16 from '16: Amanda's picks for the year's best moments in culture, from Moonlight to Lemonade
The music, movies, TV shows and art that made an impression in 2016
It's that time of year when high-minded editors and opinionated reporters begin making their assessments of the past 12 months. And what kind of columnist would I be if I didn't contribute my own two cents?
Last year I made a "15 from '15" list that celebrated the work of artists who pushed for transformative social change. In 2016, a year that witnessed the death of Prince, the rise of Trump, the mobilization of Standing Rock and the hottest temperatures in recorded history, we need artists now even more than ever.
My new list is filled with creators who inspired my imagination, affirmed my existence and demonstrated the power of art to mobilize and push people into action. Including everyone from local creators to international superstars, I hope it gives you light in these dark and dreary days.
A Tribe Called Quest, "We The People"
2016 took a lot of incredible musicians from us and among them was the rapper Phife Dawg from the legendary hip-hop group A Tribe Called Quest. Several months after his passing, the remaining members released the final record from ATCQ — and it was a brilliantly composed tribute to their fallen brother. The standout single, "We the People," is a perfectly reflective anthem for the current political climate. It is at once scathingly critical and rousingly hopeful. "We the People" is a bold wake-up call to a population that can no longer afford to sleep through the realities ahead.
Earlier this year I discovered the work of Tau Lewis while visiting the Future 33 exhibition at the Younger Than Beyonce Gallery in Toronto. Her flesh-tone mask series stopped me in my tracks and left me with chills. Using the castings of black bodies, she uses chalk pastels to create the colour for each mask, specifically mixing pigments that are named "skin tone" or "flesh tone" as a way of illustrating the everyday exclusion and dehumanization of black bodies. Her latest series foraged, ain't free uses cacti as a metaphor for the African diaspora. Although originally from hot climates, cacti have the ability to survive in a variety of places with very little attention. Lewis's work has little room for subtlety. It is provocative and fierce, thoughtful and masterfully creative — exactly the kind of ingredients needed in a year that has been so boldly violent.
This fall, TV history was made when Kim's Convenience became the first Canadian sitcom led by Asian actors. I follow the show with my mom, and although neither of us is Korean, we watch with pride as we witness storytelling deeply rooted in culture, incisive in its commentary yet still universal in its themes. It feels like a win for all of us who rarely see ourselves reflected on the screen. One of the most powerful things about this history-making show, and something that literally moved me to tears, was walking through the streets of Toronto and seeing the show posters on billboards and bus shelters everywhere. It feels like the closed world of Canadian media opened the door a little bit wider this year.
The Good Indian Bride
An immersive installation that originated as a photography series, The Good Indian Bride explores the grandeur and beauty of Indian weddings, exposing the complicated realities of the brides. I saw it this fall at Dais in Toronto, and the installation invited guests to move beyond the still images and join actors inside beautifully decorated set pieces. There, we experienced the heartbreaking and disturbing realities behind the opulence. Created by Rakhi Mutta, the same Toronto artist behind the Anarkali web series (which I wrote about last year), Mutta is working on developing The Good Indian Bride even further. Stay tuned.
First, Beyonce dropped the "Formation" video without warning. The next day at the Super Bowl, she performed the song and made the most political statement of her career, appearing with an all-female dance crew dressed in Black Panther-inspired regalia. Then, the weekend of Prince's death, Queen B gave us the gift of Lemonade. In the midst of the mourning, she reminded us that artistry, experimentation and showmanship did not die with the Purple One. Lemonade is a visual tribute to the poetic legacy of Toni Morrison. It is a salute to the aesthetic pioneered by Julie Dash. It's country, it's blues rock, it's R&B, it's pop, it's church. And it's Beyonce's greatest work to date.
When I went to see the world premiere of Tiffany Hsiung's documentary The Apology at the Hot Docs Festival earlier this year, the anticipation and excitement in the air was palpable. As the film began, the audience laughed, sighed and shed tears as we all fell in love with the subjects of the film, grandmothers Gil Won-Ok, Grandma Cao and Lola Adela. The three were "comfort women." During the Second World War, 200,000 girls and young women were forced into sexual slavery by the Japanese Imperial Army, and these three women were among them. To this day, Grandma Gil is fighting to get an official apology from the Japanese government. She was in attendance at the screening, and my eyes are actually filling up with tears right now as I recall her strength, humour and awe-inspiring perseverance.
How to Build a House Museum
After seeing this exhibition at the Art Gallery of Ontario, I almost built a museum in my house. Simultaneously honouring the pioneers of Chicago house music while suggesting new ways of archiving their work, Theaster Gates left me reflecting deeply on what it means to remember the work of those too often forgotten. The exhibit invited guests to gaze at memorabilia, reimagine old academic studies rearticulated as art and dance beside a giant, mirrored "disco-ball" sculpture. One of the most fascinating elements of the exhibition was this: Gates used it as a mockup for an actual permanent museum that he hopes to build in Chicago.
Cahoots Theatre's Deaf Artists and Theatre's Toolkit
Full disclosure: I am currently a playwright in residence at Cahoots Theatre in Toronto. I was not involved in the creation of the DATT, but I am proud to be connected to a company that decided create a toolkit that is helping to make the theatre a more accessible and fascinating place for everyone. Working collaboratively with the deaf community in Toronto, they developed this free online resource while producing the play Ultrasound, written by Saskatoon playwright Adam Pottle. The play is performed in English and American Sign Language and also uses integrated subtitles and projections, constructing a richly visual storytelling experience that widened my perspective on what theatre can do.
One of the few good things about 2016 was the way Donald Glover — a.k.a. Childish Gambino — kept on winning. He released a Parliament Funkadelic-inspired album; he was cast as Lando Calrissian in the upcoming Star Wars movie. Glover has become one of my favourite creatives in pop culture. However, it was the release of his television show Atlanta that truly left me in awe. Glover previously worked as a writer on 30 Rock and starred for several seasons on the cult sitcom Community, but as the creator and star of his own show, we can finally see his true creative vision. With an all-black writing staff and an all-black cast, Glover created one of the most imaginative, smart and hilarious television shows I've ever seen. He told Ellen DeGeneres that he wanted to create Twin Peaks with rappers — and if you saw the episode with the invisible car, you know he succeeded. Surrealism in the 'hood is a rare approach, and I hope more creators will continue to explore it.
As a former academic turned media personality, I still have an enduring love for research and a strong belief in the importance of archiving. There are so many lives and people that are often forgotten when they aren't documented. This may be why the work of Toronto-based photographer Zun Lee moves me so deeply. His exhibit Fade Resistance features more than 1,000 found photographs of African-American families that he began collecting in 2012. Following the recession in the United States, Lee stumbled on a box of family photographs on the sidewalk. After his attempts to return the photos failed, he decided to keep them as an archive of American life and began looking for more. His collection now includes more than 3,500 images. Observing these lives that were cast aside and could easily have been forgotten was a moving affirmation of the political slogan "Black Lives Matter."
The Floating Piers
In a year that illustrated in stark and unforgiving terms how divided this world is, this incredible large-scale installation by world-renowned Bulgarian artist Christo was a beautiful offering. For 16 days, three kilometres of orange-yellow fabric were built to temporarily connect the shore of Italy's Lake Iseo to the islands at its centre. People could walk along the modular system created with 200,000 high-density polyethylene cubes that were designed to move up and down with the waves. While in other parts of the world people talk of building walls, this artist created beautiful bridges. Brilliant and mind-boggling, the project was entirely funded by the sale of Christo's original works of art.
What more can be said about Moonlight? It's one of the best-reviewed films of 2016 — and it lives up to all of the praise that has been bestowed upon it. A quietly poetic exploration of three stages in the life of a young black man who is struggling to grow without persecution, it is beautiful and heartbreaking. I watched it the second time with my best friend, and when it concluded she said she wished this were a film all black teenage boys got to see because it would hopefully encourage them to fight with all their will to be free.
even this page is white, Vivek Shraya
I am definitely a fangirl for Vivek Shraya. This year alone she released a children's book (illustrated by the incredible Rajni Perera), two new singles, a photography series and a collection of poetry. She constantly has me asking, "What am I doing with my life?" Her book of poetry, even this page is white, was named one of the year's best by CBC Books, and for good reason. It's a searing exploration into the experiences of a person of colour and interrogates the realities of skin colour — it's possibilities, realities, functions and limitations.
A Tribe Called Red, We Are the Halluci Nation
It's not news that A Tribe Called Red are amazing. However, their latest album takes their already-successful formula and pushes it into new spheres. Partnering with other cultural forces such as Tanya Tagaq, Yassin Bey and Saul Williams, they are creating sounds that borrow from a multitude of worlds while boldly addressing important topics including residential schools and missing and murdered Indigenous women.
This was the most important theatre production I've seen this year. Collectively created by the three performers —Stephen Jackman-Torkoff, Tawaiah Ben M'Carthy and Thomas Olajide — with choreography by Virgilia Griffith and direction from Jonathan Seinen, Black Boys defies a simple description. At the start of the play, Jackman-Torkoff actually tries to describe what it's about but the words keep getting stuck in his throat. Located at the intersection of black queer identity, the play uncovers multiple layers without a cohesive narrative. Fractured and fragmented, it airs the dirty laundry of community but finds the beauty within.
The Secret Path
I didn't grow up as a fan of The Tragically Hip, but this year, it didn't matter. With the Secret Path project, Gord Downie put a light on the horrific injustices this country is steeped in. The fact he used his privilege, platform and potentially his last days to do so is unequivocally laudable. Focusing on the story of Chanie Wenjack, Downie was able to do the most powerful thing an artist can: make something intellectual real and visceral. There's a reason CBC Music named him their Person of the Year.