I AM YOUR RELATIVE at MOCA (TBA)

I had the fortune of immersing myself in Jeffrey Gibson’s I AM YOUR RELATIVE on a bright spring morning. My energy was high as I strolled from Lansdowne Station to the MOCA, winding my way through that specific brand of west-end side street familiar to locals. You know the type; residential brownstones, geometric condos, industrial buildings—not to forget art studios and art galleries.

My walk was diverted a few times, thanks to the all too common city construction, but it wasn’t unpleasant. Instead, thanks to the temperate weather and the architectural harmony, I meditated on the past, present, and future of the Toronto art community. What role does the Toronto Biennial of Art (TBA) play in it? Whose stories have been told? How do we draw in global connections while being sure diverse voices at home are being heard?

MOCA Toronto exterior. Courtesy of MOCA

Co-commissioned by the Toronto Biennial of Art and the Museum of Contemporary Art Toronto, I AM YOUR RELATIVE is located in the lobby of the MOCA, though perhaps ‘located’ is the wrong word. It is the lobby; open for free viewing to all who pass through, making it both symbolically and physically accessible to the public. Neon green walls have been plastered with posters and stickers in vibrant pinks, purples, reds, blues, and just about every other colour. These designs are also detailed on the fifteen moveable platforms and cushions that provide seating for the community, storage for locally sourced children’s books, and flexible stages for performances and community programming.

Jeffrey Gibson, I AM YOUR RELATIVE, 2022. Installation view. MOCA Toronto. Courtesy of Jeffrey Gibson Studio, Kavi Gupta Gallery, Roberts Projects, Sikkema Jenkins & Co. and Stephen Friedman Gallery. Courtesy of TBA

Jeffrey Gibson, a member of the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians and also half Cherokee, is an interdisciplinary artist based out of Hudson, New York. I AM YOUR RELATIVE draws inspiration and imagery from the artist’s past works as well as from community-sourced submissions, prioritizing Black, Brown, Indigenous and queer imagery. Gibson’s space is perfect for the thoughtful observer. Hours could be spent walking through the space to spot details, peer through cut-outs, read the books, and lie back against the patterned cushions. Slow-lookers will see stickers of beaded bird sculptures, stills from past video projects, children’s books about city planning, and phrases like “HE DRUMS IN THEIR FACE,” “RESPECT INDIGENOUS LAND,” and “KNOW YOU ARE LOVED.”

Jeffrey Gibson, I AM YOUR RELATIVE, 2022. Installation details. MOCA Toronto. Courtesy of Jeffrey Gibson Studio, Kavi Gupta Gallery, Roberts Projects, Sikkema Jenkins & Co. and Stephen Friedman Gallery. Photo: Olivia Mariko Hsuen-Ferris.

The result is a space that is of and for the community. A welcoming place of convergence where citizens can mingle, rest, work, play, and feel safe. I AM YOUR RELATIVE is “open to change over time,” with a flexible design of moving pieces. From the platforms on wheels to the children’s books and cushions they store, nothing is nailed down. The site-specific exhibition is a living member of the community. It reminds me of those wooden walls on bustling streets plastered with posters, advertisements, and local art; an archive of community life over a period of time.

Jeffrey Gibson, I AM YOUR RELATIVE, 2022. Installation view. MOCA Toronto. Courtesy of Jeffrey Gibson Studio, Kavi Gupta Gallery, Roberts Projects, Sikkema Jenkins & Co. and Stephen Friedman Gallery. Photo: Olivia Mariko Hsuen-Ferris.

In many ways, the location is ideal. Accessible without a museum ticket, the exhibit is advantageously placed in the lobby of a well-known local institution. The only disadvantage to this location is its distance from the city core. Though by no means totally inaccessible, it sits a busy ten to fifteen-minute walk from Lansdowne Station. This is not so much a critique but rather a lament over the general push of our arts spaces further and further outwards, often north-west. The benefit of this location, however, is its place around similar establishments amidst a community bursting with artistic purpose.

I AM YOUR RELATIVE underscores the significance of the Toronto Biennial of Art, which is now only in its second year. The connection of our arts community to the international stage and the highlighting of the diverse voices within is vital now more than ever in light of a difficult pandemic and the ever-present need for more support for artists. The prioritizing of Black, Brown, Indigenous, and queer voices is vitally important too, not only now with extra eyes on social justice and human rights issues, but for all events moving forward. In a diverse, multi-cultural city such as ours that sits on Indigenous land, it is not and should not be possible to do otherwise.

Jeffrey Gibson, I AM YOUR RELATIVE, 2022. Installation view. MOCA Toronto. Courtesy of Jeffrey Gibson Studio, Kavi Gupta Gallery, Roberts Projects, Sikkema Jenkins & Co. and Stephen Friedman Gallery. Courtesy of TBA.

I AM YOUR RELATIVE speaks to the past and the future, to what has happened and what has the potential to happen. In that way, it’s representative of our city, a vibrant artistic hub of all that has and could happen. To those who may pass through the area, plan to visit all Biennial exhibits, or even just need a little respite from life, I highly recommend you spend some time in the lobby of the MOCA. Go flip through the books, grab a seat, read the posters, and take your time gazing at the walls.

Jeffrey Gibson, I AM YOUR RELATIVE, 2022. Installation view. MOCA Toronto. Courtesy of Jeffrey Gibson Studio, Kavi Gupta Gallery, Roberts Projects, Sikkema Jenkins & Co. and Stephen Friedman Gallery. Photo: Olivia Mariko Hsuen-Ferris.

Olivia Mariko Hsuen-Ferris

*Exhibition information: Jeffrey Gibson, I AM YOUR RELATIVE, March 10 – July 31, 2022, co-curated by the Museum of Contemporary Art and the Toronto Biennial of Art. MOCA, 158 Sterling Ave, Toronto. Museum hours: Wed – Thu & Sat – Sun 11 am – 6pm; Fri 11 am – 9 pm.

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