New Cartographies: Power to the Young PeopleThree-Thirty Exhibition at Scotiabank Contact Photography Festival 2020
Artists: Aaron Jones, Ebti Nabag, Kelly Fyffe-Marshall
Locations in Scarborough: Doris McCarthy Gallery; Lester B. Pearson Collegiate Institute, north façade; Malvern Public Library, south façade
Curator: Anique Jordan
October 3 to December 18, 2020.
All photos by Toni Hafkensheid.
Jamaican poet Kei Miller writes, “So every night while the mapmaker expands on his own network of secret roads and slaving roads, marooning roads and backbush roads, what he has really concerned himself with is Zion – a question has wedged itself between his learning and awakening: how does one map a place that is not quite a place? How does one draw towards the heart?” As a dark-skinned Black woman, educator, child of Toronto and Rasta, I enveloped myself in Three-Thirty, a multi-site exhibition that adds to Scarborough’s rich genealogy of culture, art, pride, and style. As witnessed by the 2018 inclusion of Scarborough into Nuit Blanche, a 24-hour art exhibition that until recently was located only in the prestigious core of downtown Toronto, Scarborough (a suburb of Toronto known for its distinctive culture from an influx of Black and Brown people) is maintaining its prominence as a place that is brimming with talent and responding to the gentrification of people and place.
Toronto-based artist and curator Anique Jordan would agree, finding so much preciousness in the youth whose existences represent the lifeline of where we are from, where we are going, but most importantly, preserving youth in a bubble of exactly who they are. This bubble is visible to the marginalized who find themselves in the art, exploring the contours of place and identity, recognizing that youth is a precious time deserving of introspection. Each site of Three-Thirty puts Scarborough’s youth and culture on a platform to be seen, recognized, protected, and returned to.
As a college professor, I deeply understand the colonial project that is formal education. I had to go through being educated to understand the ways in which I was actually self-selecting my own coercion. It was only after achieving a Master of Arts in English, reading the canon, writing in the language that continues to oppress, that I realized, as a Black woman, my mind was being shaped by forces I could not see, and teachers would not name. It was when I tuned inward, outside of books and classrooms, blanketed by my own culture, and buoyed by my roots that the songs that raised me rang louder and became more legible. Bob Marley sang “Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery. None but ourselves can free our minds,” and later I read him say “if I was educated, I’d be a damn fool.” These edicts washed over me as I opened myself to receiving the lessons these children, on the north façade of Lester B. Pearson Collegiate Institute, evoked.
The teenagers in the Bubble of Youth on the North-façade of Pearson Collegiate Institute were natural, unsanitized, and dripping in cool. These black and white portraits by Ebti Nabag were shot the Friday before March Break 2020; the last time students would be able to gather, laugh, touch, smile, and be near without a mask. Nabag hosted workshops with the students, where they learned about photography and portraiture, built community, and found self-expression. There is playfulness in the images, and a flare that only teenagers from Scarborough can exude. The vulnerability of the youth is endearing and powerful in equal measure. Looking up at these portraits, I wanted to be part of the fun, to have a puppy love crush again, to wear sweatpants as a fashion statement. The bubble these students find themselves in is not only the preciousness of being young, but the community of inspiring art that continues to pulse out of Scarborough and produce emblematic style.
I looked up at the portraits from the sidewalk, the sun shining on the northern wall, beaming over the students, washing them in safety and timelessness. I took photos of their photos, and they watched me from inside instead of focusing on their studies. The teacher in me said “yes, watch me record this moment in time, appreciating you, seeing you, expanding you with my writing, connecting to you with childlike abandon.”
When asked about the impetus behind choosing each location of the Three-Thirty exhibition, Anique Jordan, a Scarborough resident and empowered artist, professed “I want this work and all the work that I do to find spaces that bypass that question of whether or not we are fixing or unfixing [stereotypes about us] because that puts power in the hands of people who decide that. The community is always doing this work. There isn’t a moment where that breaks and becomes something new overnight. I’m interested in repositioning power into the eyes of the people who already live there, and understanding how they see themselves, how we see this community.” It was only after my education that I learned to play within the art, to see myself outside of it instead of fighting to be represented by it. The autoethnography of the students putting themselves on the map, with the tools offered by Ebti Nabag and the visionary light of Anique Jordan healed something in me that I didn’t know education had robbed me of.
At the Doris McCarthy Gallery, the history of Scarborough’s development hangs outside, and an acknowledgement of the Indigenous land it exists on, is inside, in the vestibule. Within the gallery, I was entranced by the 14 collages that spanned the left wall, and more images from The Bubble of Youth to the right. The collages were unique, although similar enough to show belonging. Not only did each piece belong to the collection as a whole, but together they encouraged a sense of “Black people, this is for us.”
Like knowledge, space too has a calculus: the continuum of class power decreases the further outside of the GTA that we go. Toronto’s core is the financial capital, while Scarborough has the Bluffs, but Malvern is often depicted as dangerous or “the hood.” Its rich history of art and community is often subsumed by stereotypes of immigrants decreasing property value.
The collages by artist Aaron Jones, named after the myriad ways in which knowledge can be classified, and constructed from the wealth of Black knowledges, these works form a rhizome of Black genealogy, demonstrating that our power is ancestral, internal, communal, and not to be taken lightly. Named after different ways in which knowledge is classified, such as Situated Knowledge, Imperative Knowledge, A posteriori, and more, the collages were comprised of visuals from the prestigious Rita Cox Black and Caribbean Heritage book collection, which has a home at the Malvern Public Library.
Again, I was transported temporally, to a time in my past when I was searching for art like this. I looked at the cover of author Robin D.G. Kelley’s book Freedom Dreams and remembered being floored by page seven where he posits: “what are today’s young activists dreaming about? We know what they are fighting against, but what are they fighting for?” Finding camaraderie with art that shows you a way of being that is so different from what you struggled to become, is freedom.
Within the walls of the gallery, I was in a home that was so welcoming because it was so infused with Caribbean culture that I dropped the weights of racism, and celebrated in my skin, smiling with my lips. I asked Anique, in an overly academic way, to describe how the dreams of the artist and audience might purport significance. Again, in the cool of Scarborough chic, she remixed my question and asked plainly “when you zone out, where do you go?” and before I could answer her (better) query, she went on: “I hope that they do not go to a place where they’re dreaming of freedom. I want that to be so granted and given that it’s not exciting. Anything other than freedom. And feel no ways about it; walk slowly toward your dream, and let people see you happy. It forces all of our actions that move beyond race to be radical. I want them to be dreaming of anything.”
As someone who believes in Earth’s networks, from the root systems of trees to the conduits of oceans, to the web of the stars that has guided navigators for centuries, like the little Black girls who had geometry braided into their hair, I am fascinated by those maps, their power, and seek to amplify their potential energy. As garnet is to pomegranate, as host is to hospitality, humans have constructed a system of meaning, where one exists in Nature and then we mirror those concepts.
Anique and I agree that as Black people, our wisdom is special, and exists within colonized spaces such as school, but is heightened when we are in community with other Black people. In Anique’s words “[Black youth] have to understand [the world] differently to know that they can live and survive. There needs to be a hyper level of care when talking about a Black person’s body.”
In another gallery room, the exhibit includes a three-channel film by Kelly Fyffe-Marshall. Projected on three walls, the artist asks audiences to consider “what happens after the status quo has shifted,” and guiding us to be “optimistic about the shift.” Encouraging youth to “be you unconditionally, the world will adjust,” the subjects in the film explained where they dig their power from: community, ancestors, introspection, humanity, mentorship, courage. The film ends with each of the subjects reverberating a chant of “power,” which was unapologetically Black and felt like shelter within the walls of the intimate room. The film had no veneer of cloaking onlookers from the fear that comes with connotations of “Black power.” It celebrated our collective, diverse, and individual power.
With natural backdrops, traditional African regalia from traditions worthy of more exploration from the viewer, and a pregnant human explaining their year of planting seeds, I felt nurtured toward my own future as a one-day mother. I felt full of safety, youth, hope, and empowerment from Mother Nature’s strength. I felt responsible for becoming a capable ancestor. I saw Anique’s vision once she explained a concept I understood: “how do we understand geography as a type of futurism, or a type of space that can be manipulated and brought into the future?”
I thought of Octavia E. Butler: “The child in each of us Knows paradise. Paradise is home. Home as it was Or home as it should have been. Paradise is one’s own place, One’s own people, One’s own world, Knowing and known, Perhaps even Loving and loved. Yet every child Is cast from paradise— Into growth and destruction, Into solitude and new community, Into vast, ongoing Change.”
I left the gallery, taking postcards advertising the Doris McCarthy Gallery and selling “The Revolution Starts Within” t-shirts. Outside, the building facade upheld a mural of two girls on their phones, ironically called I’m Listening. I stood at the feet of these two teenagers, absolutely missing my braids, and welcomed how small I felt, how comfortable I was with the shift from educator to future mother to once teenager. Time became a circle internally as I experienced the mural and its varying evocations.
Kissed by the autumn air, I drove to the next location: the Malvern Public Library. There I felt small again, standing before the 125-foot collage of Black culture. I came to learn after taking in the imagery, that there is a wealth of history behind the library. Over 10 years ago, youth advocated for themselves, pressuring the city to grant them a space within the library simply referred to as “The Spot.” In the centre of Scarborough, students would migrate from Pearson Collegiate to the Rec Centre or the neighbouring library after school. It is in these spaces and times that Black culture and identity are formed and expressed differently: after 3:30pm.
The apartment buildings opposite the library have the best view of this artwork, showcasing books that get new life and animation from the art of Aaron Jones. Recognizing the works by Toni Cade Bambara and Lauryn Hill married my smart and my cool, and I felt wholly Black in myself, which helped me feel less whitened by my English education. I could still rap along to the Fugees, no matter my degree.
I pondered if the art was a map of its own, guiding students from the public library of their childhood to the high school and then ultimately toward university. I was corrected, and then I got it. Knowledge is from all over, starting with inside us. We already know that which we seek, we just need to learn to be guided by our instincts more than a roadmap of our lives. Art has that revolutionary potential.