Profiles on Practice: Meera Sethi

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Meera Sethi headshot. Courtesy of the artist.

By Nadia Kurd

“I came to making art through a circuitous route,” says Canadian artist Meera Sethi. As a self-taught graphic designer, Sethi felt that her transition to a full-time visual artist was a gradual one. Despite earning a BFA (1998) and MA in Interdisciplinary Studies at York University (2001), it was only after graduation that Sethi began experimenting with acrylic paints and became more confident working directly with various materials in her studio. As Sethi reflects, “I sometimes wonder if it was because there were no clearly defined role models for me to follow as an emerging visual artist.”[1]

Her experimentations with paint eventually led to figurative paintings that explored her interests in South Asian identities and place. Painting series such as Firangi Rang Barangi (Colourful Stranger, 2009-2012), Foreign Returned (2013) and Upping the Aunty (2016) combine her graphic design and painterly sensibilities. These vivid and highly graphic paintings and drawings examine the hybridity and evolution of South Asian clothing, gendered norms and societal expectations. Most often portraits, these works emphasize the individuality of her subjects and provide insights [into] the diversity of South Asian culture.

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Meera Sethi. Pinky Aunty (Upping the Aunty series),  2016, acrylic, fabric and crystal on canvas, 36 in. x 60 in. Private Collection. Courtesy of the artist.

For example, in her three-part series Upping the Aunty, Sethi presents portraits of middle-aged South Asian women who are informally referred to as ‘aunties’. Though not always a biological relation, these women are part of the larger South Asian community, who Sethi points out, are “neither our mothers nor part of our peer group, aunties may be trusted confidantes or gatekeepers of social decorum.”[2] Along with these painted portraits, Sethi includes street-style photography and a colouring book. The playfulness and broad appeal of these illustrative works humorously highlight at the misconceptions about the personal lives of South Asian women.[3]

Moreover, the work of established artists such as Mona Hatoum, Doris Salcedo, and Louise Bourgeois have been important to Sethi for understanding how to foreground the feminist body and the ways in which these artists have linked personal histories to larger social and political events. However, it is ultimately the stories and histories of communities that she is connected to such as queer people of colour and her family relations that she is most invested in. For Sethi, it is the stories from these communities, particularly histories of migration, the global flow of capital and colonization that exposes the current, complex lived experiences of people today.

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Meera Sethi. Outwear Series, detail. Courtesy of the artist.

Sethi develops her work organically as her process involves preliminary drawings, reading, and written reflection. More recently, Sethi has shifted from working in a stationary, graphic design manner to one that is much more mindful and body-focused in nature. “When I work in a studio environment, I spend a lot of time sourcing material and understanding its visual and material language” observes Sethi, “I sit with objects and give them time to speak to me, trying not to force an outcome, if during the process I feel stuck, I get up and move.”[4]

In her current textile-based works, Outerwhere (2019), Sethi stitches together second-hand winter coats and various embellishments such as food wrappers, plastic flowers, fabric ribbons, and mirrors. As it develops, this project seeks to study “the binaries of inside/outside, personal/public, past/present as they relate to material culture and the migratory experiences of South Asian-Canadians.”[5] More importantly, the work reveals the intersections of textile, lived experiences, and objects through an everyday, protective garment.

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Meera Sethi. Outerwear Series, mixed media textile, 2019-ongoing. Courtesy of the artist.

As she continues to evolve her work, Sethi has moved away from her past design practice to a more experimental, and time-sensitive approach—one that utilizes her history and memories in a more personal way. On this change in her artwork, she notes that “I find myself curious about new mediums such as durational sculpture, textile, and performance and I am also interested in exploring moments of transition and being in-between places, identities, and locations in a way that opens up questions rather than provide answers.”[6]

In 2018, the Melissa Levin Emerging Artist Award through the Textile Museum of Canada recognized Sethi’s work (alongside Indigenous artist Catherine Blackburn). For her, the move from her graphic design to a more visual arts practice has allowed her to move towards a deeper reflection on the world around her. “My work is about the undoing of myself,” says Sethi, “through working with the materials I know best and my own life, I am able to draw connections that make world-making possible.”[7]

To see more of Meera Sethi’s artwork, visit her website, meerasethi.com or follow her on Instagram @meerasethi

Nadia Kurd (she/her) is an art historian and curator based in Amiskwacîwâskahikan (Edmonton, Alberta). She tweets @nadia_kurd and more of her work can be found on nadiakurd.com.

 

[1] Meera Sethi, interview by author, Edmonton, AB, June 12, 2019.

[2] Meera Sethi, www.meerasethi.com, (accessed July 4, 2019).

[3] For more information on Sethi’s Upping the Aunty project, click here.

[4] Meera Sethi, interview by author.

[5] Artist website.

[6] Meera Sethi, interview by author.

[7] Ibid.

Tahira Rifath Humanizes Trauma Through Digital Portraiture

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Tahira Rifath. Hyacinth Rupasinghe. Courtesy of the artist. 2019.

By Devana Senanayake

Watching the Easter Sunday attacks unfold on the screens of her TV and smartphone, deeply impacted Tahira Rifath. 

“It was scary and traumatizing. I kept thinking what people at the attacks might have felt,” Tahira says of the violence she perceived as a spectator. 

The Easter Sunday attacks in Sri Lanka that claimed at least 257 lives (including churchgoers and tourists alike), targeted three churches and four hotels, rippled through the country and left it reeling. This is the deadliest attack on the country since the conclusion of the Civil War a decade ago. 

Sri Lanka is a country ripped apart by trauma. Black July and the 1983 Singhalese-Tamil riots are cited as incidents that initiated the twenty-five year long Civil War. 

“I was not alive when the Black July happened but once people start to talk about all those riots, it’s so hard for them and there’s so much anxiety about it,” Tahira says about the country’s inability to reconcile its past history. 

Unlike the victims of Christchurch, Tahira noticed a shift in focus in the Sri Lankan attack. The victim’s lives, achievements, and stories shrank in significance as the government and the media started hunting the back stories of the perpetrators of the attack. 

Stories about the group suspected of organizing the suicide bombings, National Thowheed Jamath (NTJ) and the strategist of the entire operation, Zahran Hashim popped up all over social media. Social media, particularly Facebook and Whatsapp groups, have become hubs for misinformation, fake stories and hate speech. Even the death toll initially reported as 359 casualties had been revised to 257 after further consultation. A feeling of uncertainty and doubt plague the country. 

“The people who lost their lives became a distant number. No one spoke about them.” the freelance graphic designer and illustrator says. “These people were more than just a number. They lived full, extraordinary lives. We were not giving them the attention that they needed.”

She began her portrait series by sketching out Ramesh Raju, a 40-year-old, building constructor that had saved the lives of many attending mass at the Evangelical Zion Church in Northeastern, Batticaloa. 

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Tahira Rifath. Shantha Mayadunne. Courtesy of the artist. 2019.

Tahira has also sketched Sri Lankan celebrity chef and cookbook author Shantha Mayadunne. Shantha is remembered for her immaculate presence on Sri Lankan TV channels ITN and Rupavahini, dressed in a Kandyan style sari, presenting quick and simple recipes. 

Her daughter Nisanga Mayadunne, a service quality manager and TV presenter had also perished during a family breakfast at the hotel. 

Tahira gained more information about the casualties from organizations attacked on Easter such as Cinnamon Grand Hotel and the Shangri-La Hotel. Miyuru Yasakalum had been employed as a commis chef at the Shangri-La Hotel since October 2017. The ex-scout had also been a tour guide in Sri Lanka.

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Tahira Rifath. Miyuru Yasakalum. Courtesy of the artist. 2019.

To continue her project amid a storm of inaccuracy,  Tahira consults either a family member or a close friend of a subject before she sketches them. After she finished her first four portraits, she felt the secondary trauma of undertaking such an intense project focused on tragedy. Secondary trauma, sometimes called “vicarious trauma” happens through constant exposure and re-exposure to traumatic stories. Her physical health had been impacted – she contracted a fever and had to press “pause” on the project. 

Despite the impact on her mental and physical health, Tahira is eager to continue. She hopes to celebrate the lives of the victims and simultaneously convey a message to a racially divided country.  “Even though Sri Lanka was voted the “No. 1 Tourist Destination” by Lonely Planet for 2019, people are not really open to different perspectives. I want people to understand and empathize with different beliefs and cultural perspectives,” she concluded. 

 

The Poetic Everyday: In Conversation with Natalie Hunter

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Natalie Hunter. Staring Into The Sun. Solo exhibition at Rodman Hall Arts Centre. Hansen Gallery. 2019. Documentation image by Jimmy Limit.

Questions by Adi Berardini

Natalie Hunter’s work brings the everyday experience into a wondrous technicolour world, where the present moment meets that of memory. Bridging photography, sculpture, and installation, photos of interior domestic spaces are re-imagined through a kaleidoscope of colours, cyan meeting magenta, yellow and violet. She often produces experiential installations using photographs on transparent film, light, and other fragile materials that engage with the poetics of time, memory, perception, and the senses.

Natalie holds an MFA from the University of Waterloo, and a Bachelor of Art in Visual Art with a Concentration in Curatorial Studies from Brock University. She has shown her work in Canada and the United States in numerous exhibitions, including Rodman Hall Arts Centre, Centre 3 for Print and Media Arts, Art Gallery of Windsor, Hopkins Centre For the Arts at Dartmouth College, Museum London, University of Waterloo Art Gallery, and the Hamilton Supercrawl. She is the recipient of several awards including an Ontario Arts Council Creation Project Grant, and a Canada Council for the Arts Research and Creation Grant.

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Natalie Hunter. The sky seemed to fold in ribbons of palest sunlight. 2017. Giclee prints on transparent film, poplar, light. installation dimensions variable. 12” x 72” each print. Documentation image by Jimmy Limit.

It seems like your work facilitates a looking closer” since it often uses colour and layering of translucent images until they are nearly rendered abstract. Can you speak more about the conceptual ideas in your work and your process? How does it relate to perception and memory?

Natalie Hunter: My practice is multidisciplinary and concerned with the transformation of materials, objects, and images in ways that evoke an emotive or psychological response in the viewer. I often make images and installations and think of myself as a sculptor who fell in love with images. I’m interested in process and materials just as much as concepts. The starting point for most of my work boils down to light and time, both of which can be experienced differently through image and sculpture. I’m interested in really ephemeral things like light, air, memory, the senses, motion, stillness, and time. Things we can feel the effects of, how they shape experience, and how these concepts can be articulated in material ways. I very much look at photographs as material fluid things that are tangible objects vulnerable to the elements. I find sculpture and photography related in some way. There is an element of stillness in sculpture and photography that speaks to the present moment, but also the past. The negative and positive aspects of photography mirror that of sculpture and casting—both are traces just in different ways.

I’m really interested in the exploratory, transformative power of materials to translate these experiences of the everyday.

For the past seven or eight years, I’ve been working with layering images both physically (layering transparent photographs to make new images and spaces), and inside of the camera (multiple exposures). I find this act of layering both inside and outside of the camera transcends logical ideas of time. For me, the act of layering images subverts expected notions of a perfect photographic image and notions of linear time. I use layering in an attempt to connect with the processes of human memory. Layering both accumulates and loses information, and this is what happens as we accumulate memories, sensory information, and thoughts over time. Detail is lost, while sensation is accentuated.

When making images, I use colour filters to bring attention to these layers. They help me slow down and separate different moments of time while leaving clues as to how the images were made. I choose combinations of colour filters emotively; choosing colours that naturally occur in the spaces I occupy to further accentuate them. Colour is sensorial in the visual sense. I believe that the addition of colour heightens awareness. When I think about the strongest earliest memory that I have, I can’t identify details, but I can describe the sensations, and for me adding colour through the use of filters is a way of exploring sensation or sensory information through photography. In this way, I hope to make a predominantly visual medium physical.

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Natalie Hunter. Helios (interior day view). Hand-applied dichroic film on window, light. variable dimensions. 2019. Documentation image by Jimmy Limit.

  You take photographs of what may seem ordinary or mundane, like the interior blinds and curtain shots in As the Light Touches and create something quite awe-inspiring and vibrant. Can you speak more about the transforming of everyday, familiar spaces?

NH: Artists should make work about their experience and how they perceive and understand the world. The mundane experiences we find ourselves in on a daily basis are often those in-between moments that we don’t really count as experiences. I’m really interested in the exploratory, transformative power of materials to translate these experiences of the everyday. Memory is just as important as breathing in our human experience and I’m interested in exploring how that manifests and transforms through time. I feel like we are all unconsciously shaped by the spaces we inhabit on a daily basis, and I know that my work is often influenced by the spaces I spend the most time in. Space is something psychological just as much as it is physical, and I want to explore both of these aspects of space in my work.

Gaston Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space is a text that I return to a lot. It has been influential in how I understand my work and its relationship to space, time, and memory. We participate daily in the creation of spaces we unconsciously make for ourselves. I don’t wish for my work to merely represent these spaces, but instead, act as experiences in and of themselves that become new spaces and encounters in their own right.

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Natalie Hunter. Helios (interior day view). Hand-applied dichroic film on window, light. variable dimensions. 2019. Documentation image by Jimmy Limit.

Your work seems to incorporate the surrounding architecture of the space it occupies. For example, your installation Helios at the Rodman Hall Art Centre, a site-responsive piece that addresses the ephemeral qualities of light and how it affects familiar spaces, the body, and our perception. I was wondering what your process is like in terms of creating work that is more site-specific?

NH: I don’t like to ignore the space my work exists in. I try to consider the space it exists in at the time of exhibition as an element of the work itself. Often, my work changes when it’s installed a second or third time, or from my studio to the gallery space. I need to do site visits when thinking about site-specific work, and I usually respond in an emotive way that speaks to a unique characteristic of a space in order to converse with it. Memory plays a big part in this. When responding to a space site-specifically, I hope to produce a kind of encounter between viewer and work that elicits memory or a sensorial response.   

Helios was a site-responsive installation at Rodman Hall Art Centre exhibited in my solo exhibition Staring into the sun. When making Helios, I wanted to consider it a gesture, response, or conversation with Rodman Hall; a connecting work that bridges outside and inside and only exists for a short time in the space. I was really influenced by my memories and experiences of Rodman Hall as a student. I remember ascending the stairs and seeing the stained glass, which is located in various locations in Rodman Hall’s domestic spaces. I wanted to converse with these architectural elements while at the same time make something new. Something that made you more aware of time, your body, and the space you exist in a very present, albeit slow, way. Change and fluidity are important to this work. And the work took on its own life as winter stretched to spring and the light changed.

I think Helios points to the process of how I create images and think with materials. I spent about a little over a month playing with samples of dichroic film, doing material research, finding out what it does in different lighting conditions, bending, folding, layering, and draping it in various situations, and mixing it with different materials. A lot of my inquiries stem from testing materials to see what they will do. Helios is much about slow movement, the slowness of time, and how we perceive it through our human senses. I hope to continue exploring what I learned in making this work.

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Natalie Hunter. The Sun’s Rays Do Not Burn Until Brought To A Focus. Installation at Centre 3 For Print and Media Arts, Hamilton, Ontario, Canada. 2018. Documentation courtesy of the artist. 

Q: Your installation The sun’s rays do not burn until brought to a focus creates a temporal experience for the viewer since as the sun moves across the sky, each work is animated with their own ephemeral rhythm.” I was wondering if you could speak more about this work and the use of natural processes, light and time?

NH: I use light in the making of images, but also physically in how they are exhibited and exist within space. For me, light is quite kinetic or makes the work kinetic through the passage of time. There is both stillness and subtle motion in my installation The sun’s rays do not burn until brought to a focus, achieved through different uses of artificial and natural light. I use light in this installation as a material that activates spaces.

Light is fundamental to photography, and I consider its manipulation as a material process in my work. Light is also fundamental to sculpture because it is how we are able to situate and perceive objects in space. Light is ephemeral, like time and memory. Natural sunlight is always changing, where as artificial light is static. In The sun’s rays do not burn until brought to a focus, natural sunlight is used in a kinetic way, gallery lighting is used in a rather still way, which casts latent imagery on the surfaces of the exhibition space. A viewer’s experience of the work is not static but always changing. Elements move with the subtlety of the air movement in the space, and the installation seems different on a cloudy day, or between dawn and dusk.

It’s hard to discuss photography without discussing time because time is so essential to the medium. Photography is always seen as a frozen moment, but for me, photographs are fluid things. A lot of my transparent film works require active movement in the space that they occupy in order to experience them. The light activates them, but the viewer does through movement too. For example, in The sky seemed to fold in ribbons of pales sunlight, it appears different when standing at different points in the room. When standing directly in front of the piece, the physical images almost disappear, and you only see latent imagery on the walls. When standing at an angle, the images appear layered with themselves and the latent imagery on the walls. You aren’t sure what the true image is; the physical photograph or its latent reflection.

Q: Who are some artists that are influential to you and your practice?

NH: A lot of the artists I admire often explore quiet and overlooked elements of our being and how they shape experience. I look to artists like Tacita Dean, Uta Barth, James Welling, Sabine Hornig, and Sarah VanDerBeek for their consideration of materiality in lens-based image making. I feel a kinship to artists like Ann Hamilton, Roni Horn, Kimsooja, and Alison Wilding for their conceptual and material research, and multidisciplinary approaches to working. In 2012, I spent a summer internship working for sculptor and installation artist Soo Sunny Park. This was a priceless opportunity and an integral part of my artistic development and education in terms of understanding space and place. She encouraged me to think about my images in material ways and take my interest both in sculpture and images into installation territory. She taught me that sculptors have a unique understanding of space. I want to continue to develop and explore that in my work—subverting expectations of what images and installation can be.

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Natalie Hunter. Dappled (detail). 2018. Archival inkjet prints on backlight film draped over poplar and aluminum sculptures. Approximately 24″ x 60″ x 36″ each. Documentation courtesy of the artist.

Q: Can you speak more about the upcoming exhibition Shaping Time: Natalie Hunter, Xiaojing Yan and Lois Schklarat at Latcham Art Centre? What work will you be displaying?

NH: Shaping Time: Natalie Hunter, Xiaojing Yan and Lois Schklar at Latcham Art Centre considers ideas of memory and time through a multimedia lens. Elisa Coish curated Shaping Time around the 40th anniversary of Latcham Art Centre. Part of her curatorial strategy involves inviting artists at different stages of their careers to create a larger dialogue surrounding these concepts and the different approaches and discussions that can arise from it. Both Xiaojing Yan and Lois Schklar are well recognized and established artists that have exhibited with Latcham Art Centre in the past. Elisa Coish invited me as the emerging artist to exhibit work in Shaping Time after my solo exhibition Staring into the sun closed at Rodman Hall in May. I will be exhibiting some of the work that was shown at Rodman Hall in Staring into the sun, but also some work that has never been exhibited that I made in 2018 with an Ontario Arts Council grant. The work going in Shaping Time is an overview of the many approaches and materials I use to consider light, time, and memory in both installation and photo-based ways. It will be interesting to see how I respond to the space during installation because Latcham Art Centre is essentially a white cube. Corners are often considered non-spaces, and I am fond of corners for their surreal shape and potential for activating a space. In this way, I’m hoping to converse with some of the architectural elements in the space during installation.

 You can view more of Natalie Hunter’s work from July 10 – August 24th in Shaping Time: Natalie Hunter, Xiaojing Yan and Lois Schklar at Latcham Art Centre, curated by Elisa Coish and on her website.

Miss Meatface: Kat Toronto at The Untitled Space

July 2-13, 2019

The Untitled Space

By Chloe Hyman

Starting Tuesday, July 2nd, The Untitled Space in New York City will present a solo exhibition of interdisciplinary work by the artist Kat Toronto, a.k.a. Miss Meatface. The exhibition, curated by Indira Cesarine and named for the artist’s pseudonym, highlights the performance-based photography that Toronto is known for, as well as video and ceramic work and a limited edition of zines. On opening night, the artist signed zines and gave a talk about her practice.

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Kat Toronto. Working From Bed. Courtesy of The Untitled Space.

Toronto chose her pseudonym as a way to process her hysterectomy, a traumatic procedure that alienated the artist from her body. The persona of Miss Meatface provided Toronto an outlet to explore her sexuality beyond what is typically expected of those who have ovaries. “I found myself stopping to think… about what the heck gender really was,” the artist recalls, “and why society historically placed so much emphasis on sculpting gender stereotypes.”

In her self-portraiture, Toronto stages erotic scenes that play with dominance and submission—games of power that mirror heterosexual power hierarchies—but her sexually ambiguous figures subvert societal standards of beauty, gender, and power. Their skin is replaced by latex which also serves to obscure their genitalia. Dressing in fetish-wear is a joyous process for Toronto, as it frees her from the restraints set on her physical body by a society obsessed with defining and policing gender.

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Kat Toronto. Forniphilia. 2016. digital photograph. Courtesy of The Untitled Space.

Historically there has been a tension between liberation and objectification when it comes to fetish in art and cinema. Forniphilia bears semblance to the work of Allen Jones, who was also involved with the artistic design of ‘A Clockwork Orange.’ However, Toronto’s identity as a female artist, and her emotional relationship with the persona Miss Meatface, lend her work both agency and depth. There is a raw truthfulness to her photographs that Jones’s Barbie-proportioned fem-bots lack. It radiates from her pink flesh inked with tattoos, and from the realism of her tableaus. Though Toronto visualizes herself in Forniphilia as a submissive sexual object, she remains deeply human, and therefore claims pleasure for herself.

“I found myself stopping to think… about what the heck gender really was,” the artist recalls, “and why society historically placed so much emphasis on sculpting gender stereotypes.”

Central to the realism of the artist’s work is the accoutrement of each domestic space. In Forniphilia, a wall yellowed by an invisible light source, a hard-wood floor, and vintage furniture, paint a simple, albeit dated, interior. A beige lampshade transforms Toronto into a standing lamp, and she assumes the connotations of the room she is in, reading as a willing participant in a sexual game of dominance and submission.

In other photographs, Toronto constructs more overtly retro tableaus, but her utilization of natural lighting maintains their authenticity. These shots, with their unbalanced streams of light, recall old family photographs rather than slick Hollywood sets. In No Time for Tears, a bedside lamp shines so brightly its own form is nearly abstracted—a beacon of blindingly white light. In Parlour, the source of light comes from a window that is almost overexposed by the angle of the sun.

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Kat Toronto. No Time for Tears. 2016. Digital photograph. Courtesy of The Untitled Space.

The settings of these works also have a lived-in quality that renders them deeply intimate. Toronto has decorated each space in a manner that recalls a specific time period, but never attempts to achieve Hollywood set design levels of polish. In No Time for Tears, a floral sheet peeks out from the corner of the frame, gently clashing with Miss Meatface’s cheetah-print dressing grown and the burnt-orange walls of her bedroom. Several tissues dot a green doily on her bedside table—an ironic detail given that her nose is obscured by a centimeter of latex. And finally, the strange landscape hanging above her bed follows the room’s color scheme almost too closely, adhering to a 1970s decorative trend that today would be considered tacky.

These elements minimize the work’s artificiality, and as a result, No Time For Tears never registers as a staged scene. Instead, Miss Meatface looks right at home smoking her cigarette on the bed. She is a person engaged in a sexual game rather than an artist’s model posed to elicit shock or titillation. Her agency and comfort enforce the work’s eroticism without subjecting Miss Meatface to voyeurism. Instead, the viewer is privy to a private moment in which Toronto is entirely in charge of her own pleasure.

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Kat Toronto. Parlour. 2016. Digital photograph. Courtesy of the Untitled Space.

The quality of tackiness that is present in Miss Meatface’s room décor and choice of dress is emblematic of a recurring theme in Toronto’s work—kitsch. The term ‘kitsch’ has historically been employed by the cultural elite as a foil for good taste. Twentieth-century avant-garde artists believed nostalgia and materialism were the greatest obstacles to their utopian goals, and designated any object they deemed sentimental or excessive, ‘kitsch.’ Politically motivated by the perceived need to eliminate kitsch mentality from society, male cultural critics adopted femaleness as a rhetorical device to demonize kitsch objects and champion avant-garde art. This practice led to the debasement of female artists/craftspeople and the women who collected their work.

Despite—and perhaps because of—the history of kitsch, Toronto loves the term. “I don’t happen to think of kitsch as being a dirty word,” she said. “I think it should be celebrated and revered.” She goes on to exalt the kitschy objects she admires, from “doilies, granny squares, and novelty teapots” to “vinyl furniture covers and crochet toilet roll covers.” There is an abundance of such objects in Parlour, which features an array of lace doilies draped over a crimson sofa and a number of whimsical figurines perched on a round table. The inclusion of such kitsch details lends Toronto’s photographs a sense of intimacy that communicates the artist’s comfort in these scenes.

In embracing kitsch, Toronto is part of a generation of artists—often women and/or LGBTQ+ —who are reclaiming a style once used to debase their identities. It’s hard to ignore the gendered history of the term when consuming the artist’s sexually-charged images. After all, she situates submissive figures within historical domestic spaces, which naturally suggests a link between sexual submission and gender hierarchies in the twentieth century. Considering this history is an element of experiencing Toronto’s work, but the artist’s assertion of her agency—communicated through her intimate tableaus—takes center stage.

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Kat Toronto. Meatmaid. Courtesy of The Untitled Space.

The history of kitsch is also the history of porcelain, a material that has been connoted with both masculinity and femininity throughout history. Because it signaled wealth, power, and intellect, porcelain was gendered masculine in the late-seventeenth and early-eighteenth centuries in Western Europe. Sensing the material’s political significance, French court women amassed their own collections, thus refashioning themselves as connoisseurs of court taste and key players in the trade. However, following the French Revolution, the material came to be associated with the materialistic whims of Marie Antoinette and thus fell out of fashion. It’s not surprising that nineteenth-century critics castigated porcelain as feminine, excessive and materialistic, as this rhetoric drew upon existing cultural norms that tied immorality and femininity.

This pattern repeated itself at the turn-of-the-century when many female artists crafted whimsical figurines and charming tableware from porcelain and other cheap substitutes. The masculine cultural elite regarded such goods with disdain, as their predecessors had in the courts of Britain and France.

Given the gendered history of porcelain, it is notable that Toronto has superimposed her photographs onto a number of ceramic plates. Meatmaid Plate is decorated with dainty pink flowers that encircle a photograph of Miss Meatface and her leashed latex pet. The work toys with dominance/submission and masculinity/femininity— themes that are common in Toronto’s practice—but it gains deeper significance by representing such themes on the surface of one of the most gendered materials in history. Sexuality, like porcelain, is marked by a history of power hierarchies that depend on a binary understanding of gender. By fusing the two, Toronto references the past in order to shed light on the present.

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Kat Toronto. Tip Toe: Prurient Apparitions. Courtesy of The Untitled Space.

In addition to photographic and ceramic work, Miss Meatface will feature a limited-edition zine produced and signed by Toronto. The zine, entitled Prurient Apparitions, is printed on silk 170 paper and is sold within a hand-sewn slipcover. Asked about her motivation for incorporating zines into her practice, the artist cites her childhood exposure to the format. “As a child of the 90s zines were a huge part of my high school experience,” Toronto explains. “They were an amazingly cheap and effective way of getting the word out about subjects and interests that were important to us and helped to share information in a pre-internet world.” Although the internet has simplified methods of communication, fine art remains an elusive realm to many and collecting is not financially viable to all. Zines enable more people to collect Toronto’s work, and the portable format of the zine allows the artist’s work to travel with her new collectors and be seen by infinitely more curious viewers.

Prurient Apparitions is emblematic of Toronto’s other work, as it fuses vintage and fetish iconography on a single plane. But what makes this zine particularly intriguing is the seamless blend of contemporary fetish and Victorian iconography within its twenty-four pages. While anachronistic juxtaposition is at the heart of Toronto’s ceramic work, Prurient Apparitions succeeds in its unexpected harmony.

The page Tip Toe situates a polaroid shot of black latex bondage heels within an oval frame. The old-fashioned layout resembles an old scrapbook, with its burgeoning white flowers and the delicately-rendered garden scene peeking out from the top-left corner of the photograph. And yet, the contrast between the shiny black shoes and the frilly femininity of the flowers does not register as dichotomous. Perhaps this is because the artist senses the eroticism lurking beneath the flora in Victorian visual culture.

Toronto describes the Victorian Period as the epitome of sexual repression and rigid gender roles—and the plethora of Victorian pornography confirms this point. “It only seemed appropriate to place my images within Victorian album pages,” the artist says. “When you are flipping through the pages of the zine it feels like you are taking a naughty peek back into a secret Victorian photo album.”

She explains how the repressive atmosphere of the period can be felt in certain Victorian motifs, notably, the orchid. Toronto quotes John Ruskin, the lauded Victorian art critic, to elucidate the significance of the white flower. Ruskin, she says, frequently voiced his disdain for orchids due to their cultural eroticization. The presence of the white flower, therefore, imbues the pages of Prurient Apparitions with a strong sexual charge. Toronto goes on to say that the orchid is a metaphor for her own sexuality, which she feels is instinctive and deeply erotic but often fetishized and objectified by society. The artist and the orchid are similarly stigmatized due to their eroticism, which explains why Toronto’s fetishistic imagery blends so easily into the pages of a Victorian book.

Miss Meatface opens Tuesday, July 2 at The Untitled Space. Please note that the gallery will be closed for the holidays July 3-7, and will re-open on July 8. Miss Meatface will then be on view through the 13th.

Pushing the Limits: In Discussion with Julia Betts

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Julia Betts, 2015-2017. Personal belongings embedded in plaster. Courtesy of the artist.

Questions by Adi Berardini

Artist Julia Betts channels art as a means of self-destruction—her work Detritus consists of self-portraits that are destroyed by shredding them back to earth, with the dust of the remains left in shades of rose pink, crimson, grey and russet. Betts brings art into the realm of imposing bodily limits through intervention. Veering towards the intersection of sculpture, performance, and installation, her work is defined by intentional unpredictability, the use of unstable materials and orchestration of situations in which her body and constructed space are subjected to forces of disorder.

Betts pushes a range of materials to the limits of their utility while placing herself in precarious circumstances that function as metaphors of emotional and psychic vulnerability and demonstrations of intentional disarray. Interested in the impossible, Betts creates uniquely precarious situations with ambiguous results that often lead to disruption and upheaval. She challenges the limits of representation by reflecting how life and art are hardly static but constantly transforming.

Can you explain more about how your work is influenced by emotional/psychological vulnerability and making a mess, but a highly deliberate mess?

I see messes as related to emotional and psychological vulnerability—they have to do with the need to control, the inability to control, and the subsequent loss of control. You can either lament the failure to control or revel in the messiness as a release from confinement. In this way, messes can embody dread or catharsis, reflecting an inability to keep accidents from happening and a yearning for release. Through viewing a mess, the image of the cultivated performer breaks down, revealing the human imperfection within the artist’s process. The viewer may perceive the spillage as the artist’s mistake and [therefore presume] that they have become privy to the artist’s unintentional expression. A mess becomes a radical expression of an imperfect image of oneself in a society that cultivates perfection. For me, messes also have a certain symbolic resonance relating to notions of femininity. Messes enact all things dirty, grimy, gory, visceral, and sensual in human experience, possibly even extending into the realm of the grotesque and traumatic when the dissolution speaks to bodily breakdowns.

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Julia Betts, Body as Pool. Still of performance while pouring paints. Courtesy of the artist.

Your practice seems to involve a mix of performance and traditional fine art (painting/ sculpture/installation), notably in Body as Pool where you create a self-portrait from outlining clay and pour liquidized paint through performance. Can you explain this piece further?

In this piece, I built a self-portrait by making an outline of a body with clay and I poured liquidized paint into the clay outline. The body’s color is made of acrylic paint and water. The area around the body is made of oil paint and vegetable oil, two substances [that] don’t mix. I rip into the clay walls and pour cups of paint into the image. The colors burst, erupt, flow, and penetrate through the body image both by my intentional action and by random
circumstance. These intrusions into the body are meant to elicit a pain sensation. I imagine the clay as dams holding waters. I break the dams and let the waters out and the dams also just randomly burst.

Oil and water and their inability to mix relate to my interest in the impossible. The clay dams find the liquids impossible to hold. The oil and water find it impossible to merge. Because of these material properties, separation seems both fragile and unbreakable at the same time. I’m trying to depict unstable and ruptured bodily borders.

For me, there is a connection between material impermanence and the vulnerability of human life.

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Julia Betts, 2015-2017 (white). Personal belongings embedded in plaster. Courtesy of the artist.

Your piece 2015-2017 poetically captures a sense of material impermanence. The work uses your personal belongings mixed with plaster to capture how the materials become altered over time. Can you explain this piece further and how you address transition and unpredictability in your work?

In 2015-2017, belongings accumulated over two years are sorted by color (white, blue, orange, brown, black, red) and frozen in plaster time capsules. As part of the installation, labels situated nearby catalog the ephemera within each brick and describe moments when each object in each block changed colors. For example, a piece of a book with black text fades completely to white from repeated trampling, or a clear piece of hot glue accidentally sits on a window sill for months and when found, has yellowed. Permanence is contrasted with transience, transformation, and entropy. Seemingly insignificant moments and “trash” are elevated into vehicles to hold personal interactions, memories, and the residue of life.

For me, there is a connection between material impermanence and the vulnerability of human life. In my overall practice, I use materials that evoke transience and timelessness. With this piece, I attempt to control what is temporary and fragile, with what is solid and enduring, but, ultimately, the garbage within the plaster erupts with rot. Organic intervention interrupts my attempt to control and stasis.

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Julia Betts. Window Screens, 2016. Ink, steel, window screens. Courtesy of the artist.

In Window Screens, you explain how you created a steel box around yourself in a corner, filled the box with black ink and continuously dipped the sheets in the ink at maximum capacity. It seems to be an impossible task since the screens only hold the ink for a few seconds. Can you explain more about the inspiration behind this piece?

In Window Screens, the clear screen is unable to hold the black ink. Each time the ink drains from the screen, opacity and concealment relent to transparency and exposure. The untenability of the process is furthered when the box springs a leak and begins to empty the contents. The more ink I lost, the more I was unable to perform my process. It became harder and harder to make the screens turn black. I found myself scrubbing the floor with screens attempting to pick up any drop I could find of leftover ink. Eventually, I was completely unable to darken the windows and the performance ended. Even before I began this performance, I knew the possibility that the box might not be able to hold the ink. I intentionally created a precarious situation through lining the box with a tarp that may or may not be up to the task. I’m interested in placing myself in uncontrollable, vulnerable situations where accidents and disasters may happen. In this piece and my overall body of work, I am trying to create helplessness.

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Julia Betts. Detritus, 2015. Ground self-images. Courtesy of the artist.

It seems as if the self-portrait is a common theme in your work, also appearing in the piece Detritus that shreds multiple self-portraits, displaying them as powdered remains. Can you explain your interest in the anxiety of self-representation (or the representation of self-destruction?)

I’m less interested in the anxiety of self-representation and more interested in the representation of self-destruction. This piece also has to do with my long-term interest in skin. Skin is both boundary and connection between self and other. There is a need for there to be a skin to bear, protect, carry, and represent. In Detritus, I grind images of myself with a household grater, shredded self-images of the body accumulate into layers of dust—with the colors incidental to the photographs used as source material. Photographs are a surrogate for skin. I had been doing work before this that depicted the boundaries of the body being torn, but I fully brought the body to the earth in this piece. Whereas, in Body as Pool, I imagine the body at the edge of the sea.

Your work seems to deal with imposed limitation, and at times, distress. Can you explain more about this interest and what it represents to you?

I’m interested in limits and possibilities. Either can cause distress or comfort.

I use the limitations of my body, time, space, and mark. Confinement can be a metaphor for social or psychological confinement. Within the limits, I am too much or too little. I react with helplessness and determination.

I portray vulnerability in my work in different forms. Materially, I try to create space for material agency to intervene in my authorship. Physically, my work shows the frailty of my body when it is unable to complete its tasks. Emotionally, my work exposes and reveals me in pieces like 2015-2017 where the viewer is allowed to sift through my trash. Situationally, there is vulnerability when I put myself in scenarios that I am unsure of the outcome, and, often, I share this uncertainty publicly through performance.

Check out more of Julia’s work at her upcoming show at Grid Space NYC in December 2019 and on her website and social media.

Profiles on Practice: Soheila K. Esfahani

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Soheila Esfahani. The Immigrants: Canada 150. Installation shot. Courtesy of the artist.

By Nadia Kurd

From manuscripts featuring gilded vegetal motifs to the tiled geometric interiors of mosques, design and ornamentation have played a foundational role within Islamic art. Such designs have long adorned a wide array of objects and buildings. While some historians attribute the prominence of patterning to the preference of non-figural representations in Islam, others argue this is a rather overstated misconception, noting the often-tenuous lines between secular and religious themes within Islamic art.

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Soheila Esfahani. Courtesy of the artist.

Since graduating with a BFA (Studio) in 2003, artist Soheila K. Esfahani has merged both the patterning traditions of Islamic art (particularly from Iran) and an approach informed by the “terrains of cultural translation.”[1] For example, in her early painting series titled “Reed Flute” (2008), Esfahani drew from the well-known poetic work of Jalāl al-Dīn Rūmī (1207–1273) to create a number of calligraphic, acrylic on canvas works. These paintings feature verses in Perso-Arabic script and involve a process of pouring paint directly onto the canvas, which abstracts the text — ultimately rendering it illegible — and transforming it into pure design.

soheila_reed-flute_within the Notes III”, Acrylic on canvas, 8”x10”, 2008, Collection of Accelerator Centre
Soheila Esfahani. “within the Notes III”, Acrylic on canvas, 8”x10”, 2008, Collection of Accelerator Centre. Courtesy of the artist.

From painting to installation, The Immigrants: Canada 150 (2017) is comprised of 60 custom-made ceramic plates that are infused with images of clothing labels that emphasize the country of origin. Drawing inspiration from the theme of Frederick H. Varley’s painting the Immigrants (1922), the installation is made up of plates that are similar to the tourist souvenirs commonly found in North America that have been transformed to correspond with individual immigration stories. The installation was spurred by a story that resonated with Esfahani involving her second-generation Canadian-Bangladeshi friend. When Esfahani asked her to describe her culture, she provided Esfahani with a “Made in Bangladesh” clothing label from her favorite garment. By accentuating the manufacturing label, Esfahani writes that this installation, “questions displacement, dissemination” by “re-contextualizing culturally specific ornamentation and various collected souvenir objects.”[2]

Her more recent work has continued to explore the circuitous yet closely regulated nature of global trade. For instance, in Cultured Pallets: Small Arms Inspection Building (2018)[3] Esfahani takes the ever-present wooden industrial pallets and stencils onto them a nineteenth century William Morris floral motif named the “Persian,” a pattern very likely inspired by the historic sixteenth-century Ardabil carpet — one of the most prized examples of Islamic and Safavid art at the V&A Museum.[4] Not only do these wood pallets feature floral designs, but they are also inscribed with the artist’s email so that when Esfahani disperses them, their new owners may be in touch.

Soheila Esfahani Cultured Pallets SAIB 2018 acrylic on wooden shipping pallets
Soheila Esfahani. Cultured Pallets: Small Arms Inspection Building. 2018. Courtesy of the artist.

Upon a closer examination of the histories between the West and East — an exchange frequently under the guise of resource control and colonialism — one sees how patterning and design are deeply ingrained in cross-cultural trade, which often sees objects being moved from its place of origin to be transformed into something else entirely. Moreover, while the floral motifs have roots in Iran, the attribution to Morris for the ‘Persian’ speaks to a sense of authorship and authority over the design. Esfahani brings together these layered histories to her work to rethink the meaning and implications of these exchanges on common and even disposable objects.

Esfahani once again explores earthenware and the subject of cultural exchange in Pattern (dis)Placement (2019). Here, the plate becomes a metaphor for “portable culture”, which “can be carried across cultures and nations.”[5] In the Magic Gumball Machine of Fate (2019), for a fee of $2, visitors to the exhibition of this work are invited to take a piece of this patterned displacement home from a gumball machine. Within small plastic enclosures, the artist’s work is distributed and the recipient is encouraged to colour and share the image on social media. Much like the pallets and plates, these small drawings travel and exchange hands at every turn. For Esfahani, it is important to show the instability of categories and ideally, challenge the viewer to situate their own histories through her work.[6]

Soheila Esfahani The Immigrants Canada 150 detail 1 (1)
Soheila Esfahani. The Immigrants: Canada 150. 2017. Courtesy of the artist.

Esfahani’s practice shows the interconnectedness of global networks to emphasize how it is almost wholly informed by political and cultural attitudes, clearly seen in the ongoing economic sanctions on Iran. Despite complying with international regulations on their uranium enrichment program, everyday Iranians continue to endure the most due to the lack of goods entering the country and the resulting widespread failing economy. These sanctions have “slapped barriers on trade involving Iranian metals, as well as its automotive and airline industries” and have adversely affected Iran’s oil and banking sectors, which have faced the most detrimental consequences.[7]

In linking design with trade, manufacturing, and history, Esfahani’s work reminds us that the realm of design, including ornamentation, and concepts of beauty are deeply rooted in our values and ideas as a society – and that these are not merely aesthetic concerns. “My work,” writes Esfahani, “evokes issues on migration as people [are], ultimately, functions as ‘bearers’ and ‘translators’ of culture in our current globalized state.”[8]

To see more of Soheila K. Esfahani’s artwork, visit her website soheila.ca or follow her on Instagram @soheila.esfahani.

Nadia Kurd (she/her) is an art historian and curator based in Amiskwacîwâskahikan (Edmonton, Alberta). She tweets @nadia_kurd and her work can be found on nadiakurd.com.

[1] Soheila K. Esfahani, Artist Statement, 2019.

[2] Artist Statement, 2019.

[3] The Small Arms Inspection Building is a historic, multi-purpose arts and education space in Mississauga, ON: smallarmsinspectionbuilding.ca

[4] http://www.vam.ac.uk/content/articles/p/plant-motifs-in-islamic-art/

[5] Artist Statement, 2019.

[6] Soheila K. Esfahani, interview by author, Edmonton, AB, May 31, 2019.

[7] Colin Dwyer and Larry Kaplow. “U.S. Is About To Reinstate Iran Sanctions. Here’s What That Means,” NPR, last modified November 2, 2018, accessed May 29, 2019, https://www.npr.org/2018/11/02/663377999/u-s-is-days-away-from-reinstating-iran-sanctions-heres-what-that-means

[8] Artist Statement, 2019.

Nevertheless, We Persist: She Persists by Heist Gallery

May 11th–June 10th

Palazzo Benzon, San Marco 3927 – 30124 Venezia

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She Persists, exhibition installation. 2019. Courtesy of Heist Gallery.

By Adi Berardini

As I walk up the stairs of the Palazzo Benzon, I am greeted with two large poster works by the Guerilla Girls, the anonymous, feminist art group famous for their furry gorilla masks. Known for using humour as a form of activism, one reads:

The Advantages of Being a Woman Artist

Working without the pressure of success

Not having to be in shows with men

Having an escape from the art world with your 4 free-lance jobs

Knowing your career might pick up when you’re eighty…”

Sadly, many women artists can relate to this work. I can’t help but wonder if it’s the improvement that the Guerilla Girls hoped for when they first convened in the 1980s. Although there may be more gallery representation of women artists, there still isn’t equal representation (especially for LGBTQ2+ artists and artists of colour). Additionally, many pioneering women artists are just seeing the recognition they rightly deserve now. She Persists, curated by HEIST gallery founder Mashael Al Rushaid and art historian Sona Datta, is an exhibition with an intersectional approach to feminism. Twenty women artists from all over the world are featured, highlighting how Western Feminism is far from universal. The exhibition has a strong roster of feminist art legends and contemporary talent, addressing everything from displacement and diaspora to motherhood and the environment.

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She Persists, exhibition installation. 2019. Courtesy of Heist Gallery.

The walls are painted a blood-red and chandeliers hang like crystal stars of the decorated ceiling of the Palazzo. Upon entering, a sculpture by the notable feminist artist Lynda Benglis lies on the floor on a platform. The growing metallic object constructed by spray foam cast in aluminum is similar to a blanket of silver vines. Benglis often involves the body in its relation to the environment when it comes to creating her art, creating poured sculptures from latex, wax, metal, and foam. Yasue Maetake’s, Urethane Flower on Steel Stem Clad with Foam also has an industrial sensibility melding with the organic. Maetake’s work has a sci-fi element that anthropomorphizes a gigantic sunflower and a white horse’s hoof into an unconventional nude. This futuristic, morphed object appears to have a raised fist like it’s about to give a sucker punch. Depictions of female nudes are often depicted as passive in classical paintings, but Maetake’s sculpture has a sense of agency and power. Maetake addresses the Anthropocene and overtaking of nature by humans, commenting on the obsession of altering the natural.

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 She Persists, exhibition installation. 2019. Courtesy of Heist Gallery.

In a room focusing on art and motherhood featured prominently is a tall sculpture Stack 8 (Viridian) by Annie Morris, a stack of turquoise, cobalt blue, crimson and olive-green spheres, similar to gigantic, saturated pompoms. Although the sculpture seems playful like an enlarged craft, it is ultimately serious in nature, like scientific cells joining together through a microscope. The sculpture echoes the narrative happening now of the autonomy of women’s bodies but also addresses the societal stigma around discussing lost pregnancies, miscarriage, and abortions when they are something that significantly affects women’s lives. The sculpture has a sense of wonder with a close and cutting relationship to loss.

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Annie Morris, Stack 8 (Viridian). She Persists, exhibition installation. 2019. Courtesy of Heist Gallery.

Displayed on the far wall of the room are selected lavender prints by Judy Chicago, as part of Birth Project 1980-1985, that feature childbirth in an abstracted and almost psychedelic way. The series initiated since Chicago could not recall any depictions of childbirth in Western art. The project is a collaborative one, since Chicago worked with 150 textile artists, through the mail, and in person, to create variations with different needlework for the designs. Undertaking this project gave her a glimpse of the realities of many women artists within the domestic sphere. Chicago also changed her name to reflect her birthplace rather than her last name, an action releasing her from patriarchal confines of an inherited family name that is ultimately determined by the father’s side.

Parallel to the room, Souvenir by Anna Boggon uses dozens of collected dolls from Mexico, touristic treasures collected specifically for this work. Dozens of figurines hang upside-down from the ceiling, sparse apart and traditionally dressed. However, once you glance down on the mirror placed on the vitrine, the dolls appear right-side up, reminding us how there are multiple ways to approach seeing and experiencing art and culture. Timely, the work is respondent to the blind hate that is directed towards Mexico in the Trump “fake news” era. Boggon captures the enthrallment of travel which can alter misconceptions held out of ignorance.

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Anna Boggon, Souvenir. She Persists, exhibition installation. 2019. Courtesy of Heist Gallery.

Walking through the wondrous space, I pass through a room with projected Islamic patterns, an engulfing swirl of lace-like shadows. The installation, Shimmering Mirage, by Anila Quayyum Agha addresses the exclusion from her worship as a Muslim woman, often confined to worshipping at home. Intrigued by the detailed tiling of the exterior mosque, the installation highlights how when she moved to America, there was the opposite effect—she was included as a woman but felt excluded from aspects of American society due to being Muslim. This room creates a sense of wonder since what was tightly confined and detailed becomes elaborate and all-encompassing. Capturing the endless integration of multiple identities due to diaspora, once you get to know someone, their dreams and ideas start to spill over, uncontained. Once you genuinely connect with someone you can see them for their intricate details instead of the labels that society places on people through prejudiced stereotyping.

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Anila Quayyum Agha, Shimmering Mirage. She Persists exhibition installation. 2019. Courtesy of Heist Gallery.

The exhibition also critically addresses the exoticization of women and the trope of the “submissive” nude within the framework of the East and West. Lalla Essaydi’s Les femmes du Maroc Odalisque (2008) critically addresses Grande Odalisque by Ingres, a painting which depicts a Turkish Odalisque sensually reclined back. Famous for adding in a few vertebrae too many, this historic artwork quite literally unrealistically depicts women. Essaydi uses a photograph with the same composition of the painting and adds Arabic calligraphy using henna, reclaiming and restoring agency within the image. Essaydi is not only critiquing the sexualization of these nudes but how they were exoticized and viewed as consumable through the art historical male gaze.

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Hamra Abbas, Paradise Bath. She Persists exhibition installation. 2019. Courtesy of Heist Gallery.

In Hamra Abbas’s Paradise Bath (2009), displayed as eight large photographs, there’s an uncomfortable politics at play since a woman of colour is explicitly seen serving a nude white woman. Further, the women being catered to is viewed as sexual and carefree, even at times with a smirk on her face as the women worker is working away scrubbing diligently. The washing in the Ottoman bathhouse holds symbolic importance in Islam as regaining purity. These images are unsettling, but it causes one to reflect on how often these politics of exploitation play out in reality. The photos display objectification of women on multiple levels: it deliberately points out the ignorance and self-indulgence of the oppressor who benefits from the labour of women of colour and also critiques women as objects with one main benefit—sex. Critically addressing race and violence, if these images were to return to Abbas’s home country, they would have to be destroyed since they are considered pornographic.

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Indecision IV (2018), She Persists, exhibition installation. 2019. Courtesy of Heist Gallery.

Notably, the exhibition includes the film Indecision IV (2018) directed by Tonia Arapovic starring Rose McGowan, the well-known actress and figure in the Hollywood Me Too movement. In her immerse performance, McGowan responds to ambient sounds in a former Welsh Chapel, paired up with contemporary dancer, James Mulford. The black and blue light casting shadows, McGowan stares vividly with black eyes in a suspenseful and haunting way. She responds with rigid movements to his sounds and dancing, as Mulford grunts and taps, shifting around her. The accompanying acoustics sound like tides rolling in on a beach. The performance is largely inspired by the painting The Allegory of Indecision by artist Maria Kreyn, a painting depicting three dogs leaping up towards a blue heron over a fallen figure. After Mulford’s performance, he lies down silently and McGowan acts in control—she finally can sit down at ease and sing out. The film captures McGowan’s chaotic time while coming forward in the context of the resurgence of Me Too (originally started by activist Tarana Burke) and comments on the resiliency it takes to heal.

Overall, the strength of She Persists is its multiplicity and focus on intersectional feminism. When feminism does not address viewpoints from multiple identities, it cannot achieve what it’s for—equality and space for everyone. With representation from around the globe, She Persists addresses how women of colour are excluded from the art historical canon as a result of Eurocentric patriarchy. The artists in the exhibition possess an unapologetic, feminist approach to their art, challenging the viewer to reconsider their perspectives on topics such as motherhood, the environment, gender, and diaspora. Both women and LGBTQ2+ individuals have been silenced, erased, and spoken over for too long—it’s time to do better. Even though it’s a difficult battle, nevertheless we persist.

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 cater 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.