In the flesh: Younger Than Beyoncé gallery puts the focus on emerging talent
Future 33 exhibit spotlights young Toronto artists and curators
"Someone told me that my work begs to be looked at and touched, and sometimes, when the audience begins to understand what it is, they become uncomfortable and no longer want to look or touch, but the work is still there, it's still in the room," says Tau Lewis, a 22-year-old artist whose work is currently on display in Younger Than Beyoncé (YTB), a new gallery in Toronto's Regent Park neighbourhood dedicated to creating space for emergent and experimental art.
"You can look over it and ignore it, but it exists."
My politics make people feel awkward; that discomfort wraps around my work and takes up space. That's a good thing.- Tau Lewis, artist
It was Lewis' work in Future 33, an exhibit spanning a diverse array of work by 33 Toronto-based contemporary artists, that halted my casual stroll through the gallery.
The artworks in Lewis' flesh-tone mask series hang from a clothes rack by strong metal links that pierce through the faces and are kept in place by a cinderblock connected to the chains. A projected video shows a black woman, posing carefully, holding the mask to her neck, tentatively covering her stomach with her arms. Her face and torso are covered by the mask, its pale pink tones contrasting significantly with her own brown skin. Words scroll across the screen explaining the process of creation and the rationale.
Lewis is aware that her work is provocative. She revels in its potential to disrupt the passive role of spectator that many associate with a gallery experience.
"My politics make people feel awkward; that discomfort wraps around my work and takes up space. That's a good thing."
The BBC recently named Toronto the most diverse city in the world, and Regent Park is one of the most diverse communities in the city. YTB was offered a lease on favourable terms there in October, but once that three-month lease was up, they worked on a way to avoid moving because they recognized that their presence filled a gap in a community filled with art but that is home to few galleries.
Future 33 features a number of culturally diverse, LGBTQ and differently abled artists and their rich palette of experiences informs the depth and breadth of themes and mediums displayed. The 33 artists were selected by YTB Gallery's two co-directors and six board members: Sebastián Benítez, Brette Gabel, Anjuli Rahaman, Humboldt Magnussen, Marsya Maharani, Marjan Verstappen, Geneviève Wallen and Joan Lillian Wilson. This curatorial collective was each asked to select four artists from Toronto who are younger than Beyoncé and who they feel are making compelling, important and timely work.
"It takes the format of the familiar mode of journalism that makes news out of best-of-lists, often emphasizing youthful talent to forecast the future," curator Marsya Maharani explained over e-mail. "These lists always seem significant, definitive and even canonical — but they just as quickly become replaceable with yet another list. Maharani says that Future 33 diverges from the usual ones-to-watch lists because of the range of the eight co-curators. "Each board member naturally defines 'compelling, important and timely' differently. Instead of a definitive list, it becomes grounds for exploration into themes and inquiries that are relevant to each individual curator."
I visited the exhibit last week in the mid-afternoon. No one else was there so I was able to have a private and intimate experience with the exhibit. Pausing to place headphones over my ears, walking around mop buckets filled with dirty water and reading government-issued letters that abstractly define who is worthy of suspicion, I was struck by the scope of mediums and themes ambitiously presented. In the absence of individual artist statements I was slightly overwhelmed and wondered if in certain instances I was missing layers or context to the art. Yet in the midst of this there remained an underlying connectedness to the exhibit.
"YTB Gallery is focused on art made by emerging artists based in Toronto and the GTA," curator Geneviève Wallen elaborated over e-mail. "Its communities, architecture, socio-political and economic realities and more have shaped what is produced and displayed at the moment."
Lewis is one such emerging GTA artist. She notes that the geographic location of the gallery held great significance to her work: "YTB is located in Regent Park, [a neighbourhood] undergoing a huge amount of gentrification to improve living for its residents. The majority are Muslim and black. I'm incorporating cinderblocks into my work now, I take them from construction sites around the city's gentrifying neighbourhoods. The cinderblock and chains that hold my work in place reference gentrification, 'stuckness' and slavery. I speak about appropriation with the acknowledgement that most of the pop culture we love was built on the backs of slavery."
When I asked her about the inspiration behind her work she explained that it is a balance of anger and repulsion alongside strength and respect. "I need people to know that I'm a black artist, and that my journey as an artist is different than the majority because of that. The work is about the appropriation of the black body and black culture, which happens concurrently with the dehumanization of black folks."
The video explains that the masks are created by taking castings of black bodies and given their pigment by grinding down and blending three different kinds of chalk pastels.
"The chalk pastels that I used to colour the masks belonged to three different brands, and were all labeled either 'skin-tone' or 'flesh-tone,'" Lewis elaborates. "They are clearly white (one of the three is extremely white) tones. This is one small example of the way POC's [people of colour] are dehumanized on a daily basis." It's a powerful work that led my mind on a journey through numerous memories of flesh-toned stockings and bras, panties and dresses that never matched my own skin tone. Her video ends poignantly with the words, "The masks replicate the features of African bodies without the presence of African skin."
Even beyond the confines of Regent Park, Wallen points out that the YTB project addresses the general lack of space in Toronto for emerging artists to show their work and for emerging curators to practice and gain experience — and make a living.
"There are a lot of young artists, curators and art critics graduating each year [from art school] and who have limited opportunities in the city," she says. "I would also like to consider the cycle of free labour within which all emerging cultural workers are functioning (including us) because it is an important aspect of our mandate; as an inclusive and anti-oppressive space, our aim is to generate as many paid professional experiences as possible. Sometimes, it's not much, but we do what we can."
YTB's profile has risen quickly in the Toronto arts scene, and given the obvious need for a platform enabling talent to develop the experience and skills in the industry, rightly so.
"Artists struggle financially, artists struggle to emerge, for exposure, for proper compensation," Lewis says, describing the challenges of being a working artist in Toronto. "I can't speak on behalf of all artists, I can only speak on my experience of being 22, as a biracial female. This is a landscape dominated primarily by hetero white males. When we talk about struggling as an artist, we have to acknowledge that it's twice as hard for women, three times harder for women of colour, four times harder for trans and non binary POC artists. We should all acknowledge our privileges with every success, and do whatever we can to uplift our fellow artists who are struggling.
"I don't like it when any of my friends or myself are called 'lucky' for our opportunities or successes. We are not lucky. We are strong; we are fighters."