From the Field: Scotiabank CONTACT Photography Festival (Part 1)
I just got back from the Scotiabank CONTACT Photography Festival, a major photographic event held in Toronto each year. Programming included thirty-eight main exhibitions, along with some sixty affiliated exhibitions spread across the city. The Festival is an ideal opportunity to fill up on inspiration, while also taking the pulse of today’s art photography.
This year, the Festival team highlighted the work of American artist Carrie Mae Weems, whose practice examines the ways in which violence has been perpetuated through history, particularly towards women and racialized people.
A - Art Museum of the University of Toronto >>> Carrie Mae Weems
After arriving downtown, I headed over to the Art Museum at the University of Toronto, where one of the Weems exhibitions is on view. Constructing History: A Requiem to Mark the Moment (2008) features an array of work produced with students, re-creating important moments in political history, such as the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr., John F. Kennedy and Malcolm X.
In her installation Heave Part I – A Case Study (A Quiet Place) (2018), Weems has reconstructed the interior of an American home, furnishing it with decorative objects, photographs, magazines, vinyl records and books that reflect her personal history as well as the history of systemic violence in the United States.
In an adjacent room, Heave Part II (2018) has been made to look like a movie theatre, screening a series of videos that focus on the origins of violence in the U.S., while exploring links with entertainment culture. In addition to asking crucial questions about our societies, Weems’ multimedia practice encourages the rethinking of photography in relation to other forms of art, such as installation, video and theatre.
B - John H. Daniels Faculty of Architecture, Landscape, and Design >>> Susan Dobson
Remaining on the University of Toronto campus, I made my way to the John H. Daniels Faculty of Architecture, Landscape, and Design, where artist Susan Dobson is presenting her new project, Back/Fill (2019). In the building’s lobby, there are large-format views of construction debris from the Leslie Street Spit in Toronto’s Tommy Thompson Park. The images are displayed on wood panels in a way that reflects the structure of the installation.
A larger view of the site is displayed on the building’s exterior glass façade. On top of the mass of detritus, a small plant grows, recalling the green walls that bookend the building. A dialogue is thus initiated between photography, the built environment, and the building’s purpose as a faculty of architecture, landscape and design.
C - Ryerson Image Centre >>> Meryl McMaster
In one of the the rooms at the Ryerson Image Centre, I explored As Immense as the Sky (2019) by Meryl McMaster, a series of self-portraits in which the artist incarnates characters within landscapes of outstanding beauty across Canada. To create her costumes and accessories, she draws inspiration from the histories of her Indigenous and European ancestors.
From Saskatchewan to Newfoundland, by way of Ontario, the places she has chosen to explore are charged with ancient knowledge, allowing her to reconnect with memory of her ancestors at a time when the world’s environment is under siege. The result is a series of images suspended in time, between real and surreal, reflecting a strong presence and a desire to enter into a relationship with the land.
D - Gallery TPW >>> Erika DeFreitas
At Gallery TPW, I discovered the Erika DeFreitas exhibition, It is now here that I have gathered and measured yes. Fascinated by occult photography from the 19th and early 20th centuries, the artist explores techniques reflecting the role played by photography in documenting and demystifying the Spiritualist movement.
During an artist residency at Hospitalfield House in Scotland, DeFreitas experimented with psychometry, in which information is gleaned from an object through touch. Motivated by a need to understand the place and its history, she assembled found objects that attracted her attention: precious stones, jewellery, fragments of a chandelier, a plaster figurine, etc. The artist allows herself to be guided by their energy as she creates the arrangements she photographs, which include her posed hand (She may be moved and they multiplied most in exaggeration, 2018).
E - Campbell House Museum >>> Ayana V. Jackson
I was intrigued as I entered Campbell House Museum, an isolated colonial-style house in downtown Toronto. The exhibition Fissure features the work of artist Ayana V. Jackson, integrated with the décor of the house on two floors. Jackson herself poses in portraits alluding to the history of slavery. Their display in a house dating from 1822 reanimates the memory of the place, while recalling Canadian participation in the transatlantic slave trade (Intimate Justice in the Stolen Moment, 2017).
The series Dear Sarah (2016), located on the second floor, was inspired by the story of Sarah Forbes Bonetta, a Yoruba princess captured in 1848 by King Ghezo of Dahomey, and offered to Queen Victoria via Captain Frederick Forbes. Jackson pays homage to the princess through these portraits, which address and subvert stereotypical representations of Black women from this period. Printed on fabric panels suspended from the ceiling, each of the images suggests an aspect of the body in motion, implying an urge to be free.
To learn more about the Festival and its programming, please visit the Scotiabank CONTACT Photography Festival website.
Click here to read a second article on the Festival: From the Field: Scotiabank CONTACT Photography Festival (Part 2)