Camera and Identity: The 2014 Scotiabank CONTACT Photography Festival

Rodney Graham, The Gifted Amateur, Nov. 10th, 1962 (2007). NGC. Courtesy of the artist and Lisson Gallery 


Billed as the largest event of its kind in the world, the Scotiabank CONTACT Photography Festival opens on May 1 in Toronto. The month-long festivities include over 1,500 artists, and are expected to welcome one million visitors at more than 175 venues and public spaces across the city—all celebrating this year’s theme: Identity.

”We have 13 primary exhibitions,” says Darcy Killeen, CONTACT’s Executive Director. “One of them is the National Gallery [of Canada] show at MOCCA, which is going to be a tremendous draw this year. It’s curated by Bonnie Rubenstein, the Artistic Director here at CONTACT, with Jonathan Shaughnessy from the National Gallery of Canada.”

In Character, Self Portrait of the Artist as Another includes works from the National Gallery of Canada, and looks at how artists turn their own bodies and self-images into subject matter. In the exhibition’s nine photographs, the artists have dressed themselves in theatrical guises, taking on other roles while remaining clearly identifiable as themselves. 


Shelley Niro, The 500 Year Itch (1992). NGC. © Shelley Niro

“Shelley Niro has a work in the exhibition called The 500 Year Itch in which she adorns herself in heavy make-up, a blonde wig and white dress in an apparent—and quite funny and garish—bid to conjure the look of Marilyn Monroe from the film The Seven Year Itch; only it’s obviously Shelley Niro,” says Shaughnessy, NGC Associate Curator of Contemporary Art. 

“Both Monroe and Niro are drawing attention to themselves,” he adds, “but what Niro is playing on is the implausibility of her being a sex symbol. The work is also about the gaze of the male viewer and how women—and most certainly Indigenous women—have often been subjected to the photographic representation of women as sex symbol, or as someone who is a subject of the camera, rather than someone who is in charge of their own representation.”

According to Shaughnessy, Niro has staged the scene and is holding the button controlling the camera shutter, indicating that she is, in fact, the one in charge of her own representation. All the works in the exhibition play on the theme of identity in similar ways, showing how artists often use themselves to explore identity-related concepts in their work. 

The exhibition was made possible through MOCCA’s @NGC partnership with the National Gallery of Canada. Announced in 2010, the partnership allows MOCCA to request access to the collections of the National Gallery of Canada to stage exhibitions in Toronto. The Art Gallery of Alberta in Edmonton and the Winnipeg Art Gallery in Manitoba also have @NGC partnerships.

General Idea, Playing Doctor (1991), NGC. © General Idea Inc., 1991

“It’s going to be a great exhibition,” says Shaughnessy, “because there are some pretty iconic photographs in there, some that have been very popular, some of which have not been shown in Toronto before. In terms of our role in the NGC@MOCCA program, to be able to showcase major works from the National Gallery’s collection at MOCCA, and in collaboration with the largest photography festival in the world, is quite a privilege.”

The NGC@MOCCA show is just one of 13 primary exhibitions at CONTACT this year. The festival’s flagship exhibition—Material Self: Performing the Other Within, curated by MOCCA Creative Director David Liss and Bonnie Rubenstein—is on view in MOCCA’s main space. Other key exhibitions are being presented at large venues such as the Royal Ontario Museum and the Art Gallery of Ontario. On top of that, there are another 34 feature exhibitions at smaller galleries and venues across the city, as well as 144 open exhibitions held everywhere from pool halls to coffee shops. However, it is perhaps the photographs on display in public spaces that will draw the most attention.

“The public installation program basically blankets the city—it’s all over; people will see it everywhere,” says Killeen. “We are doing billboards with Rebecca Belmore that are really exciting, and we have a great installation at Pearson International Airport. It dominates a walkway that is almost a kilometer long, featuring two different artists—one Italian, one Canadian. It is really an exciting piece using all sorts of different passport-related photos, tying into the theme of identity.”

The Scotiabank CONTACT Photography Festival opens May 1. For more information on venues, exhibitions, as well as a large selection of photographs, please visit

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