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TORONTO — One of the first things that occurs to me about the CONTACT photography festival is that it’s vast: It is comprised of about 200 curated and open-call exhibitions spread out across the greater Toronto area. I spend about two days walking and being driven around to look at the various venues, prioritizing the “core exhibitions,” which are all mounted in non-profit spaces (so for a brief moment in this city’s art scene, the profit motive is checked). Yet, I only saw a Lilliputian sample of the work available to viewers. This is because though there are clusters of galleries in certain districts, such as Chinatown, the Entertainment District, the Junction, Little Portugal, it takes a good deal of time to get from one area to another. (Still, I prefer this circumstance to the typical fair experience of being stuck in a covered space that feels like the oxygen is slowly being sucked out of it.) Eventually, I let go of the surveyor’s ambition and set out to enjoy and focus on the shows I could see.
I wasn’t sure what to expect. Photography is a tricky medium to assess since in the last generation it has been theorized to within an inch of its life. In particular, questions about the photograph’s status either as a documentary tool, an indexical sign, an arbiter of truth, or a mode of anthropological inquiry have been used to rigorously call the medium into question. But the (represented) body survived. The artists who use the medium still tend to look at people as special, unique carriers of all that cargo of social signification: ethnicity, age, vitality, gender, height, vulnerability, diffidence, reserve, pride, beauty. This struck me the most profoundly and the most consistently about the CONTACT festival: the human body is present and in its very presence makes demands on, flirts with, beckons, and implicates the viewer. The most compelling pieces I encountered by far were a version of portraiture, searching and incantatory.
Carrie Mae Weems occupies the festival’s “spotlight” section with her first solo presentation in Canada, and encapsulates what photography does well and not so well right now. Weems has work installed in the Art Museum of the University of Toronto, at the CONTACT gallery, and three outdoor sites. One of the billboards positioned in the Entertainment District depicts a crimson-toned profile view of Mary J. Blige with Weems’s hands caught in the action of placing a crown on the Blige’s head, with the word “anointed” printed in white block capital letters. This concern with status leaves me unimpressed. The notion of royalty as an elevated and protected demarcation of social rank feels like precisely what we should be not be affirming or aspiring to, especially now, when in the United States the current administration’s agents regularly invoke their socio-economic status to justify despotic policies. That question I want to pose is what function a queen or the act of coronation, or even the notion of an aristocratic social echelon, might serve in this moment. We are creatures of tradition and habit, but don’t need to lean on this antiquated model of leadership as a means of assessing the value of Black people.
On the other hand, Weems’s Heave installation at the University of Toronto, constructed around a body in absentia, by providing all the indicia of this body’s lived life, impels the viewer to read this life as affirmatively Black. The installation consists of an entire living space with furniture, lamps, wall art, carpeting, a video monitor, and many, many tchotchkes. I love that when I walk over to pile of vinyl records in jackets propped against the wall, and look at the one on top, the record indicated is mounted inside the nearby credenza on its partially hidden turntable. The whole installation evokes a sense of Blackness as a cultural place and space to occupy and also to build. Though Weems has several other pieces on display, particularly at the CONTACT gallery, these works are the most visually arresting.
The artist Ayana V. Jackson uses her own body to repudiate the typical colonialist story by inserting herself in that story as a Black woman whose very presence prompts the viewer to consider those bodies made less visible by 19th-century middle-class portraiture. This is not at all a unique strategy (Elizabeth Colomba, Kehinde Wiley, John Akomfrah, and Yinka Shonibare come to mind immediately) but her work has incisive resonance being placed in the Campbell House Museum, which was built for a chief justice in 1851. In the images displayed in the downstairs sitting rooms, Jackson is outfitted in period dress and lays herself out in postures of repose, her impassive face staring at the viewer steadily accepting the viewer’s gaze as her rightful due. In the upstairs room, her figure is made ephemeral, printed on starkly white fabric, her body floats in space, but is still an indomitable presence, steadily observing or going about her own business.
I was somewhat surprised to run into Robert Mapplethorpe’s work at Olga Korper Gallery, since I expected the majority of the photography to be current work. But I wasn’t disappointed. It has been a long time since I’d seen his portraiture and I was reminded of how exacting and caring he was with light, how he could make it caress a subject or throw it into spectacle. Bodies in his camera lens became iconic in a way that feels slightly dated now but did not when I first saw them years ago. While these bodies are often sexualized, yes, and lose some of their individuality, as in “France (MAP#584B)” (1981/2014), the combination of a Lisa Lyon’s breasts, her chest, long neck, and chin tilted to the sky make her body look like a template for architecture yet to be built.
My favorite exhibition was where the body operates as a stand-in for a lost tribe or clan: Meryl McMaster‘s As Immense as the Sky. In the photos displayed at the Ryerson Image Center, McMaster makes herself into an inscrutable but fantastic set of avatars. In one image, “Deep Into the Darkness Waiting” (nd), she appears as someone who is carrying the gift of fire on her back while light blue birds perch on her long curving hat of woven wood. In “On the Edge of This Immensity” she carries on her shoulder a small canoe filled to overflowing with blackbirds, crows, or ravens. In these images, she is often half or fully masked with white facepaint, which makes her appearance even more fey. McMaster claims both “Western and indigenous” according to the CONTACT catalogue. Her photographs, hung at both the Ryerson and Stephen Bulger gallery, utilizes this mixed heritage to play with the idea of the shaman figure, the one who might be able to see another reality underlying our own, and even perhaps enter it and bring back tokens of the journey.
I was also pleasantly surprised by work from the 1940s by Barbara Morgan, who at one point had photographed Martha Graham extensively. At the Art Gallery of Ontario, in the exhibition Photography, 1920s–1940s: Women in Focus, there is an image with Graham in costume to perform “Lamentations,” which is exemplary of Graham’s dramatic flair and Morgan’s commitment to revealing it in still imagery. There is a sensual quality to the prints that doesn’t ever get old.
Lastly, Sarah Ann Johnson, though most of her images don’t contain bodies, showed fascinating manipulations of the medium by using three-dimensional objects inserted through the photograph to make the images take on the import of stage backdrop. in “Sun (Bump)” (2018) an onyx ball pushes through the photo of a landscape where the sun might be, except here, the sun is in eclipse and much closer than it should be. Most of Johnson’s work is set in the desert where obelisks and trees sprout as artistic interventions that make these landscapes forbidding and vaguely inhospitable.
I ended my time in Toronto much as I began it this trip. Looking around me at signs and billboards (which also displayed work in the festival), alert to the possibilities of the sudden graces bodies can bestow.
Editor’s Note: The CONTACT Festival paid for the author’s travel and accommodations.
The CONTACT Festival displays programs and exhibitions throughout the greater Toronto area, the majority of which end May 31. The CONTACT Gallery (80 Spadina Ave, Suite 205, Toronto) is the festival’s headquarters.