Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 19 August 2019

Middle East is stitched into roster of Toronto's first biennial

Co-curator Tairone Bastien tells us what to expect from the city’s inaugural biennial

Dubai artists Ramin Haerizadeh, Rokni Haerizadeh and Hesam Rahmanian will show ‘Lo’Bat’ in Toronto. Photo by Andrea Rossetti / Courtesy of OGR Torino and the artists
Dubai artists Ramin Haerizadeh, Rokni Haerizadeh and Hesam Rahmanian will show ‘Lo’Bat’ in Toronto. Photo by Andrea Rossetti / Courtesy of OGR Torino and the artists

For years, Toronto, despite its well-known film festival, major universities and strong contemporary art scene, has been missing one of the every-two-year events by which cities put their names on the roving art world itinerary: a Toronto biennial. That is set to change, with the city’s first biennial being launched next month, co-organised by a former Alserkal Avenue curator and one of the curators of this year’s Canadian Pavilion at the Venice Biennale.

Co-curator Tairone Bastien, who was in the UAE for six years at the Tourism Development & Investment Company and Alserkal Avenue, says there had been discussions, “but there was really no pressing reason for it”. But a few years ago, local arts professionals started thinking about the city’s waterfront – a once industrial zone on Lake Ontario that is being gentrified – as a way to address larger histories and contemporary issues around Toronto. What a biennial could accomplish became clear, and plans for a citywide art exhibition were put in motion.

“It was then two years since Canada 150, which was the national celebration of the founding of the country,” recalls Bastien. “At that moment there was a strong pushback from indigenous communities, and a move to critique the Canadian myth. What is Canada? What is the makeup of Canada? Has the multicultural vision worked when you have so many indigenous and immigrant communities feeling like they are not being listened to? It became a turning point for this conversation publicly, even the discussion had been going on for a long time, and certainly the arts community was for the most part on the side of the indigenous community.”

The city decided to host the Toronto Biennial of Art on the lakefront area, which was also the primary site for travel, trade, and settlement among the First Nation communities that preceded the founding of modern Toronto. The foundation selected Bastien, who had moved back from Dubai, as curator and as senior curator chose Candice Hopkins, who has done extensive research and curatorial work around questions of indigeneity.

“All these histories and all these different perspectives are really at play in a city like Toronto, which is super diverse,” says Bastien. “Dubai is really similar in terms of the level of diversity. And I don’t think Toronto has yet had a satisfying response to the new voices in the city.”

Bastien and Hopkins, who will curate this year’s event and the biennial in 2021, decided to frame their response around the idea of relationality, or how artists understand themselves in relation to other people, communities, and also – reflecting the growing importance of environmental and animal concerns in contemporary art discourse – to non-human species and the environment. The exhibition will be spread across 15 venues, and includes works from a mix of Canadian and international artists. Due to the time Bastien spent in the UAE, there are several regional artists on the roster for next month’s show.

Tairone Bastien was instrumental in setting up Alserkal Avenue’s exhibition programme. Courtesy Toronto Biennial
Tairone Bastien was instrumental in setting up Alserkal Avenue’s exhibition programme. Courtesy Toronto Biennial

For example, trio of artists who work in Dubai, Ramin Haerizadeh, Rokni Haerizadeh and Hesam Rahmanian, will show one of their most iconic projects, Lo’Bat, an embroidered parachute they made in collaboration with women in the region. The work epitomises the biennial’s idea of working as a mode of relations among different members of a community.

“It was important for me, having spent six years in the UAE, to draw on the artists I met and befriended and worked with there,” Bastien says. “I’ve always been fascinated by Rokni, Ramin and Hesam’s methodology, which is to invite others to participate in the making of the work in a way that preserves these collaborators’ own subjective voices. They are very generous in that sense and they allow others to steer their work.”

It was important for me, having spent six years in the UAE, to draw on the artists I met and befriended and worked with there.

Tairone Bastien

They made Lo’Bat with the artist Niyaz Azadikhah, who had been working with women from marginalised communities in Tehran. The artists asked the women to embroider their greatest fears on a white silk parachute, as a means of “catharsis, or processing their grief”, says Bastien. “Most of them stitched something happening to their children or commented on the instabilities of their lives in Tehran.”

The three artists then worked with a Catalan puppeteer who engineered the parachute, which is about 15 metres in diameter, so that it would close when visitors approached it – almost as a way of hiding their pain or performing the isolation of these communities. “It’s a beautiful relationship between the viewer and the work, and the individuals that participated within it,” says Bastien.

He has brought other regional artists to the exhibition.

In a new commission, Turkish artist Hera Buyuktasciyan, who shows at Green Art Gallery in Dubai, will show carpets embroidered with ethnic motifs from the Toronto area, a work called Destroy Your House, Build Up a Boat, Save Life. Abbas Akhavan, an Iranian artist who shows at The Third Line in Dubai, will create a sculpture around Assyrian deity Lamassu. Palestinian artist Jumana Manna will show her sculptures inspired by the “khabya”, a traditional means of storing seeds in the Levant. And the curators are working with Hajra Waheed, who grew up in Saudi Arabia and lives in Montreal, on work for both biennials, including an ambitious project that will be realised in 2021.

The title for Hera Büyüktaşcıyan's 'Destroy Your House, Build Up a Boat, Save Life!', 2015-16, is from a description of the Great Flood taken from a cuneiform tablet found in Babylon – and refers equally to the contemprary refugee crisis. Büyüktaşcıyan will show work in the first Toronto Biennial in September. Photo: Miriam O’Connor. Courtesy the artist, Green Art Gallery and EVA International    
Turkey’s Hera Buyuktasciyan’s ‘Destroy Your House, Build Up a Boat, Save Life’ uses carpets embroidered with ethnic motifs from the Toronto area.

Bastien, 43, a thoughtful, Vancouver native, worked at the well-­regarded arts agency Performa in New York before moving to the UAE in 2011. He was instrumental in setting up Alserkal Avenue’s exhibition programme, which continues in the pop-up spaces around the Yard. One of his commissions, Mary Ellen Carroll’s The Circle Game, which responds to two frequent questions heard in the UAE – “when did you arrive?” and “when will you return?” – still peers over visitors to the Avenue.

“I moved to the UAE because I wanted to see the world from a different angle,” he says. “When you’re in the UAE, when you’re in Alserkal, it’s a different centre. Now that I’ve returned to Canada, I’m bringing back that greater awareness of what’s going in the world.”

The Toronto Biennial of Art will run from Saturday, September 21 until Sunday, December 1

Updated: August 5, 2019 07:24 PM

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