In Toronto, Black creatives are finding ways to transform the city with powerful public interventions
Public art is an exercise in city-building — and Black artists have been showing us what is possible
Black Light is a column by Governor General Award-winning writer Amanda Parris that spotlights, champions and challenges art and popular culture that is created by Black people and/or centres Black people. While Amanda is away on maternity leave, a different writer will be featured in a guest edition of the column each month. This month's edition is an essay by writer Anique Jordan.
Over the course of a year where outdoor space has taken on new meaning, public art has assumed a special resonance in Toronto, with festivals and galleries looking for ways to provide relief to the enduring pace of quarantine. Murals by graffiti artists and collectives were erected memorializing the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and countless others murdered at the hands of the state. The city of Toronto continued planning towards the Year of Public Art. And in communities all over, the renewed attention to historical monuments, ushered by the work of the Black Lives Matter movement, brought these dated sculptures to their knees.
It is within this context — amongst the ongoing pandemic, the nationwide protests demanding we reject a return to "normal" and the pressing need to think about how we can rebuild a city and construct a future that we may consider — that we find ourselves at a collective impasse. We have an opportunity to rewrite how to share space and care for each other within it. How can we shift our ideas of what public art can truly do and make possible?
Often at great personal risk, artists as caretakers, artists as tradespeople and artists as activists are offering us radical ways of thinking about how we can intervene into and transform our city.
Emblematic of these ideas are the Black history plaques that began popping up in several locations across Toronto as the city began considering whether to rename Dundas Street. These plaques, created by an anonymous artist, replicated Ontario Heritage signs in all forms and detailed the ignored, forgotten and erased histories of slave owners who so many Toronto public spaces are named after. For the short time they were visible in the city, they served as physical markers and reminders that Toronto and Canada chooses to remember its past through omission. They inserted a Black historical presence in a public environment that chooses to not see it. More importantly, for me though, is that they became a symbol of tending to something. The placement of each sign became an act of care.
Beyond traditional art practices, Black innovators are intervening in public spaces in ways that ask us to reconsider what may be possible. Take for example the work of carpenter Khaleel Seivwright. During the fall of 2020, after noticing an increase of tented encampments in Toronto parks, he decided to start building shelters — similar to the one he had made for himself while living in a B.C. commune — to shelter those living outside. What he offered was a response to the urgent need to house people in warm, insulated spaces before the winter. Each tiny house became a home for someone — a safe space, part of a community. His work, now supported by a team of volunteers, is an intervention into public space that has, in many ways, served as a type of pilot into rapid housing, autonomy for vulnerable populations and is for many a lifeline — but has also further shone a light on the ineptitude and inattention paid to housing by the city and province. This work to support particular individuals is not just supporting those individuals — it is changing the city. (The city, for its part, sought a legal injunction to Seivwright and his team from placing new wooden structures in parks.)
The older and more traditional ideas of public art are stuck circling around monuments to colonial figures, many of whom were slaveowners or participated in the design and support of the residential school system. These statues, intended to solidify men of power, stay frozen as though the histories they hold do not continue to impact us. In the summer of 2020, in chorus with a wave of statue felling happening around the world, statues in Toronto of John A. Macdonald and Egerton Ryerson were queered with pink paint and stencils. As an intentional engagement in public space, this intervention — one of several that summer — sparked further conversations around race and racism. This public action as performance, the murals, the paint, the textile banners, the physical occupation of space — the work being done by BLMTO — has always been part of a public art landscape. It's literally shifting the socio-political structures of Toronto and the world over.
Artists are using their collective and individual resources to literally make, perform and share the types of tools, language and skills we need to build something that can feel more healthy, more caring and more welcoming than the structures we have today. This matters more now than ever before because as we actively have conversations about reopening and rebuilding our communities, it's important that we continue to carry with us what we have seen.
There is a certain type of undoing that's come with COVID that has made space for new policies, institutions and ways of thinking of organizing a city. These are things we must consider in reopening it. So many have taken great risks, finding resources that materially and physically show us what may be possible. The artists are showing us a way. Are we listening?
For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.