ELEVENTEEN

curatorial statement

For 11 years, TSG has celebrated Queer and Trans artist magic through a 2 month in person exhibition with accompanying public programs and an opening event held at the Gladstone Hotel between June and August. TSG aims to showcase art by, for, and about LGBTTI2QQ creators, with a particular focus on artists on the margins of these communities — QTBIPOC artists, crip/disabled artists, Mad artists, migrant artists, youth artists and so forth. These artist projects interrupt the idea of a homogeneous queer community and re-imagines what it means to talk about our lived experiences as artists from a diversity of backgrounds.

 

This year, I’d begun planning for our 11th show — a queer take on the concept of anniversary, celebrating our 11th year with fanfare. In my planning I had invited an exciting mix of alumni and new artists and we were looking forward to working and exploring together. We applied for and received funding from the Toronto Arts Council (Thank you to the TAC for supporting this exhibition and programming!).

 

And then the unthinkable struck — a global pandemic, shut downs, stress, and worry. We were all so rocked by this rapid system collapse — the arts milieu struggled, artists were out of work everywhere. And, yet at the same time so much magic began to happen. We steadily witnessed a rise in community building, collective care, mutual aid and people coming together to cry out, “We take care of each other”. Examples were everywhere of artists supporting each other, organizing in their communities, building on their past and ongoing work.

 

And here at TSG we continued planning, getting ready for some kind of Pride summer online gathering. 

 

And then the violence happened — not new, but part of the ongoing targeting by police of Black and Indigenous communities. New unequivocal evidence that we did, indeed, have a problem with policing — as the deaths mounted. George Floyd, Regis Korchinski-Paquet, Chantal Moore, the names rolled in. And then there was the shooting of Jacob Blake, and then the acquittal verdict in the case of the police who killed Breonna Taylor. It seemed relentless. 

 

We poured in the streets and we resisted from our beds and homes and we cried out again that WE TAKE CARE OF EACH OTHER. We would take care of each other, not the state, but us, one on one and community to community. We were committing to revolutionary change and community safety. 

 

And we continued making art. Envisioning change and new worlds. Dreaming up new realities, together. 

 

We have spent the last several months reflecting on this moment in history — this time like no other. Perhaps this is the best time to reflect back on 11 years and to imagine a future that is so much freer than our current reality. Eleventeen draws its name from Black folk/punk singer Kimya Dawson’s song about coming of age, and is a chance to consider memory, archives and the past as a way of understanding and dreaming about futures that don't yet exist. 

 

The artists in this show have put together incredible work, reflections and considerations. I am so thankful to Cease Wyss, Christopher Rodrigues, Darryl DeAngelo Terrell, Elizabeth Sweeney, Hannah Jickling and Helen Reed, Ifetayo Alabi, Jenna Reid, Kyisha Williams, PUFF Paddy, Raven Davis, and Rojelio Palacios for sharing their work with us. We are also joined by the first two curators of TSG: Elisha Lim and Sholem Krishtalka who have both contributed essays to this site. Thank you for your work innovating this exhibition and for these crucial reflections. 

 

We are launching on the day of an incredible planetary alignment — one not seen for hundreds if not thousands of years. It is in this meeting of the cosmos, this magical alignment of star dust and solar rays that we can dream our wildest Octavia Butler-style dreams. We can be connected to all that has come before us and all that stretches out into the future. Octavia asked us to touch change. To shape it. And in doing so we create possibility for life for all of us on the margins. We can do this work. We can imagine creative, abolitionist, and radically queer futures. 

 

Thank you again to the Toronto Arts Council for supporting this work. Thank you to Roxanne Fernandes for building us this beautiful site to share these works. 

 

Thank you to all of you for engaging with us. We look forward to meeting together again in person in the soon times. For now we wish you hope and justice and joy and love. Please join us this winter for an online artist talk, and some virtual programming!


 

Syrus Marcus Ware

Syrus Marcus Ware
He/Him
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Syrus is a Vanier Scholar, visual artist, activist, curator and educator. Syrus uses painting, installation and performance to explore social justice frameworks and Black activist culture. His work has been shown widely, including in a solo show at Grunt Gallery, Vancouver in 2018 (2068:Touch Change), for the 2019 Toronto Biennial of Art and the Ryerson Image Centre (Antarctica and Ancestors, Do You Read Us? (Dispatches from the Future)), for the Bentway’s Safety in Public Spaces Initiative in 2020 (Radical Love) and in group shows at the Art Gallery of Ontario, the University of Lethbridge Art Gallery, Art Gallery of York University, the Art Gallery of Windsor and as part of the curated content at Nuit Blanche 2017 (The Stolen People; Won't Back Down).  His performance works have been part of festivals across Canada, including at Cripping The Stage (Harbourfront Centre, 2016, 2019), Complex Social Change (University of Lethbridge Art Gallery, 2015) and Decolonizing and Decriminalizing Trans Genres (University of Winnipeg, 2015).

He is part of the PDA (Performance Disability Art) Collective and co-programmed Crip Your World: An Intergalactic Queer/POC Sick and Disabled Extravaganza as part of Mayworks 2014. Syrus' recent curatorial projects include, Re:Purpose (Robert McLaughlin Gallery, 2014) and The

Church Street Mural Project (Church-Wellesley Village, 2013). Syrus is also co-curator of The Cycle, a two-year disability arts performance initiative of the National Arts Centre. Syrus has been curating That’s So Gay at the Gladstone Hotel since 2016, with the 2020 exhibition appearing online (tsgexhibition.com). 

 

Syrus is a core-team member of Black Lives Matter - Toronto. Syrus is a co-curator of Blackness Yes!/Blockorama. Syrus has won several awards, including the TD Diversity Award in 2017. Syrus was voted “Best Queer Activist” by NOW Magazine (2005) and was awarded the Steinert and Ferreiro Award (2012). Syrus is a PhD candidate at York University in the Faculty of Environmental Studies and an Associate Professor of the School of the Arts and Theatre and Film Studies Program at McMaster University.

Sholem KrishtalkaHe/Him

Sholem Krishtalka is a painter currently based in Berlin, Germany. His work revolves around ideas of camp, theatricality, the operatic, and the intersection between private and public histories. He has an MFA from York University.

A Letter from former TSG Curator SHOLEM KRISHTALKA

I brought this whole thing into the world. At the very least, I named it. If memory serves, I was asked to curate the as-yet-unnamed Pride exhibition at the Gladstone hotel as a kind of evasive conspiracy by RM Vaughan. By which I mean, Christina Zeidler had asked him to do it, and Richard, in all his wisdom, had no desire to be midwife to the treacherous task of birthing a queer-identity-themed exhibition in a city as tight-knit and (let’s be honest) as judgmental as Toronto. So, as sweetly and as gingerly as he could, Richard offered me the forceps.

 

I remember the first meeting we had about it, Christina, Richard and I, in the Gladstone Hotel bar. We shared our mutual distaste for tokenistic exhibitions that pandered to some middle-of-the-road notion of who we were supposed to be – these kinds of exhibitions that were like cheery gay straitjackets, big on cocks and short on critical self-examination. We threw around examples of what we didn’t want: I remember Richard and Christina saying, “no rainbows, no unicorns and no dicks.” We threw around example after grating example of things we knew we could do better than, and then, in the voice of a snotty child, I thought to myself, “jeez, Pride shows are so…gay.” And lo and behold, an exhibition was born.

 

From the get-go, I was determined to actually make exhibitions, by which I mean, I had no intention of pleasing anyone other than myself. In fact, I structured the first three That’s So Gay exhibitions with the deliberate intention of frustrating the public at large. The inaugural That’s So Gay was all about abstraction. (The sole exception to this rule was Will Munro. That cornerstone of queer life in Toronto had passed away that very Spring, and the city was mourning his loss. I couldn’t imagine my exhibition without him, and it became necessary to devote a room to his work, to have a place where people could be with him in some spiritual way). And otherwise, I put together a group of work by people who I always wanted to see in a Pride exhibition, but never did. As the opening date grew closer, so did the trepidation. Was my faith in the desire to see such an exhibition a misguided projection? Was I assuming an audience that wasn’t there?

 

To my elation, my faith was rewarded beyond my wildest expectations. The queers, and queer artists of Toronto were in fact hungry for just such an exhibition. It was a great success (if I do say so myself) and prompted yet more ideas of how to keep doing this project, how to keep nourishing this creature borne of frustration and a desire to be recognized.

 

The second exhibition was designed to push the boundaries of what people imagined “queer” – that embattled, overused and -abused word – to mean. I assembled a group of artists who didn’t explicitly identify as homosexual, but whose connection to queer art life in Toronto was inextricable and undeniable. We got some push-back from some fairly predictable corners (I remember reading some particularly personal and childish insults in the comments section of a promotional interview I did with Xtra magazine). But again, my faith was rewarded. The participating artists were overjoyed to be asked to contribute to a world to which they felt so close and connected, and I remember feeling the capability and power of my broader community.

 

My third and last That’s So Gay was devoted to the disruption of simplistic gender binaries, and therefore to trans representation. Back then, in 2012, it was taken as an obvious fact that a Pride show meant men making work about men and women making work about women, with no critical reflection on what those words meant or who might inhabit those implied bodies. It seems funny to admit this, eight years later, given all that has developed in trans issues and visibility in the past decade, but up until then, I certainly had never seen any kind of meaningful trans inclusion in any Pride show. (And as of 2020, work by and about trans people is (unbelievably) still almost invisible in the broader gallery and museum landscape.) Like all my other That’s So Gay shows, it was intended as a first step at expanding what was possible for Pride exhibitions. How well my good intentions landed is not for me to say.

 

So it became clear to me that the time had come to pass on this toddler of an exhibition series to more capable caretakers. I left Toronto, and That’s So Gay has incredibly become something of an institution, much to my delight. What began as a hope-against-hope contribution to a narrow, tokenistic (and, if I’m again being honest, tacky) exhibition trope has grown and thrived.

 

I would paraphrase old Virginia Slims ads and say, “we’ve come a long way, baby,” but the baby isn’t a baby anymore. Eleven years old! Soon to be a teenager. Mazel tov to all of the contributing artists, to all the dedicated curators who parented this tantrum child, and to the joys and pains of growth.

Elisha Lim
They/Them

Elisha Lim is a queer and transgender story-teller and graphic novelist, whose book 100 Crushes was published by Koyama Press and nominated for a Lambda. Lim has created award winning claymation films, solo and group exhibits, curatorial projects and founded the annual anti-racist Montreal art festival "Qouleur." Lim holds a Masters of Fine Arts in Criticism and Curatorial Practice at OCAD University and is currently writing a PhD at U of T on race and social media.

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A Letter from former TSG Curator Elisha Lim

Seven years ago I curated That’s So Gay because I wanted to make a difference. The previous year I had been invited to participate in the Gladstone’s annual Pride exhibit as an artist and I had discovered that I was 1 of 4 artists of colour in the exhibit’s entire history. I took over the following year and curated 12 artists of colour. And when I say I took over, I mean it. I had just arrived in Toronto, fresh on the heels of founding Montreal's first queer of color festival. I pulled up to the Gladstone and demanded to curate in a radical new way, and I was warmly welcomed. Diversity was still new enough to the Gladstone that the press to called it “a provocative spin.” It was triumphant and awesome and fit so well with my brand at the time: unapologetic QTBIPOC visibility. 

A screenshot from a NOW Magazine article titled "So Gay, so good" from June 27 2013. The article is in reference to the TSG 2013 show curated by Elisha Lim.

The following year, Syrus Ware took over and I'm so grateful because he has always dedicated his lifework to revolution. The exhibit has stayed diverse, accessible and thoughtfully researched beyond reputations and friend networks. And so I was pleased when Syrus invited me to write a few words for Eleventeen, because lately I’ve been thinking about revolution.

A lot of people have been thinking about revolution as covid loosens all of the world’s seams around the graphic guts of global capitalism. For

a moment it seemed like our collective frustration finally burst as the first world exploded in riots against extrajudicial police killings of Black people. But how fast that got co-opted by social media memes, and then branding exercises, and then polished PR solidarity statements, and then back to silence. The hushed acquittal of the brother of racist policeman Michael Theriault. The silenced story of Regis Korchinski-Paquet. The genteel handshake of the Toronto police force budget raise. 

What does it mean to be queer? It means being adversarial, subversive, and too smart to believe that capitalist solidarity is on our side. Lately I’ve been reading. I've been reading that since the 1970s free trade recessions, markets have gravitated towards neoliberal values of lean, versatile, fast, flexible, diversified, disruptive, up-to-the-minute competition. That's why everything we buy breaks or goes obsolete in a year. That's why local and federal governments push for privatization and deregulation, the erosion of social programs, cuts to long-term stable jobs, and gentrified, gated estates surrounded by state funded police. That's why good jobs are exported to third world countries where centuries of imperial free trade, international development and corrupt debt burdens have produced an underclass of indentured labour. That's why we are part of a growing working class, watching the worst of the social and environmental destruction cascade down on the third world landless poor. 

But the tools we could use to fight are also being acquisitioned into market capital. Identity politics, the movement that first brought me into art and curating and queer people of colour visibility, are transforming. I've been thinking about this change. I call it "identity economics." Our current era of flexible accelerated neoliberalism promises wealth, status and diversity - if we make identity politics a hustle - if we post it as social media content, if we market ourselves as influencers, if we spin identity politics into creative entrepreneurialism, if we make a difference while also self-promoting. 

As an activist curator I believed that was social justice work. It's a fantasy greased by the residual Protestant work ethic rooted deep in North American society that shapes me. Success, righteousness and redemption are the entitlements of virtue, piety, calling out sinners, sacrificing to the hustle and following my passionate personal vocation.

Social media is a conspicuous showcase for this lucrative Christian story arc: heroically overcoming adversaries, fastidiously retweeting the “right” social causes, vigilantly crusading with our insiders versus our outsiders, watching relentless algorithms rank and rate public virtues and sins. My art and my activism and my identity politics gradually spun into a personal branding exercise. This is bad for sustainability, solidarity, and heart. 

Since their inception in the 1960s, identity politics have always struggled against the allure of individual advancement. Audre Lorde passes this knowledge down to us, based on her first hand observations: 

"The civil rights and Black power movements rekindled possibilities for disenfranchised groups within this nation. Even though we fought common enemies, at times the lure of individual solutions made us careless of each other… We know in the 1980s, from documents gained through the Freedom of Information Act, that the FBI and CIA used our intolerance of difference to foment confusion and tragedy in segment after segment of Black communities of the 60s." 

Today the FBI and CIA can relax. The celebrity catapult of a Twitter callout is enough to scatter our collective spirit. 

The postcard for That's So Gay: Say It To My Face curated by Elisha Lim in 2013. The illustration is Prem by Meera Sethi and features an individual in colourful clothing standing confidently.
The postcard for That's So Gay: Say It To My Face curated by Elisha Lim in 2013. Contains exhibition details.

Identity economics is a neoliberal temptation we have to resist. But that's harder than it sounds, because how else are we going to establish unique reputations? How else are we going to get speaking gigs? How else are we going to attract stable careers? Social media platforms thrive on the garish violence of capitalism seeping into every sacred corner of our lives. 

We can take strength from the stories of so many radical Toronto queer artists of colour who have smuggled revolution into this city, who forced sets council juries to diversify, who forced equitable hiring quotas, who made sure artists of colour get equal pay. These artists aren't famous brand names and social media marquees. Because that's not what they were working for. They worked, and accomplished, painstaking, long, slow, hard collective empowerment that continues to make life better in this city. There are so many inspiring stories, to name a few: Lillian Allen, Shirley Bear and all of Minquon Panchayot; Glace Lawrence and Freedom Fest; Punam Khosla and Desh Par Desh; CAN:BAIA and the BVFN; Richard Fung and Orientations; Andrea Fatona and The State of Blackness; Syrus Ware and his persistently radical artistic and curatorial vision. 

This neoliberal economic regime aims to divide and conquer our QTBIPOC generation, and the next. So let's cast off the weight of identity economics. We're not gay as in happy. We're not gay as in corporate endorsed Twitter celebrity. We're not gay as in municipal homonormative gentrification projects. We're queer as in capitalism must die.