetish communities and their meeting spaces. Is this excitement the effect of the spell cast by Buzzee’s work? Or is it evidence of my newfound curse?

Why not both?

The constellation of works making up Punishment Rituals forms a warm entanglement of community and queerdos spanning generations and geographies. Buzzee has inducted viewers, makers, participants, and their predecessors, materializing them in studded leather collars and cuffs, a wide-cast web woven of leather and chain, and prints retelling possible engagements of these or similar sculptural works, all of which in this space cast a circle around an a-frame and knot of nylon rope.

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Punishment Rituals, installation view. Dana Buzzee. 2019. Size varies. Courtesy of the artist and LEFT Contemporary.

Hand-pulled images of rope and leather-bound performers on newsprint reference and resurrect community-based erotica like that found in publications like On Our Backs, the first women-run erotica magazine that featured lesbian erotica for a lesbian audience. Images are captured when Buzzee opens calls for community members to perform freely with the leather works she makes. Groups, pairs, and strangers, bond over a shared bondage experience. Buzzee captures these moments of liberation, exploration, and connection, offering the images as a part of an incantation. Like with the previously mentioned On Our Backs publication, Buzzee continues a legacy of by-and-for community erotica. An exhibition poster with exhibition text by Taylor Harder has a likeness modeled after On Our Backs and chronicles the development of and differences between British and North American traditions, making note of the ways that intimacy is an activator during initiation.

The exhibition reclaims the formula of ritual witchcraft initiation ceremonies, making space for homoeroticism which is rejected by British traditions (heavily informed by the legalization of witchcraft preceding the legalization of homosexuality in Britain), and taking up traditional initiation elements like blindfolds, nudity, bondage, and whipping not adopted by North American traditions.[1] In Punishment Rituals, artwork takes the spot of coven members who typically circle the initiator and postulant during the ceremony. These stand-ins are embedded with the energy of those who have been a part of their making. Buzzee engages community members who are also artists, writers, printmakers, leatherworkers, arts administrators and peers in their production. With the intention of initiation being “spiritual rebirth into new identities and new communities,” Buzzee sets the stage for those possibilities to be impacted by queer-femme homoeroticism.

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Punishment Rituals, installation view. Dana Buzzee. 2019. 9′ by 9′. Courtesy of the artist and LEFT Contemporary.

The show, the space, and it’s making reflect the collective queer mobilization that’s taken up out of necessity to meet the needs of one’s community that aren’t satisfied or even acknowledged by the heteronormative structures that dominate our spaces. As we pay more attention to the disappearance and lack of queer spaces especially for femmes (even in bigger cities), it is important to celebrate the perseverance of those who dedicate their time and energy into producing space and opportunity for their community to gather and engage. In connecting community members with the knowledge, perseverance, and legacy of those before to produce the various elements of the show, Punishment Rituals penetrates communities past and present and binds them together through webs of leather, chain, intimacy, and possibility, creating an opportunity to find community and affirmation, and to reflect on the ongoing task of collective queer organizing and reclaiming.

 

[1] Harder, Taylor, Art Thou Willing to Suffer to Learn: An Analysis of Witchcraft Initiation Rituals, 2019.

 

Re-imagining the South Asian Curator

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Natasha Ginwala and Defne Ayas were selected to curate the Gwangju Biennale in September 2020.

By Devana Senanayake

“I am not entirely comfortable being bracketed as “a South Asian Curator,” says curator and writer, Natasha Ginwala. “Maybe this fluidity which I have structured my life around is one way to break out of these codes which are opportunities, but they are also ways of defining you.”

There are limited curators of colour working in the cultural field. Natasha feels these specialized positions are a welcome development, yet at times situate curators in prefixed categories rather than provide them an opportunity to reshape and push the boundaries of their occupation. In 2015, the Mellon Foundation released the first comprehensive survey of diversity in American Art Museums. It cited only 16% of leadership positions held by people of colour. Of these positions: 38% of Americans identified as Asian, Black, Hispanic or multiracial. There are limited curators of colour, much less South Asian curators, in Europe and America.

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Firi Rahman, Taste Karanthethé (2019). Performance. Colomboscope 2019: Sea Change, Colombo (25–31 January 2019). Photography by Ruvin de Silva.

“The whitest job in the entire cultural community in New York is curator,” Tom Finkelpearl, the city’s commissioner of cultural affairs told the New York Times last year. “That’s changing.”

In response to criticisms of limited diversity, large scale museums have created full-time positions to bring in more diverse curators. In 2015, the MET created a position for an “Assistant Curator of South Asia” and appointed Shanay Jhaveri to it. The TATE appointed Priyesh Mistry to the “Assistant Curator of Research for South Asia” position. Last year, the Peabody Essex Museum appointed Siddhartha V. Shah as “Curator of Indian and South Asian Art”.

“I see these positions from a distance, and I wonder what it does to you because you are still slotted as “The” South Asian Curator. I am feeling more at ease because it’s my relationship with the artists I work with, my thinking, and my writing which defines how I am seen in my field,” she says of her journey as an independent curator, an alternative to the traditional role as a full-time curator in a museum.

Curatorial roles based solely on location oversee the cultural richness, diversity, and complexity of the region. Generalized names such as “South Asia” fail to capture the multiracial, multiethnic and multilingual identities that inhabit those regions. As an area, South Asia is large. It includes India, Pakistan, Nepal, Sri Lanka, and the Maldives just to cite a limited number of countries. None of these elements are taken into consideration by the generalized South Asian Curator labels.

Natasha studied at Jharwala Nehru University’s School of Art and Aesthetics in Delhi. She then pursued a specialized curatorial course in De Appel Arts Center in 2010. At that time, she had been the only South Asian participant in the course. As a student in India, she found a lot of “hierarchies” in local art circles, so she found her experience in the Netherlands, despite being an inexperienced curator, to be a liberating and educational one.

After the conclusion of her studies, Natasha stayed in Europe to pursue the role of an independent curator a decision that ultimately helped her host several biennales such as the Contour Biennale 8 Polyphonic Worlds: Justice as Medium and Documenta 14 (2017). Her projects have also been featured at the 56th Venice Biennale and KW Institute for Contemporary Art.

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Smellarchive children’s workshop by Sissel Tolaas. Colomboscope 2019. Photography by Ruvin De Silva.

As India’s economy has risen, Indian art has enjoyed greater levels of local and international popularity. Iftikhar Dadi, Associate Professor of the History of Art and Visual Studies at Cornell University, commented on this phenomenon on the Guggenheim blog:

“A new generation of curators has emerged in India, and curating is now considered a serious and competitive profession. India also overshadows other South Asian countries in its international exposure, its artists and curators having recently enjoyed more opportunities to exhibit both domestically and internationally….

Other countries [in the region] are also developing analogous infrastructures including museums, galleries, journals, training programs, and periodic exhibition platforms such as biennials.”

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Colomboscope 2019: Sea Change, Colombo (25–31 January 2019). Photography by Ruvin Da Silva.

It is only natural that Natasha stayed connected to her South Asian roots as it is an area hungry for exposure, strong management, and reinterpretation. She is currently based, simultaneously, in Berlin and Colombo.

“I think it’s great that it’s so self-organized. I think there’s much more room to experiment, and there’s an opportunity which we need to need to harness and not see as [lacking]” she says of the potential held by the art scene in Sri Lanka.

She also singled out friendly people full of interesting memories and personal anecdotes in the Sri Lankan art community. Natasha first came to Sri Lanka, the home of her partner, in 2014 and co-curated Colomboscope a year later. She is currently Artistic Director of the festival that exhibits contemporary arts and encourages an interdisciplinary dialogue. In 2018, the festival ran over seven days in January in several Colombo locations such as the Rio Complex, Barefoot Gallery, Grand Oriental Hotel and Galle Face Green Hotel.

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Colomboscope 2019: Sea Change, Colombo (25–31 January 2019). Photography by Ruvin De Silva.

As a curator responsible for a local festival, Natasha understands that the festival needs to be a “sustainable and context-responsive environment for cultural producers to continue generating path-breaking and genre-defying approaches in the field.”

“A lot of the work happens through writing, studio visits with artists or workshops with younger artists. We want to think about how we can equip the community,” she says of the larger role the festival plays in nurturing the local art scene through its focus on intimate gatherings and relationship building.

The festival featured several local artists such as Anoli Perera, Isuru Kumarasinghe and Jasmine Nilani Joseph; and international artists such as Hira Nabi, Armine Linke, and Henry Tan and partners.

“We think of [the festival] as a platform to try new vocabularies; and where new kinds of approaches can be laid out and explored.”

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Cooking Sections, CLIMAVORE: On Mangroves and Mudflats (2019). Performance. Colomboscope 2019: Sea Change, Colombo (25–31 January 2019). Photography by Ruvin de Silva.

Iftikhar Dadi encourages curators to take the South Asian diaspora into consideration in their exhibitions: “The South Asian diaspora is enormous in cities such as Dubai, London, and New York. Curatorial initiatives in these places have also been instrumental in reconceiving South Asia beyond the restrictions of national borders.”

The Sri Lankan diaspora exists in countries such as Saudi Arabia, Europe, Australia, and the USA. The festival has provided a foundation for artists such as Sri Lankan-Swiss performer, Robin Myer; and Sri Lankan-Australians, Amara Raheem and Cresside Collette to exhibit their practices.

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Colomboscope 2019: Sea Change, Colombo (25–31 January 2019). Photography by Ruvin De Silva.

“These are artists who have lived away from the island and are finding their way back through the arts,” Natasha says.

For upcoming festivals, Natasha hopes to explore the rising interest in set forms of publishing (like zines and artist books), multimedia (like film and video), and identity politics that happen in the local art scene.

“There is more consciousness with gender, race and class-based questions in the way artists are producing work. In terms of a post-war society, how do you tackle these questions?” she says about the festival’s evolution and her responsibility as a curator in a country undergoing reconstruction and focused on reinterpretation for progress.

Travel, Terminology and The Not Cooking Show: An Interview with Ayo Tsalithaba

 

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Ayo Tsalithaba, Portrait by Kezia Chapman.

Questions by Adi Berardini

Ayo Tsalithaba’s primary mediums include digital art, film photography and digital filmmaking. Largely influenced by music and travel, transporting the viewer everywhere from a dreamy alpaca farm to the village of Cheshee, their films address identity and the intersections of race, gender, and sexuality. Ayo is also the founder of The Bacon Berry Card Co., a small company specializing in cute greeting cards, stickers, prints and more.

Ayo has been featured in Huffington Post Canada, The Kit, TFO, the University of Toronto magazine and Munch Magazine. Additionally, they have screened their films and appeared on panels at the TIFF Bell Lightbox, University of Toronto, George Brown, the Revue Cinema, Xpace Cultural Centre, among others. Ayo is currently specializing in Women and Gender Studies and minoring in Linguistics at the University of Toronto. They hope to continue learning, taking risks, sparking conversations and above all else, advocating for positive social change.

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A KIKI WITH BOBBY BOWEN –  direction, camera operating, editing, cinematography by Ayo Tsalithaba
  1. One of your films interviews Bobby Bowen and discusses queer terminology specific to the African/Caribbean/Black community. I was wondering if you could further discuss this work?

The film that I made with Bobby was actually a final project for a class I took in my second year. We were supposed to work on a project that “produces knowledge” and to be honest, I didn’t really know what that meant. Instead, I wanted to turn to knowledge that is often overlooked and decided to blend what I was learning about linguistics and women and gender studies with my interest in film and make a short doc about queer terminology. I was also just getting into archiving and documenting Black queer histories, so this project was perfect. It’s stuff like this that keeps me going through school because I know that I can take what I’ve learned, strip it of pretentious (and unnecessary) gate-keeping academic jargon and put it on a screen. I know Bobby through my siblings and from admiring his work as a stylist, so I sent him an Instagram DM and we worked together. I just love this project because it was the first interview that I shot after my feature documentary and I felt like I got to apply what I’d learned to something short, sweet, educational and queer.

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GOODBYES by TiKA, DESIIRE, and CASEY MQ– direction, camera operating, editing, cinematography by Ayo Tsalithaba
  1. I noticed that you often collaborate with musicians. What is your process for creating films for music?

I spend a lot of time listening to music and imagining what I would do with a song if I were given a budget and permission to make a visual for it. I would like to think that I’m constantly practicing music video filmmaking in my head whenever I listen to music, which makes it easier when an opportunity arises to be in the right frame of mind to come up with a concept. I usually start by listening to whatever song I am working with and jotting down ideas. Then I show them to the artist and see what they think and go from there. I like having a plan, but I also like letting go of it to some degree during the shoot. I make sure we have all the shots we need and then I like to play around and try out new things. After the shoot, I like taking a look at the videos and then I have to take some space before I start editing (unless I’m super excited to edit – in which case I could probably finish the video in a few hours).

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TiKA ft. HLMT All Day All Night – direction, camera operating, editing, cinematography, casting, concept by Ayo Tsalithaba
  1. You mention on your site how travel first influenced your discovery of documentary filmmaking. Can you explain this further? In what other ways does travel inspire you?

I was very lucky to be able to travel a lot as a kid because whenever my dad was going on a trip and I didn’t have school, my mom and I would go with him. However, the first time I remember making a good travel film was when my parents and I went to visit my aunt in Mauritius. I spent the whole trip filming our journey across the island. I think that my [documentary] work was influenced by my travels because I remember just wanting to document everything I saw – whether it was through film or photos – and that would allow me to keep taking it all in long after I had returned home. It’s become a bit of a tradition for me to make a film on every trip that I go on, and if I don’t have the time for a film, I make sure to take as many photos as I can. It’s funny because now I don’t travel nearly as much anymore because of school, because I’m trying to save up and also because I hate flying. I would still love to shoot a documentary that allows me to travel, but for now, I just have a list of places I want to visit.

  1. Do you think that photography and film can be used as a tool for social change? If so, how do you think it contributes to change?

Oh yes, absolutely a hundred times yes! I think my life’s work resides in art for social change – I’m so committed to it. I love making things look, sound, and feel beautiful, and to mix that with an important message is the best harmony there could be. I want to broaden photography and film to art, in general, to answer this question, because art has always been so important in championing change and artists have played an instrumental role in such. I can’t help but think of Nina Simone and how strongly some of her songs pushed for dreaming about Black liberation. I think art contributes to change by allowing people to sink into a struggle and see, hear, or feel something that was made with love and care. I want my art to be something that allows people to experience a shared struggle remotely. In a lot of my films, I try to make space for fear, anger, sadness, outrage, happiness, jubilation, love, hate and more emotions that I have felt while I was alone. In a lot of cases, I wish I had one of my films to watch and cry to or laugh to or just be angry about the current state of affairs to. One of the little ways I try and contribute to social change is making art for it. Eventually, when people trust me enough to give me a bunch of money to make things, it’ll be about bringing people who haven’t had access to funded art together and paying them. And then it’ll be about putting money and opportunities back into communities that need them.

  1. Who are some artists that influence you?

I know I’m going to forget people and this list is in no particular order, but: my whole family, Nina Simone, Kara Walker, Mickalene Thomas, Tika, Miriam Makeba, Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, Noor Khan, Sean Brown, Twysted Miyake Mugler, Syrus Marcus Ware, Solange Knowles, Vivek Shraya, Ruth E. Carter, Morgan Sears-Williams, Sean Leon, Kelly Fyffe-Marshall, Elisha Lim, Barry Jenkins, Sydney Allen-Ash, Tegan and Sara, Ava Duvernay, Nayani Thiyagarajah and so many more that I know I’m forgetting!

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Hallmark of Tolerance film by Ayo Tsalithaba

 

  1. You are multi-talented—you work as a digital artist/photographer/filmmaker and you have a greeting card business, Bacon Berry Card Co. What are you interested in exploring next?

I am very interested in cooking! I absolutely love cooking and eating. I have a food Instagram account (@notcookingshow) that I’m trying to turn into a cooking show because I know that I’d be a great cooking show host. Other than that, I see myself designing clothing because I struggle to find clothes that fit me and don’t give me dysphoria and I know there are other people who feel the same. Ultimately with all of the things that I’m interested in, I just want to help provide and spread opportunities, experiences and stories that aren’t out there. And also make money and give it to people who need it and help create programming and services that cater to underserved communities.

Carbon Study: Walking in the Dark by Genevieve Robertson

Access Gallery –  January 12 to February 23, 2019

By Caitlin Almond

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Genevieve Robertson, Carbon Study Installation, 2019. Photo by Rachel Topham Photography.

Carbon Study: Walking in the Dark is the result of Genevieve Robertson’s recent residency at the artist-run centre Access Gallery, curated by Access’s director and curator, Katie Belcher. Carbon Study: Walking in the Dark invites the viewer to enter Robertson’s captivating microcosm of monochromatic drawings of organic forms delicately oscillating between figuration and abstraction. The exhibition is a continuation of Genevieve Robertson’s current drawing practice, which taxonomically explores ephemeral materiality and organic forms of carboniferous flora and fauna, as a means to interrogate British Columbia’s exploitative landscape economy. In Access Gallery’s small space, Robertson deftly navigates the challenges of creating politically charged works without sacrificing any aesthetic sensibility.

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Genevieve Robertson, Carbon Study Detail, 2019. Photo by Caitlin Almond.
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Genevieve Robertson, Carbon Study Installation, 2019. Photo by Rachel Topham Photography.

The curation of the space very effectively guides the viewer through the gallery space. Upon entering the gallery, the viewer is directed to the right of the gallery where the three large focal works are situated, a large drawing of a horizontal leaf fragmented onto four pieces of paper, a grid composed of several smaller bituminous abstract drawings, and a large amorphous drawing of a lichen. The viewer is then slowly guided out of the space by six smaller works unified by scale and composition which are comfortably spaced throughout the rest of the gallery.

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Genevieve Robertson, Carbon Study Installation, 2019. Photo by Rachel Topham Photography.

The drawings, have a distinctly monochromatic palette of white, black and gray, appearing simultaneously crisp and soft on the ever so slightly warped and unframed white paper, asserting the ephemeral materiality of the medium itself. Robertson’s large-scale drawings on paper are made with coal, charcoal, and graphite – foraged by the artist herself during walks through British Columbia’s fire-ravaged landscape (a process which informed the title of this exhibition). This use of carbon-based materials in Robertson’s work is a provocative effort by the artist to create an elemental sense of life through inherently decayed materials, teasing the viewer with a simultaneous experience of both construction and destruction.

Although, Robertson’s works are self-contained, marketable objects, they share a commonality with earthworks and land art in that they are conceived and created as “Fully engaged elements of their respective environments that asserted new conditions, […] They were (among other things) expressions of a dialectic in nature – the opposing forces of creation and destruction.” (Beardsley 1). While the simplistic figure-ground relationship employed in all the drawings, does initially serve the artist and curators intention for the works to read as taxonomic botanical drawings – it very quickly becomes repetitious and overly contrived in the gallery’s small space. This serial repetition of the minimalistic figure-ground relationship causes the work to appear less like a taxonomic study and more like a predictable sampling of slides from a Rorschach inkblot test.  The strength of Robertson’s work in Carbon Study: Walking in the Dark rests in the materiality and physicality of her handmade pigments. The crystalline texture of her foraged graphite glimmers on the paper’s surface, creating a startling texture to her drawings which disrupts the viewer’s expectation of the medium itself.

Works Cited

Beardsley, John. “Traditional Aspects of New Land Art.” Art Journal, vol. 42, no. 3, 1982, pp. 226–232. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/776583.