Group Exhibition Now You See Me

May 5–Jun 25,  2022
  • Dayna Danger
  • Chun Hua Catherine Dong
  • Gaëlle Elma
  • Leila Fatemi
  • Kablusiak
  • Meryl McMaster
  • Vivek Shraya
    Leila Fatemi, A Vessel to Bend Water, 2021. Courtesy of the artist
Leila Fatemi, A Vessel to Bend Water, 2021. Courtesy of the artist

Bringing together artists who consider the power dynamics of image-making in their distinct practices, Now You See Me includes Black, Indigenous, and artists of colour, who variously identify as women, femme, and non-binary. They use photography to explore issues related to gender and cultural identity, asserting themselves as directors of their own images to pose questions about the complex cultural and gender-related politics that underlie self-representation.

Using photography to question the line between empowerment and objectification, Dayna Danger’s work negotiates the complicated dynamics of sexuality, gender, and power. Combining BDSM gear and beaded leather fetish masks, Danger’s larger-than-life photographs explore Indigenous and Métis visuals and erotic sovereignty. Kablusiak also explores the objectification of Indigenous women and femmes in Piliutiyara (Robin Hood) (2021). In this work, the artist dominates public space wearing lingerie, an unyielding gaze, and a refusal to smile or tone down her sexuality. From this stance of empowerment, Kablusiak deconstructs sexualization and confronts the settler-colonial gaze.

Meryl McMaster’s Truth to Power (2017) grapples with Duncan Campbell Scott’s 1898 poem, “Onondaga Madonna.” Scott played a significant role in the development of Canada’s residential school system, and his poem racially stereotypes an Onondaga woman and her child as savage, pagan, and doomed. Asserting an alternative narrative, McMaster had a 10-year-old Kahnawà:ke girl write out the poem by hand, and then juxtaposed it with a photograph of the artist standing defiantly amid a grid of trees, representing the corporal efficiency enforced in residential schools.  

Confronting contemptuous visual histories, Leila Fatemi and Gaëlle Elma take unique approaches to combatting reductive narratives historically perpetuated by photography. Fatemi’s A Vessel to Bend Water (2021) examines the relationship between past representations of North African women and the common appearance of water vessels in their studio portraits. Through visual interventions into photographs found in Orientalist digital archives, Fatemi reveals the ways in which the water vessel became a prop used to perpetuate colonial agendas, and acted as a symbol for the contained and servile roles of women and their bodies. Elma captures evocative moments of stillness and confidence as she works with her subjects/collaborators on finding a sense of peace in nature. Through her deliberate refusal to portray the Black body as the “other,” her practice defies the violent visual legacy of Eurocentric world views. Offering counter-narratives, her photographs present Black people in empowered states within natural landscapes.

Drawing from personal cultural heritage, Chun Hua Catherine Dong’s and Vivek Shraya’s works deeply consider the ramifications of cultural norms. Dong’s photographic and augmented reality series Skin Deep (2020) explores the concept of shame in Chinese culture. Used as a tool of social control, shame is often a means of preventing citizens, especially women, from acting in ways that disrupt the status quo. Dong’s series of self-portraits conceal her face in symbolic Chinese silk fabrics—a masking gesture that implies submission to the powerful effects of shame, obscuring those whose identities fall outside what is deemed acceptable.

Inspired by the 1994 film Legends of the Fall, Shraya’s queered performance in the photographic series Legends of the Trans (2021) reflects the value of gender non-conforming role models. Tristan Ludlow, the main character played by Brad Pitt in the original film and the inspiration for Shraya’s photographs, is reimagined through her own brown trans body. By positioning herself at the centre of the frame, Shraya gestures toward the rejection of traditional gender roles, presenting both feminine and masculine aspects of the character. Shraya’s Tristan wears a bindi in each photograph, drawing on a semi-autobiographical narrative while creating space for conceptions of self-representation, of South Asian diaspora, and of brown trans women that are fluid and open.

Employing tactics of performing, concealing, and revealing their bodies and those of their collaborators, the artists in Now You See Me produce photographs that challenge normative, colonial assumptions. They offer divergent narratives that reveal paradoxes inherent in representations of racialized bodies. Through their work, the artists address pressing political realities that are closely tied to their personal histories, and explore the social and cultural construction of femininity through cultural identity. Generated from different perspectives and experiences, these works share a reckoning with the historical and contemporary uses of the camera as a tool to perpetuate degradative narratives. As directors of their images, these artists shift perceptions of the politics that underly image making with surgical critique and blatant defiance, kicking the door open for new stories and conversations.

Curated by Sandy Saad-Smith

Presented in partnership with Doris McCarthy Gallery

Dayna Danger (they/them) is a Two-Spirit, Indigiqueer, Métis-Saulteaux-Polish visual artist. Danger was raised in Miiskwaagamiwiziibiing, Treaty 1 territory, or so-called Winnipeg. They are currently based in Tiohtiá:ke/Mōniyāng, or so-called Montreal. Using photography, sculpture, performance, and video, Danger creates works and environments that question the line between empowerment and objectification by claiming space. Ongoing works exploring BDSM and beaded-leather fetish masks negotiate the complex dynamics of sexuality, gender, and power in a consensual and feminist manner. Their focus remains on Indigenous and Métis visual and erotic sovereignty. In 2021, they began a doctorate at Concordia University that focuses on hide-tanning stories and bush skills, culture camps, passed on from their Saulteaux great-grandmother, Madeline McLeod (Campbell).

Chun Hua Catherine Dong is a Chinese-born Montreal-based artist working in performance, photography, video, and AR and VR. Dong received an MFA from Concordia University, and BFA from Emily Carr University Art & Design. The artist’s work has been exhibited in national and international venues including Quebec City Biennial, MOMENTA | Biennale de l’image, MAC VAL (France), Museo de la Cancillería (Mexico City), Canadian Cultural Centre (Paris), and more. Dong was the recipient of the Franklin Furnace Award for performance art (New York, 2014) and listed in the “10 Artists Who Are Reinventing History” by Canadian Art (2017). Dong was awarded the Cultural Diversity in Visual Arts Award by the Conseil des arts de Montréal (2021), and was a finalist for the Prix en art actuel du MNBAQ (2020).

Gaëlle Elma is a Haitian Canadian, self-taught photographer based in Montreal. Her practice is a personal body of work that allows her to overcome internalized anti-blackness and biases that have been imposed on her through Eurocentric and colonial world-views. Through her photographs, she is able to challenge her own concepts of sexuality and blackness, framing her collaborators with the sensitivity she desperately seeks in the media she consumes. Using photography to find a sense of power and voice, Elma captures beauty, peace, confidence, and subtle perfection of the everyday.

Leila Fatemi is an emerging artist, curator and community arts worker based in Tkaronto/Toronto. Her work stems from her daily experiences as a visible minority and her perspective as a practicing Muslim woman artist. Fatemi aims to provide platforms and contribute alternative narratives to conversations of ethnic representation with a focus on the experience of Muslim women & women from the MENA region as well as to create a better understanding and appreciation for Islamic culture and traditions. Through her multi-media approach, she challenges the inherently colonial narratives used in Western traditions of misrepresentation of the East.

Kablusiak is an Inuvialuk who creates art in a variety of mediums including, but not limited to, lingerie, soapstone, Sharpie, bed sheets, felt, and words. Their work explores the dis/connections between existence in Inuit diaspora while maintaining family and community ties, the impacts of colonization on Inuit gender and sexuality expressions, as well as on health, wellbeing, and the everyday. Kablusiak holds a BFA from AUArts in Mohkinstsis, where they are currently based. Their work can be found in the collections of the Indigenous Art Centre, the Art Gallery of Alberta, and Global Affairs Visual Art Collection among others.

Meryl McMaster (b. 1988) creates dreamlike photographic self-portraiture that crosses timescales, blending moments, lifetimes, generations, and geological eras. Drawing from her nēhiyaw (Plains Cree) and Euro-Canadian ancestry she constructs site-specific scenes with labour-intensive garments. McMaster’s work reinforces the intersections between actual and imagined experiences, in hopes of better understanding oneself, our histories, lineage and a more-than-human world. McMaster’s work has been the subject of solo exhibitions at the Urban Shaman, Winnipeg (2021), McCord Steward Museum, Montréal (2021), Canada House, London (2020), Ikon Gallery, Birmingham (2019) and The Image Centre [Formerly Ryerson Image Centre], Toronto (2019). McMaster was shortlisted for the Rencontres d’Arles New Discovery Award (2019), was the recipient of the Scotiabank New Generation Photography Award (2018), REVEAL Indigenous Art Award (2017), and the Eiteljorg Contemporary Art Fellowship (2013).

Vivek Shraya is an artist whose body of work crosses the boundaries of music, literature, visual art, theatre, and film. Her album Part-Time Woman was nominated for the Polaris Music Prize, and her best-selling book I’m Afraid of Men was heralded by Vanity Fair as “cultural rocket fuel.” She is also the founder of the award-winning publishing imprint VS. Books, which supports emerging BIPOC writers. A seven-time Lambda Literary Award finalist, Vivek was a Pride Toronto Grand Marshal and has been a brand ambassador for MAC Cosmetics and Pantene. She is a director on the board of the Tegan and Sara Foundation, an Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Calgary, and is currently adapting her debut play, How to Fail as a Popstar, for television with the support of CBC.