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What survives after capitalism’s latest confession? After a year of being banned from concerts, from mixing in new social circles, from intimacy with strangers? The streets are museums of a “normal” we once depended on to be there always, challenging us to birth new social patterns, new psycho-geographies. Wind bellows between the empty streets of a Kensington Market that pulses no reggae. Relish at Danforth and Woodbine: Closed. Hush Hush in the Junction: Closed. Stardust at College and Dufferin: Closed. No more Tertulia. Artists find community to care for us, while we line up outside of Costco or Walmart, or add tube socks to our Amazon shopping carts, knowing that we, the magic weavers, are the soul seeing humanity through the portal of pandemonium. Medical professionals are the hands and heads.
Masked, I keep my air visible at all times, not hidden in my pockets to be feared for suspicion of concealing a weapon. My mask shows that I am not dangerous. I pass the homeless, sleeping on the vents that blow heat upward. So visible that they blend into the milieu of the city. “No grounds to charge Peel officer in fatal shooting of Jamal Francique, SIU says.” I didn’t follow the story. I couldn’t. I do.not.need.to. in order to understand that lynching is a modern technology of control. I am passed on the sidewalk by a Black man heading east. We give each other the Black people head nod, the subtle facial recognition that signals “your mask does not scare me, sir. Your hair does not intimidate me, miss. Your skin is rich, fam.” We pass each other, understanding the passing between us as we walk in opposite directions. How do we flock together when “together” is a question?
I sat outside the art gallery, in the middle of Chinatown, and imagined unity. I don’t even remember where I met Liz. It feels like she has been in my corner for many, many years. Community has that effect. Today, Liz Ikiriko is a Tkaronto/Toronto-based, Nigerian Canadian artist and curator. Her role as an educator, maker, and mother informs her practice, which focuses on African and diasporic narratives. She currently teaches photography at Ryerson University and is the Assistant Curator at the Art Gallery of York University. As I search for solid ground, I turn to Liz and ponder about the plight of Black artists in this state of the world.
Ashley Marshall: How would you describe the arts scene in Toronto?
Liz Ikiriko: That’s a big question. The contemporary visual art scene—leaning more towards the BIPOC and lens-based media arts community is robust and creative and exhausted and supportive and just hanging on. This year’s been rough to say the least and within the visual arts communities that I’m a part of, it’s been incredible to see the numerous mutual aid artist fundraisers and support networks that have developed to help sustain creative practices.
AM: What impact do you think COVID has had or will have on the arts industry in Toronto? How can we best support our local talent?
LI: The long-term impacts of living through COVID19 is difficult to envision what the final outcome will be. There have been initiatives at the governmental and institutional levels right through to the smaller artist-run-centers and mutual aid fundraising to stop the bleeding. But these immediate and necessary actions don’t often appear to be long-term structural changes for the future. Our NEED for a basic income guarantee from our federal government is crucial. This cost of living is absolutely prohibitive for so many. I can’t tell you how many artists with Masters and PHDs hustling numerous jobs at more than 50hrs a week to pay insane rents, all while media outlets overstate how important it is to nurture our mental health in the midst of a pandemic. HOW??? Financial precarity is the ultimate stress inducer. You want to prioritize mental health? Pay people a basic living wage. AND don’t take away encampments in city parks. AND defund the police. There are so many networks and groups that have been organizing in Toronto that need all the support they can get, like the Encampment Support Network, SURJ Toronto , BLM TO and Foodshare TO.
AM: I have a few community care shout outs, namely Climate Justice TO and Black Women in Motion for their beautiful community care throughout this difficult, isolating time. Also, it is important that we support the Black Sex Workers Emergency Support Fund.
In a curator-led conversation for The Toronto Biennial of Art, artists discussed language, its impacts and its symbols. As Liz’s website explains, “…we are presently generating a lexicon—a shared vocabulary—which will guide our ongoing processes of exhibition-making, programming and learning. ‘Economy’ and ‘Belief’ are two terms within this lexicon and ones being reframed in the present moment, particularly by Black artists, activists and scholars.”
This combination of “Economy” and “Belief” have amplified what Black people have always known: Babylon must fall. Our lived experiences gained attention in 2020 when the Toronto Board of Public Health declared anti-Black racism a public health crisis. Since then, there has been grassroots organizing and information-sharing to discuss why the Black community is particularly wary of the medical field and hesitant to become vaccinated. There is a deep genealogy of trauma against the Black community from institutions of health, and the arts does necessary work to explain and add nuance to this conversation.
AM: Author Arundhati Roy has explained for over a year now that the pandemic is a portal, that this pandemic is something of an MRI machine exposing the emergencies that were already there. What revolutionary ideas do you sense percolating, or hope are being ushered forward?
LI: The talk between Arundhati Roy and Imani Perry hosted by Haymarket Books was one of my favourite zoom talks of the pandemic. I listened at a time when I was on CERB and I was blown away by the possibility that my value as a citizen was worth something outside of my productivity. To consider a government that would put value on my life without the necessity of production or consumption opened a portal for me. The glint of another way of being in this world became possible. The mass global protests in response to Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd’s killings were additional portals being opened. I had falsely believed we needed to implement a fully realized new alternate system before we tore down the colonial capitalist patriarchy but it’s not true—we only need to tear down the system that has failed us for so long. The tear down builds new portals, new possibilities.
AM: The storytellers have been doing this work of creating new worlds, always already. Nalo Hopkinson’s 1999 novel Brown Girl in the Ring is about post-apocalyptic Toronto after it has been abandoned by the wealthy and powerful. A quote from the book says “Among Caribbean people, bush medicine used to be something private, but living in the Burn changed all the rules.” How have you recognized/participated in/witnessed community, community care, ancestral knowledge, earth wisdom, healing since the start of the pandemic?
LI: Ooof. There are SO many GREAT BIG GLORIOUS ways that I have been saved by my close community and by the greater spheres of inspiration that I’ve accessed online. I’m grateful for the many lessons and tender sharing between friends in the arts field AND friends outside of it. Sending voice notes and whatsapp messages and just generally checking in. These connections have helped frame the way I want to be in the world and in my profession. I also meditate regularly and the Liberate App was a life saver. It is a mindfulness app created for BIPOC folks. And for snappy and SO necessary reminders of why self care matters for Black folks—I turn to the Nap Ministry on IG. Reading has always helped to calm my nerves and the books that have anchored me to ideas of Indigeneity, intergenerational knowledge, and understanding relations to community, land and the natural world are: Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer, You Belong by Sebene Selassie and Lorraine O’Grady Writing in Space 1973-2019. I try to do at least one nurturing thing for myself daily - drink more water, sleep a little longer, take a walk, stretch, etc. To start the day I honour the elements, the ancestors, this day and our futures. Breathe in, breathe out, continue… These are some of the things that contribute to me not being carried away by anxiety and even so, it’s still a delicate dance.
The Age of Aquarius is upon us. Fixed air. The dreamers have been in their labs, writing, dancing, Zoom calling about how we can get free. First, we think. We demand the arts. We demand compensation, reparations, livable wages. We teach the pillars of manmade structures so the future may see where to press. We sing so our messages can fly undetected into the minds of the searching. To the matrix, we are static; just an albatross. We fan so we may birth new flames.
In position, the phoenix rises, born to spread. With air filling them, the pride of the jungle, the guerillas, the archers, the gods of war hurl cannon fire at the manmade towers, fallible by design. They demand to not elect their own oppressors. They demand the collapse of power as we know it, and a razing of the sickness that has been erected on Indigenous land. They return what is theirs, without anthems, flags or sigils. Turtle shells are fire-resistant.
Oshun quenches the tabula rasa, freshly scorched. She soothes the steam that licks at the graves of those thrown overboard, or jumped, to eternal freedom. Our ancestors awaken, their bones called forward in the amniotic sac of new life. They swim in the volcanic ash that creates the plasma to feed plants. Their depth is our protection. The phoenix, with one gust of its heavy wings, dives forcefully down, smashing into the tempest, to begin her life as a blue whale. Carrying the turtle to shore, watering saplings as she travels, her currents carrying fledglings. Bones turn to dust, to be swept up into air feeding stars, to reach down and become roots.
Blooms sprout on the new earth, not one condo in sight, no prisons to repopulate. Black soil bears Black fruit. Virgos perfectly paint the geomancy of future paths. Snakes slither up the trunks of trees, lay in the canopy, and deliver messages to the wind above. More sunlight. The moon desires the company of her tide. The ants build their colonies. The bees organize their honeycomb. Earth wants her water. The wave is coming.
Black soil bears biopolitical fruit. The moment for stillness fell upon all of us; we got still, looked inward, and assessed where our energies were greatest. Dragonfly, ember, krill, branch, or any of the plasma in between molded into hybrids. The moment for revolution takes sources of energy of all kinds, learning nature’s ways so that we may mimic. Acclimating to “business as usual” is not a survival strategy. “Strange fruit, hanging from poplar trees” have borne revolutionaries, and with blood on the leaves, we have soaked up the pain that encrypted survival in our DNA. We are killed, but we do not die. Air has a plan for fire, fire burns so that earth is scorched, water heals so that life may grow, earth births new soil for fresh fruit. What stage you belong to is a lifelong question, a Sisyphean endeavour, and the manual to our freedom. Cycles turn, and there are 40 acres between us and sleep. One step, one stage, one movement at a time until we are free. And we will get free.
AM: I ask this of all Black creatives: I LOVE Robin D.G. Kelley’s book Freedom Dreams. In it, Kelley posits: “what are today’s young activists dreaming about? We know what they are fighting against, but what are they fighting for?” What do you think (or hope) young people are dreaming about?
LI: I hope young artists are able to dream past survival. I hope they are dreaming of thriving, of what it could be like to lavish in worlds where inclusion and diversity officers or departments are no longer needed. I hope they’re seeing past the competition and hierarchies that have been imposed on us. I hope they are able to create new systems of connection, leadership and care within creative fields.
As old worlds are met with forces of change, artists ask “Is Love a Synonym for Abolition?” Check out this work here, knowing that all that is solid melts into air: https://www.gallery44.org/exhibitions/is-love-a-synonym-for-abolition
For healing, visit https://adifferentbooklist.com and look for books by adrienne maree brown, and/or somatic therapy.