Water Kinship Belief – 2nd Toronto Biennial of Art

Candice Hopkins, Latie Lowson, Tairone Bastien. Water Kinship Belief: Toronto Biennial of Art 2019-22. Toronto: Toronto Biennial and Art Metropole 2022.

The Toronto Biennial of Art has focused on Toronto’s contexts and settler-colonial history, its geography and culture. The festival curators commissioned foundational research on the city’s Settler, Indigenous and Black relations as an intellectual context to make sense of where and what Toronto is today. The handsome catalogue is a guide, archive, and as the curators say, a site of its own.

Water is central to this catalogue. The Biennial exhibitions have been concentrated on the lakeshore of Toronto. The book is intended as a “river of images,” set in shades of blue monochrome ink, that expands on the importance of rivers and tributaries as well as the importance of the shoreline of Lake Ontario. Coinciding with Google’s failed Sidewalk Labs proposal to create a mix-use development-cum-urban digital testing area the waterfront and port areas (discussed here), the Biennale presents artistic futures for the area. Where Sidewalk Labs appears as a second-order colonization of the city for the purposes of world-making where the digital comes first and predominates over local everyday life and needs, the Biennial takes the opposite approach, expansively acknowledging rootedness and a web of relations with place, ancestors, future peoples, nature and non-humans.

The voluminous catalogue offers an excellent discussion of pre-colonial governance of the area and attempts to integrate British colonizers into it. Ange Loft shows how, under settler refusal to honour commitments made by the government, efforts to maintain and carry forward Indigenous values and constituting documents such as wampum belts are also surveyed. This section of the catalogue is an outstanding reconciliation effort by breathing life back into Indigenous governance in a way that shows its flexibility and relevance to current issues and to current institutions including municipalities and provincial boards. The accompanying “Black Navigational Toolkit” is less effective because it focuses on a project rather than being aimed at a similar scope of cultural values which have been brought to Toronto by arrivant settlers from slave members of late 18th century Loyalist households displaced in the American War of Independence to postcolonial diasporas of Caribbean and South American migrants.

Consider the Biennial as public pedagogy  (to which I am indebted to MC Cambre): What is the importance of writing that excavates forgotten, silenced histories? It creates the opportunity for listening. While we too often focus only on the writers, or on the history, protagonists, villains and victims, the audience is the greatest beneficiary. Hence the importance of publicly funded arts and literature . I don’t dare argue that a given essay or work leads directly to social change. The path is more indirect. But in the Biennial we see that showing, telling entails also listening, attending-to. This learning process, in turn creates the frame for decisions which bit by bit change the course of social relations.

Candice Hopkins cites A Billion Black Anthropocenes to remind readers of the silencing effects of “white geologics” that saw Toronto bury many of its waterways, fill in wetlands and reshape and extend the shoreline in areas such as the Leslie Street Slip. The historical topography of the city is a sort of geological archive beneath the buildings of the city. Individual efforts to retrieve the history of forgetting of colonial projects to displace, eliminate and assimilate Indigenous inhabitants are exemplified in the work by AA Bronson “A Public Apology to the Siksika Nation 2019” and response by Adrian Stimson “Iini Sookumpii : Guess who’s coming to dinner? ” a simple but symbolically loaded dinner table set with only the basic necessities afforded to residential school students. But Adrian Blackwells’ shoreline-shaped cushion of poplar-shavings “ Isonomia in Toronto? (creek) ” captures my imagination as an intervention that works by accommodating and conciliating bodies in a site that was once an Indigenous gathering place.

Amongst hundreds of works in the Biennial, some leap out of the catalogue : Judy Chicago’s coloured desert smoke works (“Immolation 1972”) and Sebastian De Line’s “ The Shape of Songs ” (2022) symbolically echoes Haudenosaunee creation myths, linking land with breath via clay that is used to create tuned flutes for music by Indonesian art collective JaF Jatiwangi Art Factory. The catalogue concludes with an interview/discussion with the founders of the Biennial, making it not just a site, but an archive and historical, foundational document in its own right.

-Rob Shields (Univ. of Alberta)