Reconstructing Identities - Through the People We are Looking at Ourselves at Cooper Cole Gallery

We are fractured in the world.

I don’t want to talk about diaspora anymore. I want to create spaces to think about it. Mobility is necessary and luxurious and peculiar given our past. We care about where things go. We don’t want these objects to be feeding those systems. This is a site of intimacy and vulnerability- that is in our portraits. His presence with vulnerability bridges. The contradictions should be visible.

I want the contradictions to be visible.  -Tau Lewis / Curtis Santiago / Magdalyn Asimakis

Installation Shot (Photo courtesy Cooper Cole Gallery © 2017 Cooper Cole Gallery)

Installation Shot (Photo courtesy Cooper Cole Gallery © 2017 Cooper Cole Gallery)

Installation Shot (Photo courtesy Cooper Cole Gallery © 2017 Cooper Cole Gallery)

Installation Shot (Photo courtesy Cooper Cole Gallery © 2017 Cooper Cole Gallery)

Installation Shot (Photo courtesy Cooper Cole Gallery © 2017 Cooper Cole Gallery)

Installation Shot (Photo courtesy Cooper Cole Gallery © 2017 Cooper Cole Gallery)

A recurring theme I have noticed throughout the Toronto art scene most recently has been the exploration of identities – whether that is Claire Greenshaw’s feminist approach at looking at the female identity through language and its representation, to Ydessa Hendeles current show at the Power Plant, which explores her personal narrative and distortions and perceptions of minorities within the broader context of a western society. This makes me wonder; is this current “movement” a symptom of our current political landscape? With Trump mobilizing a scary marginal few into the mainstream, it is important to have these sorts of discussions and spaces of contemplation. Understanding these different identities and having access to these personal narratives provides us with tools and the ability for compassion, understanding and knowledge.

Through the People We are Looking at Ourselves currently on view at Cooper Cole Gallery falls into this recurring theme. This two-person show investigates what it means to be black (for these artists specifically) as well as their identity seen and appropriated within the Canadian context (a predominantly Eurocentric establishment).

Sculpture, is Tau Lewis’ main medium of attempting to reconcile and present her identity as half Jamaican, half Canadian. These sculptures seem to be unfinished and created with found materials such as denim, wire, plants, fur, the artist’s own hair etc. The materials may speak to the world in which Lewis’ inhabits [ie. the greenery or denim representational of the Canada itself (need I remind everyone of the infamous Canadian tuxedo)]. The material and the sculptures  “unfinished” allow for an open end discussion between object and viewer. They are self-portraits made with found objects in her immediate environment. She situates herself within the Canadian context, solidifying not only her presence but the importance of her identity and others by creating a space for which they inhabit. 

The positions of these sculptures can be very telling. All of these “representations” seem docile - trapped in a way. Whether they are tied to a leash, or to a pole, or trapped in a high swing, there is a sense of entrapment. This can be interpreted as issues arising with Lewis’ place within society and wanting to break free from these associations and distortions. Take “Something Joyful” - this made from obviously Canadian based materials. The figure stares at eye level with the viewer. It confronts the viewer, however is stagnate, unable to move or get out. By confronting the viewer, Lewis’ brings forth questions of how we may view “black” people in the context of Canadian landscape and reminding us that she is present and will be.

Tau Lewis, Something Joyful, 2017, Plaster, wire, fur, leather, fabric, pillow stuffing, stones, human hair, acrylic paint, shopping basket, jute, 67 x 20 x 32 in. (Photo courtesy Cooper Cole Gallery © 2017 Cooper Cole Gallery)

Tau Lewis, Something Joyful, 2017, Plaster, wire, fur, leather, fabric, pillow stuffing, stones, human hair, acrylic paint, shopping basket, jute, 67 x 20 x 32 in. (Photo courtesy Cooper Cole Gallery © 2017 Cooper Cole Gallery)

Where I see Lewis’ work as more confrontational and questioning her place within society, I see the works of Curtis Santiago (Talwst) as of a celebration his identity. Also of Caribbean descent, Santiago’s oeuvre has always laid within the context of his identity and within the black historical experience. (Sidenote: his little maquettes are to die for). Here, Santiago takes the tradition of expressionism (a medium of painting originating from Europe) and uses it to present and elevate the black figure. By using contemporary materials and techniques such as spray paint to create a graffiti-esque paintings, Santiago thus creates a more contemporary style of expressionism. I can see references of Basquiat and Kehinde Wiley. (Wiley who also addresses that status of the black figure by creating portraits that play upon the tradition of historical European portraiture). His figures take on a elevated status by using them as the focal point, which is something rather new (as we know, historically black people were usually depicted in a more "primitive", inferior manor). He presents revered goddesses, people who seem to be dancing, embracing - the joys of life. 

Curtis Santiago, Untitled, 2017, spray paint, oil and charcoal on paper, 14.3 x 11.2 in. (Photo courtesy Cooper Cole Gallery © 2017 Cooper Cole Gallery)

Curtis Santiago, Untitled, 2017, spray paint, oil and charcoal on paper, 14.3 x 11.2 in. (Photo courtesy Cooper Cole Gallery © 2017 Cooper Cole Gallery)

Curtis Santiago, Parktown, 2017, pastel, charcoal and spray paint, 16.7 x 20.7 in. (Photo courtesy Cooper Cole Gallery © 2017 Cooper Cole Gallery)

Curtis Santiago, Parktown, 2017, pastel, charcoal and spray paint, 16.7 x 20.7 in. (Photo courtesy Cooper Cole Gallery © 2017 Cooper Cole Gallery)

Curtis Santiago, 1. The Woman of Colour and the Man of Colour, 2. The Man of Colour and the White Woman 2017, pastel, charcoal and watercolour on paper, 20.7 x 16.7 in. (Photo courtesy Cooper Cole Gallery © 2017 Cooper Cole Gallery)

Curtis Santiago, 1. The Woman of Colour and the Man of Colour, 2. The Man of Colour and the White Woman 2017, pastel, charcoal and watercolour on paper, 20.7 x 16.7 in. (Photo courtesy Cooper Cole Gallery © 2017 Cooper Cole Gallery)

This exhibition runs until September 9th. Its worth a visit and maybe a drink afterwards at Blood Brothers Brewery for an interesting chat ;)