Arts

At the Toronto Biennial's opening weekend, these Cape Dorset youth will finish what they started up north

It's a performance 2,300 km in the making, and it starts Saturday at The Bentway.

It's a performance 2,300 km in the making, and it starts Saturday at The Bentway

This August, The Embassy of Imagination led a procession through their hometown of Cape Dorset, Nunavut. On Sept. 21, they start part two of the performance ... in Toronto. (Front and centre, Iqaluk Ainalik leads the pack. His dog costume was a team effort.) (Courtesy of Alexa Hatanaka)

Technically, most of the 2,300 kilometres journey was covered by air. But on Saturday afternoon, when young artists from the Embassy of Imagination gather at The Bentway for the Toronto Biennial of Art, they'll be continuing a walk that started in Cape Dorset, Nunavut.

That's home for the EOI, a youth collective founded by Alexa Hatanaka and Patrick Thompson, a.k.a. The PA System — (grown-up) Toronto-based artists who began facilitating workshops in Cape Dorset six years ago. Since then, the members — who range in age from 13–22 — have produced murals in cities around the world, from Montreal to Barcelona. Staging a performance is a little different for the crew, and the one they're bringing to the biennial's opening weekend, Sinaaqpagiaqtuut or The Long Cut, is something of a two-parter. Earlier this summer, the collective marched through their hamlet carrying banners and sculptures. Saturday, eight EOI artists who've flown down for the occasion will wrap the procession, walking east along the waterfront.

What we've been thinking about in terms of the procession in Toronto is: how are these distant places connected?- Alexa Hatanaka, The Embassy of Imagination

 

They'll have company. For the last few days, the EOI's been collaborating with teens from the city's Oasis Skateboard Factory, a Toronto District School Board alternative school design program. They've all been learning to make screen-printed parkas with the help of a visiting elder from Cape Dorset, Ooloosie Ashevak.

Youth from Cape Dorset (Peter Pitseolak High School) and Toronto (Oasis Skateboard Factory) join Adamie Ashevak and Ooloosie Ashevak (back row, left) at the Parkdale Sewing Hub. The group took part in workshops led by Embassy of Imagination and Ooloosie Ashevak. (Courtesy of Alexa Hatanaka)

Together, they'll be wearing those pieces along the route while carrying other original works — including a life-sized copper sculpture of a snowmobile. Once they reach their destination, the biennial's exhibition site on Lakeshore Boulevard, everything will be installed alongside photos and videos and other items from the first half of the performance up north. And that snowmobile? It gets the place of honour, spinning on a platform like something straight out of The Price is Right. (The exhibition site, it turns out, is a former Volvo dealership.)

Says Hatanaka,"What we've been thinking about in terms of the procession in Toronto is: how are these distant places connected?"

It's a question the EOI might find unusually easy to answer. The route actually passes two of their past public artworks: a sculpture from their ongoing project Future Snowmachines in Kinggait and a mural in Coronation Park. Hatanaka says the performers will pause to reflect at a few key sites along the path, the mural being one of them. They'll also stop at the Toronto Inukshuk. That 30-foot-tall sculpture was created by Inuit artist Kellypalik Qimirpik — grandfather to Kevin Allooloo, one of the EOI youth taking part in the procession.

"Those two sites are particularly of significance thinking about how Cape Dorset and Toronto are connected, even though perhaps sometimes they feel quite distant," says Hatanaka.

"You can kind of go into autopilot in the city, walking through public spaces all the time. Let's say this route along the waterfront, people are walking or biking or rollerblading it every day. I've lived a lot of my life in Toronto," says Hatanaka. "I've gone along this route I don't know how many times. I have this rolodex of memories. But after doing this procession together, that's what's going to be very dominant in my mind. I'll never see it the same again, it'll mean something different to me."

The Embassy of Imagination procession in Cape Dorset, August 2019. The copper wire snowmobile is by Kevin Allooloo, Salomonie Ashoona and Patrick Thompson. The youth worked together to create their silapaas (outer parka layers), and they're made of ski-doo tarps. (Courtesy of Alexa Hatanaka)

She's tapping into something that seems to be one of the driving themes of the Toronto Biennial, a new contemporary art event involving free exhibitions and talks and other events, which runs to Dec. 1 at locations around the city. Their official language is a bit tricky to parse. The programming's been curated through the lens of this fragment of a question: "What does it mean to be in relation?" In relation to what? Well, one another, perhaps, or our environment.

Anyone and everyone is welcome to follow Saturday's procession, though Hatanaka stresses the fact it's a performance not a party. "The public can observe and appreciate and contemplate and follow us if they choose, but not in the way, I suppose, that you could jump in if you went to Caribana," she laughs.

"I like the idea of us all being guided to go toward the waterfront. As city dwellers, as well, I like the idea that we can still feel planted on Earth, connected to the earth. Sometimes that feels quite difficult when we're living on concrete."

Sinaaqpagiaqtuut/The Long-Cut. The Embassy of Imagination (Parr Josephee, Cie Taqiasuk, Saaki Nuna, David Pudlat, Janine Manning, Kunu Pudlat, Kevin Allooloo, Salomonie Ashoona, Taqialu Pudlat),Oasis Skateboard Factory Fall 2019 cohort, Ooloosie Ashevak and PA System (Alexa Hatanaka and Patrick Thompson).Saturday, Sept. 21 at 4 p.m. Starting at The Bentway and following the waterfront to 259 Lake Shore Boulevard East. www.torontobiennial.org

About the Author

Leah Collins is the Senior Writer at CBC Arts.