WORDS: ALYSSA TRUDEAU
In 2016, Ontario Culture Days launched a new initiative called the Youth Arts Ambassadors Program (YAAP). The program, aimed at fostering and supporting the next generation of community-engaged artists, commissions professional artists up to 30 years of age to create new works of art in their respective regions. The artworks and corresponding public programs are unveiled over the Culture Days weekend. The program also offers the public a behind-the-scenes look into the artists’ creative processes by sharing images, video footage, and written coverage of the artists at work throughout the duration of their YAAP residency.
Culture Days had the chance to speak with Toronto-based YAAP artist Hiba Abdallah about the creative process behind her new artwork, Everything I Wanted to Tell You. The installation will be on display for one night only at the Scarborough Civic Centre during Nuit Blanche Toronto. Nuit Blanche 2018 runs from 7pm on September 29 to 7pm on September 30.
Nearly 20 years ago the borders of Toronto were redrawn. With the amalgamation of Scarborough into the rest of metropolitan Toronto, the merger resulted in one of the biggest mega-cities in North America. However, despite the reorientation of city borders, paled outlines of the preexisting boundaries between downtown and the suburbs, the center and the margins, still remain.
Culture Days Youth Ambassador and artist, Hiba Abdallah, aims to disrupt said boundaries by considering the question, what are the untold stories, secrets and conversations about the places we think we know? Selected as a presenting artist for Nuit Blanche Toronto 2018, Abdallah’s work will speak to the creativity and artistic production that has always existed, and continues to thrive in Scarborough. Abdallah is a text-based artist who often works with others to develop public installations, projects and exhibitions about the narratives of place. Abdallah’s work cultivates a playful yet reverent sense of community that seeks to foster the collective public imagination.
Understanding the narratives and amplifying the voices of a complex community is no easy task, so Abdallah sought to collaborate directly with an inter-generational group of Scarborough residents over the course of her research residency throughout 2018. Abdallah and Nuit Blanche Scarborough Curator, Alyssa Fearon, reached out to local artists and longtime residents of Scarborough to see if they would be interested in taking part in a multi-day workshop. Eleven participants agreed to attend the sessions and share their stories with Abdallah.
“It was important that the stories I collected came from people who have a connection and relationship to Scarborough,” Abdallah explains, “holding in-person workshops allowed for a certain level of intensity that wouldn't otherwise happen.” Working with memories and stories that belong to others is incredibly fragile work. Some of the stories Abdallah collected are fictional, some are confessional and some are real accounts of things that have happened and continue to happen in Scarborough, all of which demand consideration and respect.
Collecting these stories was a process, and working collaboratively naturally produces challenges, which Abdallah often welcomes and learns from. She is grateful that the experience has been very generative and educational thus far: “my collaborators have been so positive and supportive in terms of not only the transparency of experiences, stories and knowledge they shared with me about Scarborough, but also in us spending time in Scarborough learning and visiting places together.” The greatest challenge she now faces as the artist will be making sure that the stories she shares for Nuit Blanche are shown in the most deferential way possible.
Originally, when Aballah pitched her idea to Nuit Blanche, the aim was to collect narratives about Scarborough and present them in some abstract sort of way. However, the artist did not anticipate that the result would be a collection of very rich and deeply personal stories and conversations with different grass root organizations, community leaders, artists and Scarborough residents. Inspired, Abdallah reconsidered the presentation of the stories: “when it came time to think about how the installation was going to come together, it became clear that I really wanted these stories to be seen by others,” Abdallah states, “…I think they are relatable in many ways, but I also felt it was important that they be presented as a part of the larger narrative being told about Scarborough for Nuit Blanche.”
When contemplating how to bring the chorus of Scarborough citizens and their very personal stories to Nuit Blanche, Abdallah wants to ensure that all of Toronto sees the creativity emanating from Scarborough. On the north side of the Scarborough Civic Centre a 25 ft. lit LED-channel sign will read "Everything I Wanted to Tell You". Behind it, 90 ft. projections will fill the building's facade with the stories collected. Every 30 seconds, the story on the building will change and a new narrative appears. Abdallah believes that the malleability of language is especially important here, as it can be extremely direct or very abstract and poetic.
Everything I Wanted to Tell You not only serves to dislodge the borders that remain between Scarborough and Toronto-proper, but also prompts us to reconsider how we can celebrate our differences while embracing our togetherness.
Join Abdallah at Nuit Blanche on September 28, 2018 from sunset to sunrise to see Everything I Wanted to Tell You.
The full collection of stories will be housed at the Doris McCarthy Gallery as part of an extended, in-depth look at Scarborough in Abdallah’s exhibition It can only be this place, opening September 2018.
Nuit Blanche Toronto is a free, annual, city-wide celebration of contemporary art, produced by the City of Toronto in collaboration with Toronto’s arts community. For one sleepless night, from sunset to sunrise, the familiar is discarded and Toronto is transformed into an artistic playground for a series of exhilarating contemporary art experiences in unexpected public spaces. In addition to the downtown exhibition sites, on September 29, 2018 art enthusiasts will be able to experience artworks from local, national and international artists in a dedicated City-produced Nuit Blanche Toronto exhibition at Scarborough Civic Centre, Scarborough Town Centre and neighbouring institutions within the community. The 13th edition of Nuit Blanche Toronto will feature three City-produced exhibitions. Curators were selected by the Nuit Blanche Toronto Artistic Advisory Committee and are working with artists to develop their exhibitions. The 2018 curators are Alyssa Fearon (Toronto), Karen Alexander (UK), and Tairone Bastien (Toronto). All curators will respond to one event-wide theme of "You are Here".
Photos credits (in order of appearance): Rachel Willie; Meaghan Froh Metcalf
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