For 15 years, this Toronto artist hasn't gone anywhere without a camera

Art, music, nightlife: Kalmplex documents it all. "It's like a time capsule of Toronto from my perspective."

Art, music, nightlife: Kalmplex documents it all. 'It's like a time capsule of Toronto from my perspective'

Kalmplex is a Toronto-based photographer, artist and filmmaker. (Photo: Soteeoh/Courtesy of Kalmplex)

Long before we became acquainted, I knew Kalmplex. I would see them in the front row at hip hop shows. I would spot their massive locs in the crowd of every art exhibit. I'd see the glint of their camera lens at countless panels and keynotes.

For almost two decades, Kalmplex has been a guaranteed fixture in Toronto's art and music communities, supporting both emerging and established creatives while archiving moments that the mainstream media has ignored.

Recently, Kalmplex's own art took centre stage. Several of their acrylic and oil paintings appeared at The Freedom Factory last week as part of a group exhibition. Their long-held fascination with people has extended into the art they create. Kalmplex's canvases are consumed by large faces whose exaggerated features demand the viewer's complete attention. They're often portraits of people we all know: Rihanna, Yasiin Bey, Malcolm X. Others portray figures from Kalmplex's personal life.

Marsha P. Johnson portrait by Kalmplex. (Courtesy of the artist)

Growing up at the crossroads between Little Jamaica and Forest Hill, Kalmplex has been drawing and painting for most of their life. They've also been carrying a camera every day for the past 15 years.

Photos sometimes inspire Kalmplex's paintings, but they shoot pictures for another purpose. Scrolling through Kalmplex's Vimeo and YouTube channels is like taking a trip in a time machine. I stumbled onto DJ sets by hip hop legends, snippets from experimental theatre shows I'd always wanted to see and even a panel I'd forgotten I facilitated. The footage is very raw and sometimes a little shaky, but it's there. In many cases these were events and moments that mainstream media didn't cover, so Kalmplex's footage is the only documentation.

I have long wondered what drives them to keep providing this unpaid labour for Toronto artists. Earlier this week, I spoke with Kalmplex about their art, their relationship with this city and why they became so determined to document culture in Toronto.

Amanda Parris: When did you come up with the name Kalmplex? How did it come to you?

Kalmplex: It was like back in the early 2000s. I was DJing and I was just like, "Yo, what's the vibe? Who am I?" And it's Kalmplex. I'm calm but there's so much complexity to me. I was meditating on it and it just came.

In the decade that I've known you, I don't think I've ever seen you without a camera. What gave you that idea to one day say, "I'm going to carry a camera everywhere I go?"

When we were going to raves I would dance and then when I started to document culture in Toronto — and specifically focusing on Black people — I was like, "OK, I can't really dance and take the photos." So I just focused on capturing our essence because everyone's just trying to erase Blackness and a lot of people who aren't Black are stealing from us. And I just wanted to make sure that the history was recorded from a Black person's perspective. [Plus] my handwriting is not the greatest. So I was just like, "This could be the journal." I'm at like six events in one night for 20 years. There's a lot of things that I don't remember. So [I] just keep the camera and that's the journal.

LAL performing on Toronto's Martin Goodman Trail. (Kalmplex)

There are so many talented people in Toronto and this is way before everyone was talking about Toronto. I'm just like — I'm special. I'm going to be somebody. And the people that I know and I see, they are somebody. People need to know who we are. When I was younger I remember all these great people like John Lennon or Michael Jackson, they'd have archives of who they are, where they've been. If nobody's doing that for Toronto, nobody's gonna know the greatness. I think I'm great so I need to document my history because y'all need to know who I am.

And then it just had to go from beyond me to everyone else because everyone else in the city has made me who I am. So I wanted to represent that.

You're going to six events every night. Why?

This is back when I was DJing with vinyl and being a part of different groups and collectives and throwing parties. I've always loved music, so listening to live bands and live recordings just feeds my soul. We were slinging mix tapes on the corners; we were going to different events because we're also promoting parties.

You need to be everywhere to hear and see but also to get your stuff out and be seen. You want to shine your light so you can't stay in your house — especially when the internet wasn't really popping back then. So you had to be out there. That was the way.

Phife Dawg performs at Big Ticket. (Kalmplex)

What are some of the collectives and groups that you were a part of?

Back then I was part of Chicks Dig It. It was an all-female DJ collective. When we were rhyming we had our crews.

It wasn't even that I was rolling with anybody. I see people and I'd buck up with people. I'm by myself going to five, six events because I can't do that with other people. So DeeJay Nana had Monday nights at Alto Basso. DJ Fase at NASA. Fez Boutique was popping on Thursdays. Wednesdays there was Rileys. And then there's Uno Mas, there was Roxy Blu, so it was like house jams. There was tech house going on. Then you had your raves, you had your jungle parties. You had System Sound Bar, Thymeless that just went down. I'm also DJing, so I'm trying to hear the new music. I'm playing the music and I'm just catching the vibe because we want to create the vibe. And we are the vibe. So that's what was poppin'.

Now we don't really have those venues. Now it's like bottle service. People aren't even dancing. You're like holding up the wall. We're not going to be great if we're not creating and we're not fixating on the culture as opposed to just looking good and faking it. So I was a part of doing. Back in the day if you sucked onstage, we were throwing bottles at you. That's where I come from. That's the pedigree — screwface capital real talk. When we were rolling on the streets we were out till 3 to 5 a.m. after the jam and freestyling and talking about our stories. That was the core. We were creating the heart of what is now.

Black Lives Matter Toronto march at Pride. (Kalmplex)

So you've been observing, documenting, archiving for over a decade in this city. What other changes have you observed?

[The] places that we used to go to listen to live music now are condos where people don't want to hear live music. But we're supposed to be billed as a world class music city, an art scene. But [now] we don't actually have the facilities to house the arts. I've seen that happen.

What do you want to do with your archives?

I want to make a movie. I want that Oscar. The focus was preservation of culture and so much has gone by.

It's like a time capsule of Toronto from my perspective — encompassing queer culture, straight culture, Black culture, white culture, other cultures all together because I've been everywhere. Yes, I've been documenting Black people and that's the focus because I want to make sure that we're not erased. But I've been with everyone, in all these worlds that a lot of people weren't necessarily privy to.

You've spent so much time documenting other people. How do you want to be remembered?

I want to be remembered as a shining beacon of light that was here to bring people together [and] help heal the world because we're in pain right now. I just want to help bring us together so that we can get out of the mental slavery, the spiritual warfare, the not loving each other. We've got to figure this out because the system that we're living in is not working and we've got to break it. I'm here to break it. So I want to be remembered as a catalyst, a positive light that is helping people grow and learn and love themselves — figuring out how to love yourselves because it takes us a while to figure out how to love ourselves, especially if we're growing up in systems that hate us. I'm just trying to do that in whatever form that comes in, through art or whatever. So that's how I want to be remembered: smiling, loving, looking fresh.

Look at God when you look in the mirror. Know that. We are spirits in this human body and we all have a purpose. No matter how dark the skies are, the sun is always shining. So just know that there is light. That's what I want to be remembered for: for being a light.

Self portrait by Kalmplex. (Courtesy of the artist)

This conversation has been edited and condensed.


Amanda Parris writes a weekly column for CBC Arts and is the host of Exhibitionists on CBC Television and Marvin's Room on CBC Radio. In her spare time, she writes plays and watches too many movies. In her past lives she wrote arts based curriculum, attended numerous acting auditions, and dreamed of being interviewed by Oprah.