International Women's Day: 9 artists who are making a difference
Let's recognize those who challenge, protest, educate and inspire
When it comes to art intersecting with activism and politics, a lot happened last month. Beyoncé dropped the music video for her most politically charged song yet and accompanied it with a Super Bowl performance that had tongues wagging and police unions protesting. Kendrick Lamar electrified the Grammys stage with a performance that touched on everything from the prison industrial complex to repatriation. But given today is International Women's Day, I want to recognize a few lesser known artists here at home who are using their work to challenge, to protest, to educate, to inspire, to remix and to imagine.
An award-winning African-Canadian documentarian, Alison Duke's work has covered a range of topical issues, from the Canadian hip hop scene (Raisin' Kane: A Rapumentary) to black women in film (Sisters in Cinema) to HIV/AIDS in Toronto's Caribbean and African communities (The Woman I Have Become). Duke most recently executive produced a ground-breaking series of short films that accompanied the 2016 Ryerson University Akua Benjamin Inaugural Lecture, which focused on 50 years of black activism and resistance in Toronto. The films transported the audience back to a time when leaders of political movements were deported to the Caribbean and bookstores were the primary safe hub for debate and mentorship. The people next to me were wiping tears, laughing over memories and sighing over the intimate documentation on a chapter of activism that's rarely explored. Each film was directed by a black female filmmaker (Ngardy Conteh George, Laurie Townsend, Ella Cooper, Sonia Godding Togobo and Sarah Michelle Brown) and explored the lives of various black activists (Dudley Laws, Charles Roach, Rosie Douglas, Marlene Green and Gwen and Lenny Johnston). Those films will soon be available on the Ryerson University website, but you can watch some of Duke's other work here.
Persian classical music has a rich tradition relying on improvisation and composition, with lyrics drawn from renowned medieval poets such as Rumi, Hafez or Sa'adi. Tahere Falahati is a classical Persian singer whose voice can move from a vibratory yodel to the powerfully stretched crescendo necessary in the genre. But in her home country of Iran, the law has created strict artistic limitations for women since the 1979 Islamic Revolution and prevented her from pursuing her passion. Although she holds a bachelor's degree in chemistry, Falahati's heart was in music. In 2001 she and her family moved to North Vancouver and in 2013 she released her debut album On a Moment with You. The album has found an eager and hungry audience through the internet and in the Persian Diaspora. Learn more about Falahati here.
During World War II, an estimated 200,000 women from Korea, China and the Philippines were interned in military brothels. Also known as "comfort stations," the brothels were organized through a violent system of mass institutionalized sex slavery throughout Japanese-occupied Asia. For the past five years, filmmaker Tiffany Hsiung has been working tirelessly on a National Film Board feature documentary about these women and their stories entitled The Apology. We met when she was in the early stages of this work, before she had successfully completed a Kickstarter campaign or found backing from the NFB, and before she pulled together an incredible production team made up of primarily Asian women. At that time, she was trying to determine how to embark on this incredibly painful and heavy journey with integrity. Unlike other documentary filmmakers who parachute in and out of communities, Hsiung felt strongly that she had to build relationships with these women that would create a space of trust for them to share their stories. In doing so, these bonds that transcended the film inadvertently inspired Hsiung to courageously break her own silence of childhood sexual abuse and while filming her case went to court. The Apology is slated for release later this year.
At a time when couture designers are being called out for their appropriative practices, the work of fashion line NORBLACK NORWHITE (NBNW) is a lesson in ethical partnership building. NBNW — described as part anthropological experiment, part art and part fashion — is inspired by everything from ancient Indian textile design to Michael Jackson. It was created by Toronto-raised designers Mriga Kapadiya and Amrit Kumar after they decided to leave their jobs in corporate advertising and move to India. Hungry to feed their artistic cravings, they travelled the country and became fascinated with the rapidly disappearing ancient practices of artisan communities. They began studying traditional textile design and creation, and emerged with an aesthetic of bold colours and patterns. Their work has been featured in Wallpaper, Fader, I-D Magazine and Vogue and they were named by Frida Gianinni (former creative director of Gucci) as her favourite young designers from India.
The first time I heard the voice of Rosina Kazi was back in 2006. I had just finished marching across Bloor Street with No One is Illegal and found myself at Dufferin Grove Park, immediately mesmerized by the voice on stage singing one of the most beautifully affirming protest songs I had ever heard: "Brown Eyed Warrior." Lead singer of the electronic group LAL (alongside Nicholas Murray), Kazi has been making music for almost 15 years. Raised on Bengali folk music, Kazi has always recognized the intersection between politics and art, and this understanding has led her to extend her skills to help support artist development. She has also been a prominent voice in recent discussions around issues of racism in the Canadian music industry. Recognizing the dearth of queer-positive artistic spaces for people of colour, Kazi co-created Unit 2, a radical arts-invested community space in Toronto that hosts parties, performances and panels for individuals interested in building progressive communities dedicated to transformative change. If you're in Toronto, you can see Kazi on stage tonight in celebration of International Women's Day at the MOD Club.
Kama La Mackerel is a powerhouse of creative energy and purposeful activism. Since arriving in Montreal by way of Mauritius via India, they have been creating, performing and curating non-stop: co-founding arts festivals (Qouleur Festival), creating and hosting monthly open mics (Gender B(L)ender) and curating caberets (Self-Love Cabaret: l'amour se conjugue à la première personne). La Mackerel's current project From Thick Skin to Femme Armour uses sculptures, outfits, photography, films, performance, articles and workshops to explore the lives of transfemmes of colour both today and throughout history. Rather than being a 101 education project for non-trans people, this work is an affirmation of existence for a transfemme community who continue to create, care, love and thrive in the midst of tangible and intersecting realities of oppression. Resistance is a key theme in this work and is defined through the everyday fact of existence and resilience. La Mackerel states: "I base this project on recognizing that just the fact of leaving one's house everyday, the act of putting oneself in the public sphere is an act of resistance." Get to know La Mackerel here.
Les Femmes Fatales is the only burlesque troupe for women of colour in Canada and founder Dainty Smith has described them as "fierce, flawed, fabulous women with red lipstick." Through Les Femmes Fatales, Smith has curated a series of events that bring bodies, narratives and soundtracks to the stage in a manner rarely seen in the world of burlesque. Utilizing her background in acting and storytelling, Smith is a powerhouse of humour, wit and theatricality to witness on-stage. Her performance alter ego, Dainty Box, is a powerful, demanding, charismatic and dangerous hostess and dancer who skillfully holds her audience in the palm of her hand with each arched eyebrow and sly hip rotation. During an interview with Vintage Vixen, she reminisced on how she would often root for the Hollywood film noir femmes fatales character inevitably destined for either tragedy or repentance. "I saw them as women who had armour and who were dangerous because they weren't sorry and they knew what they wanted out of life," she said. "They wanted to survive, they wanted to thrive and they would do that by any means necessary."
In a world where our eyes are more often fastened to our electronic devices rather than making real contact with the humans around us, the work of Patsy Van Roost — also known as "The Mile End Fairy" — seems almost magical. In 2013, she began clandestinely orchestrating small artistic participative actions with the hope that each one would get her neighbours to look up, begin to talk and build a community as they wondered about the art and the person behind it. Using simple materials from her studio, Van Roost inspired community members through devices that were not made with wires or chips but rather silk screens, stitching and stencils. She curated shared experiences. For more on her story, click here.