2020 Sur Gallery Mentorship Exhibition
What defines a space? How do we make and/or take space? Most importantly: for whom do we make space? These are just a few of the many questions that emerged along the Sur Gallery Mentorship Program 2019-2020, where artists Ana Luisa Bernárdez Nots, denirée isabel, Michelle Peraza, Camila Salcedo and Aline Setton participated for several months. During our regular meetings we started building a small community as a group, turning the meetings into more than informative sessions, transforming them into a space for sharing, caring, trusting, listening and voicing our thoughts and feelings. In the context of the mentorship program, we felt safe enough to discuss diverse issues, like: racism in the (art)world, the complexities of our own Latin American identity, and the challenges of decolonizing oneself, among many others that have affected most of us directly. Opening up to these issues, brought to the table notions of community and space that have become the connecting thread for this exhibition.
As members of the Abya Yala/Latin American diaspora and settlers on Turtle Island/ Canadian land, our connection to community is in-between space, community flows from here and there, it is in between the generations of family members we did not get to meet due to migration, it is in between the land where we were born and the one where we currently reside at, it is in between the histories and stories of our displacements and our privileges. Artist and self proclaimed border brujo Guillermo Gómez-Peña constantly speaks of a “community of difference,” one that is fragmented, everchanging and temporary. This is how we understand community as well, and within this idea we also want to acknowledge the landscapes and objects that are part of the diverse ecosystems of our own communities; these components have been integrated in the included artwork by exploring concepts of space, place and site that are core to the kind of spaces - physical and abstract - that we intend to create.
In Making Spaces each artwork becomes a space for contemplation, interaction and/or reflection. Through stories, objects, portraits and landscapes the pieces included in this exhibition also speak about the interactions we have with our communities thought of as home. Some of the topics addressed in each piece are difficult to navigate, and despite the intention to create a safe space for all visitors, it may be inevitable to sit with our own discomfort while thinking through issues of identity that are essential for making community and feeling at home. As Gloria Anzaldúa wrote in “(un)natural bridges, (un)safe spaces”:
[T]here are no safe spaces. ‘Home’ can be unsafe and dangerous because it bears the likelihood of intimacy and thus thinner boundaries. Staying “home” and not venturing out from our own group comes from woundedness, and stagnates our growth. To bridge means loosening our borders, not closing off to others.
Making Spaces reaches out to the viewer by offering moments of contemplation and action as a way to “thinner boundaries,” a means to build bridges between our own communities through the shared wounds caused by colorism, displacement and erasure. What follows is an insight of the artwork that encompasses this exhibition, divided in the sections: Land, Memory and Face that allows to interplay between the physical and the abstract aspects of space, place and site.
Land is not only the soil beneath our feet, it is what surrounds us in visible and invisible ways. Everyone comes from a land and all individuals inhabit land. Bodies develop a relationship with the places they walk through everyday and the ones they leave behind. Aline Setton’s and Ana Luisa Bernárdez Notz’s installations, each on its own way, insert components of the Landscapes we inhabit physically and psychologically as a constant embodied experience.
In Toronto: BOOM (2020), Setton focuses on the Harbourfront, where Sur Gallery stands. Setton’s interest and background in architecture led her to start researching about the construction of this area. Digging through old and current plan maps of the harbourfront, she was able to see how the land where she had recently arrived in 2019 had transformed during the past century. As a newcomer, Setton approaches Tkaronto/Toronto’s cityscape with fresh eyes and curiosity, opening up to the histories of the city. Through observation and the gathering of archival information Setton put together a local history of city planning, where ownership gives power to design the land. Toronto’s waterfront, as stated by Elder Duke Redbird, has had an “enduring Indigenous presence of the Anishinaabe peoples, who since time in memorial resided in all the lands, the waters, ...in the Toronto portlands.” With the arrival of the French settling into the area in the 1720’s, the waterfront started seeing some changes like the construction of a trading post, with the British following after. Currently the harbourfront has been witness to diverse developing projects, with more condos and office buildings arising by the lake.
In Toronto:BOOM , Setton focuses on the architectural features of the “construction boom” that has taken over the city by putting together visual assemblages that render the buildings into painted collages. The mural and sculpture, that are part of her installation, look like an explosion of shadows, windows, walls and facades integrated into the gallery architecture. Setton visually layers details of past maps of the city with the current cityscape, this layering is key to grab a sense of temporality within the construction and making of a place. With Toronto:BOOM Setton makes us aware of the site where this piece stands. Colliding past and present making the viewer wonder: where do they stand? Suddenly such abstraction brings us back to the specificity of a place that is inhabited by bodies and histories.
In Cuerpos de Agua ~ Bodies of Water (2020) Bernárdez Notz also makes us look at the land, most specifically, at the water. With her installation, encompassed by a cyanotype on cotton fabric, a video projection with sound and digitized VHS tapes, she immerses the viewer into her own embodied experience of home. The projection and the tv screen display imagery of the sea and the sand, accompanied by an audio of the moving ocean as a background. With these components Bernárdez Notz takes the viewer to the Venezuela-Caribbean coastline, to its beaches, which she experiences as a liminal space. Growing up in Venezuela and migrating to Turtle Island/Canada has marked Bernárdez Notz relationship with home, which is felt on an emotional and physical level. Bodies of water speak of the connection bodies develop with land/water, how they become part of who we are, of our identity -after all humans are about 60 % water- and the impact of displacement is an embodied journey.
Going back and forth between countries makes Bernárdez Notz interactions with the coastline ever stronger, for her making art while being at the beach is like engaging in a ritual that creates an index of a moment spent within the liminality of home. The cyanotype is a beautiful example of this. Its surface shows the artist’s body silhouette printed in negative over the fabric. Around this silhouette, the blue of the cyanotype chemical evokes the ocean while certain spots are imprints from the sand. The cyanotype photographic print process puts in evidence a direct interaction with the sun that activates the ink, making possible the creation of the image. In this human scale textile rendering, Bernárdez Notz reveals her own Cuerpos de Agua ~ Bodies of Water to the audience, a body coping with dislocation while constantly moving in between places. In both, Setton’s and Bernárdez Notz’s works, space, site, and place are deconstructed and constructed to experience land beyond linear time.
One of the most abstract spaces where the human mind gets lost and travels in time, is memory. The part of our psyche that stores knowledge and moments lived in its most sharp and blurry shapes. Memory is never static and keeps reshaping itself over time. But what about the memory of lo no vivido (that which has not been lived)? The memories of our ancestors that resisted to be erased and thrived to keep their traditions and knowledge alive during and after the colonial period. The traditional and the modern interplay in denirée isabel’s low/new context an installation composed by a pile of hollow large scale cubes that are progressively covered with the projection of colourful moving geometric patterns. With this work, isabel attempts to follow the intangible thread that links her to her cultural ancestry as a way to recover her own cultural memory.
Inspired and frustrated by her own lack of knowledge about pre-Columbian textile practices and creations of diverse Latin American pre-contact cultures, isabel intuitively approaches the imagery of these fibers. Employing geometrical patterns, animal features and the colours usually found in this type of textiles, she created pattern samples for a mapping projection that intersects her interest in traditional weaving techniques and new media artforms. For her the dialogue between past and present is relevant to keep alive the knowledge of her ancestors. The lively patterns of the projection emerge on the surface of cubes as a kind of digital weaving happening in front of the audience. There is an ethereal feel to low/new context, and just as we cannot materially grasp the digital textile, we cannot yet fully grasp that ancient memory. But rather than falling in nostalgia, this piece is an invitation to continue weaving into memory, as the path to inhabit those traditions and knowledge again.
Spaces, physical and abstract, are experienced and inhabited by bodies, these bodies carry stories upon them as well, marginalized bodies especially, can be seen as lively sites of resilience and resistance. Theories of the flesh explain how “the physical realities of our lives — our skin color, the land or concrete we grew up on, our sexual longings — all fuse to create a politic born of necessity,” this also includes the meanings and readings given to bodies of colour and how this makes us perform identity. Diverse parts of the body also carry particular symbolisms in diverse contexts, in Making Spaces the face becomes a site to explore identity and identification, a fleshy site. Deleuze and Guattari argued that the face was redundant, over coded; they rejected ‘faciality’ somehow critiquing politics of recognition and the universality of the face. They way the face appears in the exhibition challenges faciality as well, by giving agency to faces that confront or disrupt identity cues.
Michelle Peraza’s White Sister, brown Sister (2020) brings a magnifying lens to the portraits of her two sisters. The large-scale images show details of their skin complexion, and as the title states one is white and the other brown, even if the difference might be subtle to the viewer’s eye. With White Sister, brown sister Peraza opens up to a recurrent issue in many communities of colour, colorism, which tends to lead to discrimination and reinforces racist beauty standards among family members in the realm of the home. To casually scrutinize skin tones is inherited from the casta system; a system employed by the Spanish Empire during colonial time in many Latin American with the purpose to create social classes according to race.
Peraza then employs portraiture to reflect on that issue by making the portraits work as a diptych. From their own frame the two women peek at each other, as if engaging into a dialogue familiar to them. The viewer can only guess what they are communicating to the other. The portraits are not a violent confrontation, instead they build up a dynamic dialogue. The presence of both women is powerful, due to their large-scale format. Peraza paints large scale portraits to endow her subjects with dignity. Her interest in portraiture and formal training in painting, made her realize that there was an absence of brown bodies (like hers) within this traditional painting genre. Along her practice Peraza has focused on male subjects, also her own family members as a way to make space for brown bodies in portraiture - a means to decolonize the genre. White Sister, brown sister are her first female portraits.
While White Sister, brown sister reveals in detail the face of the subjects, Camila Salcedo’s Choose your Mask (2020) partially shows the face of the users of her designed Instagram filter. Using accessible facial recognition technology and a social media app Salcedo designed a variety of masks and face shields for the user to try and “play around”. Salcedo’s original designs included a black mask that read “I can’t breathe” quoting George Floyd as a protest against police brutality and in support of the Black Lives Matter movement; the filter also offered a green bandana with the message “aborto legal ya” (legal abortion now) in support of women movements for abortions rights, raised in Latin America. Due to these messages deemed as “too violent” by Instagram, the filter had to be adapted - Salcedo had to delete the text - in order to have it running for the public.
Despite this change users should be able to add protest signs when editing their mask picture, a clever way to continue with the virtual activism proposed by Choose your Mask. In this project the element of choice is important since it allows the users to identify themselves with a collective, may it be because they belong to a certain community or because they support their social fight. The mask here goes beyond being a mere comment on the current COVID-19 pandemic and/or on protest, since within its format’s playfulness it elicits an action. Each user is free to decide if they will share their masked faces on social media with a clear statement and socio-political identifier. These masks hide and reveal, protect and disrupt, intertwining the individual and the collective layers of identity. To have this done on a digital platform allows Salcedo to create a virtual space for marginalized voices within the confinements of social distancing safety measures.
All the spaces mentioned above were created to hold accountable emotions, experiences and stories, they are proposals to rethink spaces themselves and to stay embodied and grounded within them, within the Land and within our own flesh. There has been tremendous care in the making of these pieces and is with care and by caring that they are shared with the audience, with our communities, the communities that have held us all along and the ones we keep building are those for whom we continue to make spaces for. After all, as bell hooks wrote, “Communities sustain life... [T]here is no better place to learn the art of loving than in community.” To build community is to make space for love, care, difference, healing and so much more, and this is what Making Spaces stands for.
-Karina Roman Justo
1 Guillermo Gómez-Peña, “Radical Art, radical communities, and radical dreams.” TEDxCalArts: Performance, Body & Presence. (June 19, 2014). https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x1KkjVpc5Go
2 Gloria Anzaldúa, “preface: (un)natural bridges, (un)safe spaces.” this bridge we call home: radical visions for transformation. Edited by Gloria Anzaldúa and AnaLouise Keating (Routledge, 2013): 1-5. pp. 3
3 Duke Redbird, Wigwam Chi-Chemung: A Story of Reclamation (trailer). (Myseum of Toronto, 2020). https://vimeo.com/388059428
4 Cherríe Moraga, “Entering the Live of Other: Theory in the Flesh.” This bridge called my back: writing by radical women of colour. Edited by Cherríe Moraga and Gloria Anzaldúa. (New York: Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press, 1981): 22-34. pp. 23.
5 Guilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, Mil Mesetas: Capitalismo y Esquizofrenia. Translated by Jose Vazquez Perez (Paris, Les Editions de Munuit, 1980). pp.174.
6 bell hooks, all about love: new visions. (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2001). pp. 127.