I still haven’t had the pleasure of meeting Mitra Fakhrashrafi in person. Amidst a global pandemic, our conversation took place on a quiet afternoon in late October, over a Zoom call from two separate cities I, from Toronto and she, from Montreal. I’ve known of Mitra’s work for a few years now, and we have a few mutual friends. Maybe that’s why despite the awkwardness I had anticipated by doing this interview online, we instead quickly settled into an intimate, and conversation about her curatorial practice.
Although Mitra is temporarily located in Montreal, much of her curatorial work is rooted in the specificity of Toronto. Mitra grew up spending most of her life in different pockets of Toronto. Having recently graduated with an MA in Geography from the University of Toronto, her ability to think deeply about how we make space is something that filters through the work she has curated both independently and collaboratively. She co-curated Habibiz (2019), a group exhibit that examined Toronto's Shisha ban, considering what it means to illegalize already hypersurveilled spaces, as well as Sanctuary Inter/rupted, (2018) which critically interrogated the notion of Toronto as a sanctuary city, in response to a 2013 city council motion that gave the city that status. She also curated Salam from Niagara Falls / سلام از آبشار نیاگارا , a 2019 exhibit for the Contact Photography Festival that took up first- and second-generation Afghan and Iranian home-making in the context of ongoing settler colonialism on Turtle Island. While these three aforementioned exhibits featured work that often dealt with personal and intimate relationships to place and land, each of the exhibits are always already connected to larger transnational issues of hyper-surveillance, displacement, border imperialism, and colonialism.
Together, we sat down in our respective homes for a far-ranging conversation about the practice of archives, structural change in the arts, and the impact of gentrification on marginalized communities. Unafraid to speak plainly of the structural and systemic barriers that shape racialized artists’ realities, it’s Mitra’s insight and radical honesty about the state of representation politics in the arts that makes her the kind of voice that is needed in our current arts scene, and I’m hopeful that one day soon we can continue our conversation in person.
The idea of what constitutes the centre is reinforced by who is granted funding and space in ways that other places in the city aren’t, which continues to be a challenge. But my practice in terms of audience, has remained that it’s not about looking at the white gaze, it never has been and has never needed to.
Mitra, could you first tell us a little bit about your background, and what brought you to curation?
I'm a curator with a particular interest in geography. I was raised Muslim and Iranian and in a mixed white household. I grew up in Toronto; I mostly grew up downtown, but I've also spent a lot of time in Scarborough and North York, so I hold a lot of different complicated and mostly loving relationships to different corners of the city. I began my art practice quite informally through street art, stickering and wheat paste-ing, and I was uploading them onto Tumblr like everyone did at the time. I still love wheatpasting, but I felt very limited in my practice because of a lack of formal arts training. So I found curation to be a really exciting outlet for me.
You recently completed a Masters in Geography so I’m curious in what ways the discipline of geography informs your practice. You describe yourself not only as a curator, but as a placemaker as well. What does the term placemaking mean to you, and how does it work its way into your practice?
I'm very indebted to geography for the way that it looks at things spatially, and I’m particularly indebted to Black and Indigenous geographers. Everything is in fact, spatial: colonialism is spatial, imperialism is spatial, gentrification is spatial, but that saying that often comes off very abstract or theoretical, and I think that art and curation specifically, offers a way to break these things down. So when we talk about settler colonialism for instance, as a form of spatial management, it means determining by force, who is in or out of place. So I think geography is a very important way to look at a lot of the things that are happening around us, and art is the lens through which we can explore and look at these things, in a way that’s perhaps less theoretical and abstract, and help us deal with what’s to come. At the same time, I have a complicated relationship with the word placemaking, because the word carries this idea of making a claim to space. And that can be dangerous, especially if we think about what it means to make a claim to place on stolen land.
I think a lot of people still think of placemaking purely in terms of a Jane-Jacobs sense of flourishing neighbourhoods, and eyes on the street; which is nice in theory, but eyes on the neighborhood can also be harmful, if its white eyes and white surveillance deciding who is or out place in the neighborhood. When we talk about placemaking especially, we want to make sure we’re not romanticizing it in a way that affirms displacement, carceration, gentrification, and colonialism.
Dhvani: Your curatorial work has also invited settlers--particularly immigrants of colour--to critically examine their relationship to Indigenous lands. I'm thinking specifically of Salam from Niagara Falls (2019), in which first and second-generation Iranian and Afghan artists interrogate the myth of Canada as a ‘nation of immigrants’ by way of personal and familial archives. There’s often this tendency in diaspora art to romanticize and mythologize the status of being an immigrant, that doesn’t critically engage with the relationship to settler colonialism. What makes it important for diasporic people to contest dominant narratives of settler colonialism, especially for artists of colour? What draws you towards curating some of these concerns?
Personal experience definitely draws me to these concerns generally, but what spurred Salam from Niagara Falls in particular, was a lack of language to have meaningful intergenerational conversations about colonialism and imperialism, and finding ways to create that language. In Salam from Niagara Falls, we worked with Nima Esmailpour and Wares Fazelyar to translate resources like treaties, into Farsi and Dari. And the artworks that were part of the exhibit really reflected navigating checkpoints and everyday racism, and the very rigid refugee program, but also what it means to find belonging on this land against the backdrop of non-consent and broken treaties. I think like you said, there is a huge romanticization of this immigrant identity that is a product of multiculturalism, which is an idea that invites non-Black racialized people into the white settler project. But that romanticization is additionally harmful because it erases relationships to other factors as well, like class, caste, and shadeism for instance, that affects someone’s position of marginality. A lot of immigrant communities continue to perpetuate anti-Blackness and anti-Indigeneity and so I think with this show, it wasn’t just about acknowledging these facts, but about trying to create a language to be able to take these issues on, to be able to have vital intergenerational conversations that are difficult to have.
You’ve curated exhibits that have focused on how tangled concepts of borders and surveillance make certain bodies and communities ‘illegal’, resulting in oppressive geographies. Border abolition is also something touched upon in the work you’ve curated. What personally draws you to focus on these issues in your work, especially at this specific political moment?
Something that has been central to the work I’ve done alongside other people, is just the very basic idea that ‘no one is illegal’, and how that idea specifically manifests within the Toronto context. A few years ago, Jessica Kirk and I co-curated Sanctuary Inter/rupted, which specifically looked at Toronto’s sanctuary city legislation, and what it means for Toronto to hold that title of sanctuary city, while Black, brown, and Indigenous people are always already illegalized. So for instance, what does it mean for a city to carry this title while already practicing discriminatory carding practices? Through increased discussions about ICE in our cultural discourse, carding has become a little more connected to immigration, but Jessica and I wanted people to realize that when we’re talking about this discourse of illegalization, we should make space for the many ways in which people are illegalized, including people who have so-called status. Illegalization extends beyond just looking at people without status in a particular state.
Since you mentioned Sanctuary Inter/rupted, I’d like to know more about the art collective Way Past Kennedy Road, which you co-founded alongside your friend and curator Jessica Kirk. Under this moniker you’ve curated shows together including Sanctuary Inte/rrupted (2018), which showed at Xpace Cultural Centre, and Habibiz (2019), a group exhibit that took place in Toronto at the now sadly now closed, Margins of Era Gallery (MOEG) last year. How did the collective come together, and what does the name itself signify?
So the curatorial collective that Jessica and I co-founded was intended to support artists that worked and lived at the margins of the city. The name itself is a play on a Drake song about Kennedy Road. But one of the people associated with the collective, Rachel Ngabire, thought about the way in which the name itself, and the words “Past Kennedy Road” specifically, disrupts the idea of the ‘centre’. It allows us to think about the centre differently.
I’ve been thinking about this binary of the ‘centre vs. the margins,’ and perhaps how artists and communities are troubling that binary. There's often this implication that artists need to have their work seen “downtown” to be relevant, but there are exhibits, collectives, and practices that are directly challenging and refuting this idea, including your own collective. While Way Past Kennedy Road has put a pause on its work for now, are there other people and collectives that you believe are centring the work of people on “the margins”, or challenging the dominance of the centre?
Some collectives and names that come to mind include the Tamil Archive Project based out of Scarborough; they use different artistic practices to take on issues including cross-generational trauma and mental health. Amani Bin Shikhan is a Scarborough-based writer and filmmaker who has put out a lot of different work on the liveability of places we call home. She also partnered with Sisterhood Media to produce a docu-series called “where now?” that asks us to consider who is reaping the benefits of the shifts that are happening as Toronto makes this transition to an international hub or ‘global’ city. And of course, WPKR co-founder Jessica Kirk is an incredibly talented curator, and she recently published a thesis exploring Black creative traditions within Toronto, as well as the longstanding relationship between Black art and justice. Another great person to look to is Jem Baptiste. Jem is an artist involved in community arts in Little Jamaica, and has helped to combat the ongoing gentrification, evictions, and policing happening in the neighbourhood. So all of these people and many more are doing important work, particularly with an understanding of Toronto as a city that’s currently facing a housing crisis, and that has pushed out racialized communities from the centre of the city.
There’s a dark irony that while Toronto displaces racialized communities as part of the process to gain status as a global city, ‘diversity’ and ‘multiculturalism’ are essential to how the city markets itself.
We need to recognize first, that many racialized communities including artists, have been pushed out of the core, because Toronto is not a liveable city, in many ways. So I think sometimes that history of queer and racialized communities gets forgotten or erased, even if there are longstanding histories of presences in the downtown core and elsewhere of course.
But this discussion around the ongoing gentrification of the city makes me wonder about the struggle for survival of radical arts spaces in this city. You’ve curated shows at the MOEG for instance, a community arts space that centred marginalized artists. When MOEG’s doors shut last year, it felt like Toronto had lost a vital community arts space that actually prioritized space for marginalized, racialized artists especially. What was your experience like doing a show at the MOEG? What do you think its closure signals about the landscape of both art spaces and arts funding in this city?
Way Past Kennedy Road had the privilege of curating the exhibit Habibz there, which focused on Toronto’s shisha ban, and how that impacted Black and/or Muslim placemaking across the cities. Shisha lounges were places where young Muslim women and people in general could gather, socialize, and have their own coming-of-age moments. They were spaces to create community, and the ban just showed how precarious and hyper-policed those spaces are. We explored what it means to police a community further that’s already under hyper-surveillance. And the MOEG was a nice place to have this conversation, because it was something that spoke to a lot of the people in the neighbourhood. People would walk by the gallery and come in, and would be able to relate to the conversations we were having. The MOEG was located in Parkdale, in a part of the city that’s rapidly gentrifying, and the broader context of the exhibit was also about displacement and revitalization projects, so it was something that spoke to things people are directly experiencing in the area. It was heartbreaking when the MOEG became the next casualty of Ontario’s arts cuts. The MOEG was special because it was a place where the inclusion of racialized and queer artists was not tokenistic, and in fact, were centred in the space.
To your question about funding--I’m not sure what the landscape of art spaces and funding will look like in the future, but there have been interesting things taking place. I’m thinking about the artists who called on John Tory to redirect the funding allocated for the upcoming year of public art towards housing, in a time of heightened crisis brought on by Covid-19. And we should recognize public art projects are often a tool to revitalize and market a city. So it is energizing to see these kinds of refusals on the part of artists, refusing to be a part of infrastructures that are displacing people.
Diversity and inclusion initiatives are not enough, and sometimes they can even be harmful, as has been said many times. It’s harmful to organize things in ways that aren’t sustainable and don’t respect or provide basic compensation for people’s labour. Representation is not enough; art institutions have to work on providing alternative ways of working and creating, otherwise we are just reproducing the same harmful patterns our art aims to critique.
There is an importance in not turning everything into a teachable moment, or a cultural guide, or a navigable map.
I’ve heard diversity and inclusion brought up so much in the wake of events of this past summer. There’s a crisis in arts and cultural institutions as they reckon with anti-Blackness and anti-Indigeneity, and there have been calls to change the larger structures within these institutions. Some of these tactics have included hiring more diverse staff and curators, for instance. But do you worry about this co-optation of the language of change, for this more palatable agenda of ‘diversity and inclusion’? To what extent can change even occur when individual institutions are still stuck working within a neoliberal power structure?
I don’t mean to discredit a lot of important actions and conversations happening around arts and inclusion, but at the same time, I worry that many non-Black people have turned this movement--which is quite literally calling for the abolition of police, prisons, carceral logic--into this careerist focus on ‘how can we create more space for me within the capitalist market’, not only within the art industry but with respect to any industry. And I think that’s really dangerous. Abolition is about expanding our imaginations. As is being addressed by many organizers right now, this rhetoric of ‘finding my place within this system’ is a co-optation that is the opposite of expanding our imaginations.
Your wrote the exhibition essay for Leila Fatemi’s recent exhibit at Xpace Cultural Centre, Facade through the Facade, which dealt with, in your words, “Orientalist visual culture, the white gaze, and colonial knowledge production.” In thinking about questions of speaking for the Other and the white gaze, I wanted to discuss the role of art and its potential to contest colonial logics. Can art function as an intervention in the project of coloniality? Can art contest not only dominant narratives of colonialism, but contest the overrepresentation of Western epistemologies? What are strategies that artists might employ to contest not only these dominant narratives, but how these narratives are produced?
The first thing that comes to my mind is the importance of the act of refusal, and of creating practices that aren’t translatable. bell hooks and David Garneau are both writers who have talked about cultural productions that refuse translation and the white gaze. I think in a lot of ways, artwork that is place-based can embody this act of refusal and translation. For instance, there was a recent Nuit Blanche exhibit by the artist Hiba Abdallah, and it employed different quotes from intergenerational residents of Scarborough. Scarborough is one of many Toronto neighborhoods facing gentrification and I think that in some ways, Nuit Blanche plays a role in portraying Scarborough as "liveable" and "full of culture" in a way that caters to a white audience. I think some of the artists in Nuit Blanche rejected this rhetoric. Like Abdallah, whose exhibit named intimate words and places that were for a specific public; it was meaningful for the residents of Scarborough, for people within that specific community, which I think is really special. Just because something is on display does not mean every facet of an object must be made knowable to everyone. There is an importance in not turning everything into a teachable moment, or a cultural guide, or a navigable map. Cartographer Annita Lucchesi practices Indigenous cartography, and their practice reminds us that ‘maps don’t need to be navigational’, and that refusing the navigational impulse can actually help us create maps that resist colonial logic.
I think it can also be really frustrating for artists of colour to have their work pigeonholed, and to become a spokesperson for their culture or community: a burden that is seemingly never placed on white artists. I see in your work as a curator that you refuse this need to make the work more digestible or translatable. This leads me to wonder about your relationship to the public, as a curator. As a curator, who or where do you want the work to be seen by? Do you have particular publics in mind when you curate?
I’ve had the luxury for the most part, of never having to centre a white audience, and of curating spaces for queer, trans and BIPOC communities. But one of the limits of curating I’ve encountered is that even though statistically, Toronto is a Black and brown city, a lot of the exhibits I’ve curated have happened in predominantly white neighbourhoods, outside of the spaces and communities I hoped to show the work. This again goes back to the question of the centre; the idea of what constitutes the centre is reinforced by who is granted funding and space in ways that other places in the city aren’t, which continues to be a challenge. But my practice in terms of audience, has remained that it’s not for the white gaze.
Marginalized peoples, including many marginalized artists, are struggling with a loss of income, housing precarity, at this moment. Toronto is an increasingly unlivable city for many artists, and your point about how artists critiqued the year of public art shows the power of refusal. But at the same time, I think about how art is often used as a signal towards revitalization, i.e. the practice of artwashing. So there is this twin tension when it comes to the relationships between artists and gentrification. I was wondering if you could speak to that tension, as someone who is involved in community organizing. What roles and relationships can or should arts workers cultivate in relation to community?
For my MA thesis on the Shisha ban and Muslim placemaking in the city, I recently conversed with the writer Amani Bin Shikhan, and in our conversation she was asking us to stretch our imaginations and to think about our desires. She said something along the lines of, ‘do we really want art gallery-esque coffee shops with aesthetics that mimic each other in every Toronto neighbourhood, or do want affordable housing?’ I think her questioning of priorities is really important when we think about what role artists can play in relationship to community. And just asking what we’re looking for from cultural production, and sometimes this requires a re-evaluation of our priorities.
I think this issue of cultural production also connects back to our discussion about the limits of representation. That it doesn’t just matter what we represent, but that the nature and conditions of production itself matters. Especially in this age of globalization, where the issue of outsourcing artistic labour can arise, and there’s often no credit given to that outsourced labour. On your point about stretching our imaginations and priorities, I wonder if we can stretch our imagination about what constitutes ‘the artist’ itself. Can we move away from this idea of singular mythic genius? It’s an idea that reinforces an art canon dominated by white male artists, but the designation of mythic genius is something that I still think attracts younger artists of colour. How can we reimagine what ‘artistry’ itself means?
I think community, and communal practices are in a lot of ways, all we have. I think looking towards the practices of community and organizers can not only strengthen an artist’s practice, but how we interact with each other. We have to think about anti-colonial ways of being in relationship with each other, which is part of the beginning of not only rejecting this idea of ‘genius’, but of having better practices in general.
I think we might need to think of the archive as a starting point, at best. It can act as a place for turning our vision inward, but we can also continue to reject the idea that the archive is ever complete, and understand on our own end that any attempts to ‘complete’ an archive are flawed.
I want to return to a question on archives, since you’ve curated work dealing with personal, familial, and colonial archives. Lately, an archival impulse is driving lots of contemporary art. Recontextualizing and reappropriating archives is a practice many marginalized artists have turned towards, in light of the recognition that state archives have historically functioned as sites of exclusion of violence. I’ve been curious about this move towards counter-archival practices in art, and what is involved in curating such work.
I think first when it comes to curating an archive, it’s important to recognize that having access to a ‘clean’ archive is itself a privilege. Having access to home videos or family photographs for instance, isn’t everyone’s experience. Someone’s relationship to an archive can literally just be in the form of migration documents, or documents that entail histories of enslavement, displacement and violence. While I love the idea of an archive, I think there can be this diasporic romanticization of the archive that goes back to our earlier conversation, and not everyone has access to these kinds of affective objects.
Your point about privilege and the archive is really powerful, because I’m curious about your perspective on the use of personal archives as an artistic object that is then mediated for public consumption. What are the ethics that go along with putting an object on display when it was originally intended for private use, especially if those objects once belonged to, or were created by someone else? I think the desire for visibility is so strong amongst marginalized communities, and the idea that these objects and images now hold important educational value, that I think issues of consent and ethics get subsumed by desires for visibility and display. What do you personally make of these issues?
It’s a question I struggle with, because in my own work as an artist, I’ve been drawn to personal archives, sometimes in ways I’ve regretted. Which is unfortunately just something I’ve had to learn by the experience of being discomforted by having it displayed in public. The issue of archives and consent is so important to recognize, and to recognize the things we project onto objects and images, and that sometimes objects can and should speak for themselves. The ethics around that is still something I have to give more thought to, but I return to Annita Lucchesi's work. Her ideas of disallowing navigability, and of allowing space for gaps and silences is a really nice way to work with the archive. This is something that Maandeeq Mohamed also talks about when we look at the archive, the importance of making space for multiple interpretations; there is no one reading of the archive. I do want to note that Mohamed is specifically discussing Black archival practices, and I don’t want to dilute the specificity of that context. But I think gaps and silences are important because they are tied to refusal, specifically refusing the act of extraction. We should realize too that what we think of as archival documents, often don’t make space for the joy and the resistance that happens within marginalized communities, which is why we should continue to look for those gaps when reading the archives.
Counter-archiving opens up the ability to restore or recuperate lost or excluded histories, but at the same time, that recuperative impulse entails a danger of falling into this trap of making the archive ‘complete’. Like you said, leaving gaps and spaces might instead counteract the truth value that has historically given the archive its hegemonic power. I think it's more interesting when art unsettles this power relation, and interrogates our complicated relationships with the archive. In curating counter-archival art, how do you avoid reifying this notion of the archive as a site of truth?
I think we might need to think of the archive as a starting point, at best. It can act as a place for turning our vision inward, but we can also continue to reject the idea that the archive is ever complete, and understand on our own end that any attempts to ‘complete’ an archive are flawed. I also worry especially about Western diasporic artists who sometimes use the archive to speak for people and communities who are very much alive, but choose to centre themselves because of their geography. I think there is a problem of diasporic artists self-objectifying the communities that they are a part of, and erasing the lived experiences of people outside of Western geographies experiencing the things they are discussing in a theoretical way.
This question of self-objectification is also connected, I think, to the commodification of trauma in art that is very present right now. I wanted to know your thoughts because it's a difficult subject to discuss; people of colour should have room to be able to share personal or communal trauma in their art, but as a curator, how do you cultivate an ethics that ensures you are presenting that work in a way that doesn’t feel like a spectacle, in terms of how the work is shown and consumed? How do you create space for marginalized artists in your curatorial practice, but still work with a recognition that certain narratives about communities of colour are more profitable than others, and these tend to be narratives of trauma.
That’s such a difficult question. It’s a very visceral feeling writing gallery grants. It's a terrible feeling, to feel like you are writing about trauma in a way to get access to particular institutions. I don’t know what else to say about that, because I don’t want to discredit the role of release it plays for people who choose to write or create that way. But I’m not really sure how to answer that question. It’s not the writing about, or creating work about trauma that is bad, but it’s how it gets romanticized, commodified, and aestheticized in really particular ways. But I don’t really have the answers.
The current pandemic has impacted how art is being exhibited and curated right now. More shows have been moving online, which opens up new challenges and opportunities. The increasing centrality of the digital sphere to some extent, might reduce the authority or centrality of the museum as the centre of art and curating. It can perhaps open up new ways of thinking about how we curate, and who has the right and ability to curate. What do you make of some of these shifts?
I think accessibility that the online sphere offers is the most important thing, and that takes a lot of different shapes and forms. I think there are exciting things happening online but at the same time, I don’t know how much can shift if we’re not actually shifting the power structures in place. For example, right now we’re seeing a lot of ‘VR galleries’ but most of these virtual spaces are quite literally reproducing the ‘white cube’, exactly as we know it, just online. If anything, this can and should be the time to think differently about how to present art and even what we consider to be art. I hope that more and more playlists, zines, blog posts and other more interactive, affordable, and accessible mediums are given weight and space and pay in digital art worlds. Or else we are simply mimicking practices of extraction and exclusion on another platform.
What does place-making look like online? How does that change with the transition to virtual exhibitions?
In terms of placemaking, I think my biggest hesitation right now unfortunately is just the state of surveillance online, and what we open ourselves up to when we translate our place-making practices to a digital sphere. On one hand, there are great things happening. I think about how the Toronto Palestine Film Festival happened online and reached audiences in a way that they never did before, which is the benefit of an online space. But at the same time, it’s easier than ever for governments to collect data about marginalized communities online. Surveillance is a huge barrier to safe access, and it is becoming more heightened with advances in digital technology.