The Black creators central to this year’s CONTACT Photography Festival

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In one of the world’s most culturally diverse cities, local and international artists are reclaiming their histories through photographic projects.

In photography communities the world over, summer months are often associated with arts festivals—events where creators and institutions come together, mapping a constellation of cross-city programming, highlighting the work of both local and international makers. But in the wake of the pandemic, public events have become precarious to manage. In particular, arts workers in Toronto, Canada, where the COVID response has felt perplexing at best, have had to adapt to the ebb and flow of changing regulations for over a year.

Throughout the art world’s adaptation to this new normal, the annual Scotiabank CONTACT Photography Festival has shifted their programming into a comprehensive, sprawling experience, extending beyond their usual month-long presentation in May. Starting May 1 and continuing throughout the rest of the year, the Festival invites locals and visitors to engage with an impressive selection of lens-based creators, from traditional photographers to collage artists and filmmakers.

©Isabel Okoro

At Gallery 44, the oldest artist-run photography gallery in Canada, artists Tim Yanick Hunter and Isabel Okoro’s work is on view in a show titled A So-Called Archive, developed in collaboration with curator Liz Ikiriko and scholar Katherine McKittrick. The exhibition engages with the complexities of transformative justice in the wake of racial trauma, and the two artists, whose work intentionally embodies a fluid process of discovery and connection, reflects the collaborative, in-depth discussions between the four colleagues, as the show was planned throughout a year of on-and-off quarantining. “Working in this way functions to pull the curtain back and share creative practices with the intention that a viewer is an active participant in the exhibition,” Ikirio explains. “And that we all have an opportunity to consider how art can impact and affect us beyond simply appreciation.”

As a city heralded for its diversity, the visual interpretations of Toronto, particularly within its major art institutions, rarely reflect the region’s spirit of multiculturalism and interdisciplinarity. This dissonance has prompted creatives across the city to forge their own spaces, bridging the divide between local artists and the public, curating experiences that reflect communities and subjectivities simultaneously. For Ikiriko, including her exhibition in a major Toronto photography festival represents a necessary shift. She explains, “Presenting this work in the context of CONTACT aligns us with other artists and curators, such as Esmaa Mohamoud, Frida Orupabo, Onyeka Igwe and Michéle Pearson Clarke, among others, who are challenging the colonial capitalist structures that have encroached on our multiplicities, our complex ways of being, seeing and representing ourselves.”

© Brianna Roye

One of the artists Ikiriko mentions, Esmaa Mohamoud, has created an impactful public piece at 11 Bay Street, shifting the usual gallery presentation of her work into a large civic space. Titled The Brotherhood FUBU (For Us By Us), the sheer scale of the two subjects in her massive mural, conjoined by a double-headed durag and shot by the artist in the icy waters of Lake Ontario, fix their gazes upon passersby in the glory of their colossal presence. “In art institutions, you’re walking through a space and looking at photographs, with a viewer consuming the subjects,” Mohamoud explains. “There is very little agency for the subjects in that position, which is why I usually don’t shoot faces—I want to remove that voyeuristic gaze. But with this piece, I had the opportunity to manipulate and change the power dynamics by allowing them to face forward and stare the passersby down.” 

As an accompaniment to the piece, Mohamoud also created a bronze sculpture of the double-durag, which will be featured near the mural as an antithesis to colonial monuments found across the city. “When you walk down University Avenue in Toronto, and you see all these monuments of white people, you realize none of it actually reflects the people who live here,” she says. “We are living in the most multicultural city in the world, and yet we still prominently feature statues of old white men. It doesn’t make sense.”

© Esmaa Mohamoud

Through a similar critical lens, London-based Onyeka Igwe will present her experimental film, titled A So-Called Archive, at Mercer Union, a non-profit artist-run space founded in 1979. Grappling with the false promise of Western institutions as sites of archival safekeeping, Igwe’s film toys with the colonial roots of museums and historical collections, laying bare the audacity of British gatekeeping practices through eerie visuals and tongue-in-cheek voiceovers. While Igwe’s piece primarily focuses on two former archives based in Lagos and Bristol, Canada is situated as an extension of this Commonwealth reach. The inclusion of Igwe’s work in this year’s festival highlights an important consideration in the local-international construction of events, and like the other artists featured throughout the programming, her message is simultaneously subjective and shared.

Frida Orupabo, another artist engaging with archival materials, creates collages that question colonial and modern representations of Black womanhood. Like Mohamoud’s public installation, Orupabo magnifies her intricate collage process into a giant installation on the north facade of 460 King St. W., a building in Toronto’s historical Garment District. The first piece, Woman with book, will be on view until September, when it’s switched out for another piece, Woman with snake. Through their arresting gazes, the women in the artist’s work assert their agency, reclaiming the power stripped of them within official archives. Framing Orupabo’s collages as a novel form of documentation, the public installation also asks us to imagine its location as a record, with layers and gaps systemically forgotten despite their saturation in complex histories.

The contemplation of place is also felt in the work of curator and artist Anique Jordan, whose contribution to CONTACT is grounded in her city’s recognition of what constitutes our definition of Toronto. Born and raised in Scarborough, a region in the east end of the city, Jordan has curated a three-part project, including two public installations and an exhibition at Doris McCarthy Gallery, brought together under the title Three-Thirty. Spotlighting Malvern, a neighbourhood boasting a wealth of successful intergenerational community organizers, Jordan worked with three local artists—Aaron Jones, Ebti Nabag, and Kelly Fyffe-Marshall—to generate programming, murals, and a film installation about the manifestation of youth culture and its relationship to power structures throughout the city.

The presence of Black creatives, making work throughout the sprawling fabric of Toronto, is by no means a new phenomenon—and this year’s festival demonstrates how so many of these storytellers, from the east to the west end of the city, are the foundation of the region’s art scene. “I wanted to work with CONTACT because it’s a great festival that shows really diverse works, which I’ve always admired,” reflects Mohamoud. “Working with them has allowed me to create something monumental, where the sheer scale of the work is hard to ignore.” Among the many compelling artists in this year’s Festival, CONTACT’s Core Program features Sasha HuberLeyla Jeyte, Luther Konadu, Brianna RoyeSebastein Miller, Christina LeslieDainesha Nugent-PalacheBidemi Oloyede, and a group show at the Art Gallery of Ontario features the work of Dawoud Bey, John Edmonds, and Wardell Milan.

© Ebti Nabag

For more information on the artists featured in this year’s Scotiabank CONTACT Photography Festival, see the full list of programming here, where audio guides are also available for both remote engagement and public roaming.

Cat Lachowskyj

Cat Lachowskyj is a freelance writer, editor and researcher based in London. Prior to pursuing a career in writing, she trained as an archivist in Toronto, developing research on colonial photography albums at the Archive of Modern Conflict. She has completed residencies and fellowships at the Art Gallery of Ontario, the Ryerson Image Centre and the Rijksmuseum, and her current research interests involve psychoanalytical approaches to photography and archives. Cat’s writing has appeared in many publications including Unseen Magazine, The British Journal of Photography, Foam Magazine and American Suburb X, and she has held editing roles at both Unseen Magazine and LensCulture.