7 Must-Know Artists Shaping The Canadian Arts Scene

Oct 03 2019 by
Categories : Art & Design

The Canadian arts scene is expanding to include more events and voices. We meet seven creative innovators in the thick of the movement.

Georgia Dickie

For someone like me, who agonizes over writing just about anything, speaking with installation artist Georgia Dickie feels more like attending a TED Talk than conducting an interview: She’s competent and motivating. Dickie approaches her art, which relies on “found objects,” in a happy and seemingly effortless way. It’s not what one expects in this age of solastalgia. Maybe that’s why Hedi Slimane’s team at Celine chose to install one of the 30-year-old’s pieces in the new Rue Duphot boutique in Paris’ most fashionable shopping district. That piece, called Smile (2013), is composed of salvaged wood pieces connected by rubber stanchions (those ropes we see in airport or VIP lines) that are strung between them to resemble a droopy grin.

We’re in the middle of a summer heat wave, and Dickie, who is working on a new exhibition, Agouti Sky, which opens on October 6 at Oakville Galleries in Ontario, has no air conditioning in her studio. It’s a good thing, though, she reasons, because it forces her to work in the mornings, when it’s still cool. “A piece might take me a year to complete or it might take me five minutes,” she explains. “My best works are the ones that were made really quickly because I didn’t have as much time to worry about them.”

Dickie is not one to intellectualize her art yet concedes that she feels a need to aestheticize garbage. “I think we’re going to have to figure out a way to discover the potential of waste as opposed to trying to get rid of it – because it’s not going anywhere,” she says, explaining that the “found objects” used in her work are anything from a scrap of Christmas gift wrap to rusted metal found on the street.

Despite having been raised in a creative family – her father, Ron Dickie, works in film, and her mother is designer Judy Cornish of Comrags – Dickie says she never imagined becoming an artist simply because she couldn’t draw or paint very well. But a teenage interest in the work of Joseph Cornell left her toiling away on shadow boxes of her own, and eventually a bare-bones portfolio got her into Ontario College of Art and Design (OCAD). (Despite her formal training, she never buys supplies. “I can’t go into art stores at all,” she says. “I totally flounder.”)

Her upbeat approach to art is enough to make me direct-message a friend of hers, designer Warren Steven Scott, and ask, “Is Georgia as positive and easygoing as she seems?” Seconds later, he responds. “Yes,” he writes. “She is proactive and encouraging. She doesn’t deal with the BS.” (Scott and Dickie recently travelled to Men’s Fashion Week in Paris at the invitation of Celine and stopped in to see Smile. “It was very surreal to be there and see it in person,” she admits.)

While Dickie avoids overthinking her art, Oakville Galleries curator Frances Leoffler sees a direct link between Dickie’s output and contemporary art movements such as Arte Povera and Surrealism, albeit with a consumption bent to it all. “We are quick to acquire and discard objects without realizing that many will continue to exist for decades and probably outlive us all,” explains Leoffler. “Her work presses ‘pause’ on that process, asking us to regard everyday objects with a new sense of attention and care.”

That’s something Dickie touches on in our conversation. “I know it sounds a little bit cheesy, but I don’t express myself through materials – materials express themselves through me,” she says. “I feel like the conduit.” Regardless of who is doing the talking, Dickie’s talent speaks for itself.

Text by Jacquelyn Francis

Smile, 2013


Dr. Elizabeth “Dori” Turnstall

OCAD University’s Dean of the faculty of design, Dr. Elizabeth Tunstall, has a bright corner office in downtown Toronto that’s as sunny and authentic as her Instagram persona #DeanDrag. Since becoming dean in August 2016, “Dori,” as she is affectionately known to friends, has embraced Instagram to capture the attention of the next generation of great design minds. Tunstall’s love of self-expression is evident in her canary-gold silk-dupion Ghanaian-wax-print pantsuit, which flares out over black Fluevog heels, and the stunning emerald and silver hoop earrings from OCAD graduate Eugenia Chan that hang off her earlobes. In a world of flashy images, Tunstall sees social media as a way to reach the student population – specifically youth of colour. “I want to show them that this is what it means to be a black female dean of the largest and oldest art and design institution in Canada while still being authentically myself in any space,” she says. Before she was this “first,” Tunstall was a creative young girl taking weekend art classes in Indianapolis at the Herron School of Art and Design. She says her time as an undergraduate at Pennsylvania’s liberal arts women’s college Bryn Mawr was “transformational,” propelling her further into academia and eventually leading her to receive a Ph.D. in anthropology from Stanford. Now Tunstall strives to use her knowledge of anthropology and design to decolonize work. “Once you understand the history of design, you can then find alternative ways of approaching it – from the perspectives of cultures all over the world – that don’t involve cultural exploitation,” she says. “You have all the tools you need to make the world a better place.”

Text by Byron Armstrong


Sara Elgamal

Vibrant-coloured fabrics in shades of magenta, orange and yellow billow against the desert landscape, enveloping and illuminating the women in them. Sara Elgamal quietly takes a seat beside me as her latest project, A Piece of Me, plays in a loop on the walls of a darkened gallery in the Toronto Media Arts Centre, immersing us in the lives of Abida, Zahra and Khadija—mothers and leaders in their communities and survivors of female genital mutilation. For her directorial debut, the 31-year-old Toronto-based filmmaker travelled to the Afar region of Ethiopia with the United Nations Population Fund to create a campaign to spread awareness of the practice, which affects 200 million women and girls today. Behind the film’s stunning visuals was inspiration from an unexpected source: the fantastical and ethereal beauty of fashion editorials. “I wanted to celebrate the women’s strength, resilience and stories despite their traumas,” she says. To do this, she plans to show the film around the world. As she aims to shift the perceptions of under-represented regions and people, Elgamal recognizes that she’s also carving a path for others who want to follow in her footsteps. “You’ll always have to go 110 percent as a woman of colour in this industry,” she says. “But I truly believe that if you’re passionate and committed to doing your best work, [the work] will be undeniable.”

Text by Erica Ngao 

Still from A Piece of Me


Kablusiak

When Kablusiak found out that they were one of five people shortlisted for the Sobey Art Award – the country’s pre-eminent prize for emerging contemporary artists – they were in Stockholm for a group show with others who had been up for the award in previous years. “It was really great universal timing,” says Kablusiak. Currently based in Mohkínstsis – the Blackfoot name for Calgary – the 26-year-old Inuvialuk artist and curator uses humour to explore the Inuit diaspora through a variety of media, from soapstone carving to animation. Like all of us scrolling on our phones, the artist looks to pop culture and social media (their favourite Instagram account is @decolonial.meme.queens) for inspiration, especially around conversations on modern Indigeneity. “We have a shared history of colonialism, but it differs in every part of Canada, and it’s funny to find a common ground and be able to laugh through stuff that’s really heavy,” they say. Between an upcoming residency at the Yukon School of Visual Arts and co-curating the inaugural exhibit at Winnipeg’s forthcoming Inuit Art Centre, Kablusiak is making strides in their career and taking along the most important lessons they’ve learned so far. “It’s okay to know what your limits are, and it’s really important to prioritize your mental health – and you,” they say. “Without you, there’s nobody to make the art.”

Text by Erica Ngao 

Kablusiak pictured in North Mart, 2018


Hajra Waheed

For Calgary-born, Montreal-based Hajra Waheed, a career in art was, it seems, destined. “My mother was an abstract painter and stopped when I was born, but she craved colour throughout her pregnancy,” the multidisciplinary artist says. “She would tell me stories that she would set me down [as early as age two] with paper and a pencil and I would just draw for hours.” A lot has happened (art school in Chicago, odd jobs, even putting aside making art for a couple of years) to transform Waheed – who says she needs to make art to “process my lived experiences and the world” – from a doodling toddler into the internationally acclaimed artist she is today. (Her work can be found at the National Gallery of Canada and the MoMA, and she was shortlisted for the 2016 Sobey Art Award.) This fall, Waheed is one of more than 90 artists participating in the first-ever Toronto Biennial of Art, a 72-day event (from September 21 to December 1) featuring exhibitions and installations along Lake Ontario. It’s a process Waheed has relished. “Biennials have the capacity to create generative spaces, asking important questions and highlighting the importance of art as a way to live and interact in the world,” she says. “I don’t have all the answers, but I’m interested in challenging viewers’ perceptions of official narratives.” Something to ponder as you stroll the waterfront this fall.

Text by Patricia Karounos

Video Installation Project 1-10, 2011-2013


Alexandra McIntosh

It’s a tale as old as Canada itself: In a country as vast and geographically diverse as the one we call home, where, exactly, does our national identity stem from? It’s a conundrum that extends to our artists, says Alexandra McIntosh, director of programs and exhibitions at artist-residency venue Fogo Island Arts in Newfoundland and Labrador. “Canadian artists are definitely engaging in the global conversation around contemporary art, but at the same time, I think there is a tendency within Canada to regionalize artistic practices,” she says, adding that many arts programs and grants encourage this mindset. Of course, it’s natural for artists to be influenced by their environment, but McIntosh doesn’t want it to mean that bigger ideas are sacrificed. “It’s a difficult balance but one that needs to be addressed,” she says. “If we focus too inwardly, [art] loses its relevance to the rest of the world and, therefore, doesn’t offer an openness to people from outside.” The solution, McIntosh hopes, is giving more time and support to artists, allowing them to develop their own perspective. At Fogo Island Arts, artists are invited to come and do just that: freely experiment in a new setting and create work outside their comfort zones. “It’s really about sharing perspectives and different ways of making your place in the world.”

Text by Patricia Karounos

Artist-in-residence Kate Newby in Fogo Island Arts’ Tower Studio


Ashley McKenzie-Barnes

When you’re a person of colour in art school, you quickly realize one thing, as Ashley McKenzie-Barnes did: Most canonical works come from the same place. “I grew up on Western European art – that’s essentially what art history is,” says the Toronto-based curator, who has worked with the Toronto Harbourfront Centre and on the campaign for Lauryn Hill’s fashion collection. It’s from that traditional background – which can be exclusionary for people of colour – that McKenzie-Barnes got the idea for the theatrical Queens and Kings of Scarborough, the project she’s putting together for this year’s all-night art event Nuit Blanche. “I wanted to flip it with contemporary artists who are relevant now and could be understood and digested by the patrons of Scarborough,” says McKenzie-Barnes, whose exhibit will put the spotlight on local artists, like pop artist Maria Qamar (a.k.a. @Hatecopy). “I really was big on capturing artists who are creating legacy and understand the importance of celebrating their community.” The curator looks at shows like these as an opportunity to expand our idea of who we recognize as landmark artists. “We know the Group of Seven, but I don’t know that I’d be able to ask somebody ‘Who’s a legacy artist of colour that you know?’” says McKenzie-Barnes, pointing out that institutions often bring in the work of international artists of colour, like Mickalene Thomas, but provide less support for homegrown talent. “Those shows are amazing, but there’s still room for Canadian ones as well.” Make way for the new royals.

Text by Patricia Karounos

Manifesto, 2018, by @Hatecopy

Categories: Art & Design