These Black Toronto photographers are using their cameras to create the world they want to see
'I can't help but wonder what kinds of worlds these artists will breathe into a post-pandemic Toronto'
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 Amani Bin Shikhan.
Recently, I've been thinking about worlds — how we make small worlds to cope with our collective one, who and what informs said makings. What makes a world a world? How do we share that with each other? Last summer, while scrolling, I kept coming across the work of Jorian Charlton, a Toronto-based portrait photographer, specifically these images. In each portrait, Charlton's subject sits or lays out or stands on their own terms. Each time, Charlton gets right in their world — not the other way around. In following more of her work, I grew more curious about the worlds that visual artists, photographers especially, were constructing. How do they look at the city? How does it look back? And what happens, there, in the middle of that relationship?
For this piece, I spoke with Roya DelSol, a photographer, director, and curator concerned with exploring visual art "as a tool of knowledge transfer and safekeeping," and with William Ukoh (a.k.a. willyverse), the fashion photographer and director creating a visual language of his own, influenced by his time living in both Toronto and Lagos, Nigeria. I also spoke with the team at the mentorship program Shoot For Peace, including its photographer-slash-cartoonist founder Yasin Osman, art director Asmaa Bana, and two of the program's participants, Yasmine Omar and Layla Berih. Through their respective journeys, each photographer reveals their curiosities around worlds and what makes them. And with their work, each artist shows us what their Toronto looks like, too.
"My journey as a photographer has very much been a self-directed one," DelSol tells me over email. Before the popular Margin of Eras Gallery closed their doors, she worked as their gallery coordinator, liaising with local artists and expertly actualizing their vision. In her work (with the gallery and CUE, as well as independently), DelSol has dreamed up worlds through portraiture photography, directing, editing, and curating. As a self-taught artist and queer Caribbean person, DelSol's ties to Toronto — particularly her Toronto — run deep and strong. Community and creation are in constant communication within DelSol. ("I'm very blessed to be friends with other Black women photographers such as Brianna Roye and Jorian Charlton who I've been able to be inspired by, learn from, and grow alongside," she writes.) That rootedness pushes her to challenge herself, embracing complexity, honesty, and constant change in and through her work (and outside of it) in hopes of dreaming something better, more elastic and life-affirming.
The successes she has found as a photographer include a recent and highly coveted milestone: her first billboard at Toronto's Yonge-Dundas Square. "I often find myself not wanting to exist in this world that currently exists," she says. "I'm hoping that work I make in the future is more magical, more surreal, more rooted in ancestral veneration, knowledge, and ways of being."
When I ask Ukoh who he thinks his audience is, he first answers me seriously, then laughs: "I don't think I want to know because I'm not selling a product." He got into photography after fiddling with a DSLR his sister brought home for a school assignment; soon, he bought one himself and started shooting. Growing up in Lagos before moving to Canada in 2006, Ukoh's sensibilities — photographic and otherwise — are devoid of generalized themes of diaspora found in much of the works of 1.5- and second-generation artists. Instead, Ukoh creates vivid worlds of his own. For GQ's 2019 Man Of The Year issue, Ukoh photographed "Pop Sensation of the Year" Maluma and placed him against the clouds, cartoonish and bright — a perfect set-up for the fantastical Reggaeton artist.
"In Nigeria, [I didn't] look at photography as an art form. I knew it as general documentation," he explains to me of his process, and the imagining he needed to do to make a career. But in 2014, during a trip home to Lagos, Ukoh felt a shift. "[I knew] how I wanted my pictures to look and what style I wanted to use," he says. "When I came back to Toronto, I was feeling excited about all the colours I was exposed to in Nigeria, [especially when] compared to how grey things were in Toronto. I wanted to bring that colour and feeling that I had." And so he did, employing the use of coloured backdrops, edits and design that created "full-on worlds."
When I ask Asmaa Bana to describe her practice to me, she offers this list: "artistic, futuristic, juxtaposition." In her role as a photographer, Bana creates editorial portraits, often collaborating with friends and fellow entrepreneurs. Early on, though, Bana struggled to find her style and felt stuck. "I wish I had a group of mentors for guidance," she says. And so when Yasin Osman — photographer, cartoonist, and founder of Shoot For Peace — reached out to her about joining the team, Bana jumped at the opportunity. Established in 2015, Shoot For Peace was born out of a desire to "create an opportunity for youth to be introduced to art through photography," Osman tells me over email. Photography was a tool he used when he needed it in order to make sense of his world and the breakneck speed of life-changing moments within it. He wanted to help other people — particularly youth from his neighbourhood, and neighbourhoods similar to it — find that feeling, too. "I had no intention of expanding the program [beyond that]," he says. "It was built because of an immediate need to support youth dealing with loss."
I asked two of the Shoot For Peace's mentees, Layla Berih and Yasmine Omar, about their time with the program and their experiences as young people interested in photography more generally. "[My work is] influenced by people's experiences in Toronto; the stories that they tell are, after all, what shapes the city," Berih tells me. And that shared language — culturally and visually — is what made the S.F.P. collective appealing to her.
That rang true for Omar too, an ambitious student looking for a supportive creative community to land on. "A barrier for me was living in [the city's] west end. There were little to no photography programs or classes," she says. So when Omar saw that Osman was holding interviews to find new Queens — the girls group of the collective — she decided to get in touch. "Shoot For Peace provided me with things I never thought of when I first joined," she says. "Mentorship taught me a lot of what I know about photography, but also taught me way more than just how to work a camera." In one-on-one and group sessions, the participants of the program would figure out what they saw and experienced together. "Being a Black Muslim woman," adds Berih, "a lot of the people I know have beautiful and complex stories to tell about the city."
In all these conversations, a pattern made itself apparent: each artist had a moment of clarity that led them to the work they now create. For some, it was a moment of rest or passive intrigue; for others, it was having safe, like-minded people who encouraged them to take a leap and figure it out. I can't help but wonder what kinds of worlds these artists and the communities they return to will breathe into a post-pandemic Toronto, and what the world of this city can — and will — look like in the aftermath of so much altering. In the midst of all this change emerges exciting potential.
"I'm seeing a lot of seeds being plants in Black artistic communities [in Toronto] that I'm really excited about," DelSol says, mentioning Exposure Toronto, who are "[working] to create accessible physical space, provide tangible resources, and create welcoming online spaces for Black creative communities." Still, there are gaps. "People know what they want, but they don't know the right questions to ask," Ukoh says when asked about unmet professional needs. "I think if people just had more information, in general, about what this space is, I think we could advance faster."
DelSol and Berih take it even further, emphasizing that it's a combination of safety, comfort, and connection that births resonant art. "I want to make work that inspires people to tell their stories," Berih says. "I want to see more expansive art, art that's not just confined [to] one genre — [art that] overlaps and expands creativity."
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.