Currently on display at Gallery 1313 – an independent gallery and community hub in Parkdale – is a dazzling collection of works by five Afro-Canadian artists who have formed a collective by the name of ‘The Six Collective’. No doubt this is a reference to the name for Toronto popularised by Drake. The show is curated by Hollis Alexis Baptiste, who is also one of the participating artists. While the works are quite disparate in style and subject matter they fit together very well. In part this is because of the sheer strength of the works. There are no weak pieces in this show.
Installation view with (L-R) works by Hollis Alexis Baptiste, Stephen Fakiyesi and Shawn Skeir
Baptiste’s curatorial assistant Geneviève Wallen explains that the show’s title, What Sustains Us, originates with the idea of exploring questions concerning how black artists in the city fit in the art scene and cultural landscape more generally. In her brief essay Wallen pointedly asks: “What does cultural sustainability and longevity look like for Black male artists or Black artists period? What sustains you?” And indeed, this group of artists are amply qualified to answer these questions. Each one of the five members of the collective is an accomplished artist with many years of experience in making art. The five are Hollis Baptiste, Stephen Fakiyesi, James Hewitt, Shawn Skeir and Amir Shingray.
Installation view with works by (L-R) James Hewitt, Stephen Fakiyesi and Amir Shingray
Baptiste, Trinidadian by birth, is best described as a conceptual artist whose principal medium is found objects. These objects do not simply constitute ready-mades, but rather Baptiste uses them in the constructs of his artworks. In an interview on That Channel he decribes how he literally has piles of objects in his studio. Very often his work has political content. One issue that greatly concerns him is the gun culture in the city. This theme has been part of his work for many years, long before the recent spate of gun violence that has racked the city. His one work on display in this show is titled Afro Picks and Hockey, which consists of hockey sticks mounted to the wall, the shafts of which are sugar cane, these are topped by afro combs with plastic hockey blades at the bottom. He’s alluding to the connections between runaway slaves who found themselves in Nova Scotia and the invention of ice hockey.
Hollis Alexis Baptiste, Afro Picks and Hockey
Artist and curator Hollis Alexis Baptiste
The other installation piece in the show is by Stephen Fakiyesi, titled Our National Past-time/Shooting Gallery. As the title suggests the subject of this work is gun violence. Here, imitating an old-fashioned fair stall, a toy gun with darts is placed in front of a wall-mounted board with two shelves displaying small cut-outs of the artist running. He describes the work as “a tacit attempt to humanize and defuse the often partisan discourse around gun violence by deflating the issue to a shooting gallery.” Fakiyesi witnessed the gun violence growing up as a teenager in Toronto in the 80s.
Artist Stephen Fakiyesi in front of Shooting Gallery
Stephen Fakiyesi, details of Our National Past-time/Shooting Gallery
Along the whole south wall of the gallery one finds an array of colourful abstract paintings by Shawn Skeir. All of the eight paintings consist of a set of hard-edge geometric shapes painted over a loosely rendered ground. The effect is scintillating. The images hum with colour. Skeir describes the paintings as ‘landscapes’. The Toronto-based artist explains that the “paintings are cryptic environments filled with various textures and colours that pulsate with an organic vivacity.” Indeed!
Artist Shawn Skeir in front of his painting
Details from Shawn Skeir’s “landscapes”
Located either side of the main entrance are conte and charcoal drawings on paper by James Hewitt. These works have a beautiful fluency to them. They are a medley of drawings. Hewitt is a graduate from OCAD with seventeen years of exhibiting experience. He is a curator as well, who has had various internships.
Artist James Hewitt in front of his drawings
Charcoal drawings by James Hewitt
Finally on the north wall hangs a large vertical canvas in paint and ink titled Cinder Block Generals by Amir Shingray. Shingray’s preoccupation in this work is with the protests and riots that have recently occurred in Sudan, and which led to the overthrow of dictator Omar Bashir. He is a graduate of the school of fine arts in Khartoum. Angered by the countless human-rights violations in this region, Shingray explains that the natural outlet for his anguish was painting. But this is an impactful painting in its own right, even when the viewer is not familiar with its political context. It is political art at its best.
Cinder Block Generals by Amir Shingray.
Artist Amir Shingray in front of his work
All of the works by these five artists are measured in the sense that they are not frenzied or obscenely didactic, but rather show restraint with regards to the difficult subjects some of them tackle. This is an impressive show that Baptiste has put together. Let’s hope there are more to come. But as Baptiste laments, there are too few venues for showing off talent in this city.
Images are courtesy of Gallery 1313
Exhibition information: What Sustains Us, August 28 – September 8, 2019, Gallery 1313, 1313 Queen St W, Toronto. Gallery hours: Tue – Sun, 1 – 6 pm.