Standing stentorian against the skyline, the Auto Building, at ten storeys, is the tallest structure on Sterling Road. The new Museum of Contemporary Art occupies five floors and opens its doors, with fortitude and luck, on September 22, to reclaim our air from an exhaust-fumed past. The building is quite beautiful in its industrial cloak and has interesting curved support pillars within. The location is superb, as the surrounding area is characterized by creative endeavours such as circus companies, design firms, and studios of artisans and artists.

The new executive director and CEO is Torontonian Heidi Reitmaier, who has been drawn away from the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago. The staff complement has swelled to around seventeen, compared to the six in the museum’s previous incarnation, MoCCA. David Liss, who stays on as curator, has organized BELIEVE, the inaugural exhibition. MOCA aims to engage with art, artists, and viewers as a creative hub, sensitive to the community’s needs and expressing provocative socio-environmental questions. Reitmaier defines its mandate: “Our approach to relevance is to showcase Canadian artists, some of whom are globally recognized and some who you won’t have heard of until you visit us. What this diverse roster of artists will have in common is the interdisciplinary nature of their work and their aspiration for exploration of universal human experiences, ‘multiple voices’ to advance social inclusion.” 1 The program leaps into the sociopolitical arena emphasizing diversity and plurality. Reitmaier says, “I think questions around beliefs and values and ideologies and behaviours are at the top of that. The show opens up a lot of questions for us to tackle.” 2

BELIEVE features well-known international artists, such as conceptualist Barbara Kruger, who combines collage, photography, and video with inflammatory political texts in large, immersive installations expressing feminist and consumerist themes. She is juxtaposed with new voices from Indigenous backgrounds, including Jeneen Frei Njootli, a Vuntut Gwitchin North Yukon artist who uses traditional materials and techniques to reclaim her own history, and from other continents, including Awol Erizku, an Ethiopian artist living in New York, who strives to integrate people of colour into the art narrative. The selected artists share such themes as connecting art with personal histories and spiritual interpretations of belief alongside sociopolitical and environmental issues. This is in keeping with a new imperative to incorporate more voices and present different cultural perspectives. MOCA is being aggressively proactive in defining what this cultural expression looks like.

Kendell Geers, BE:LIE:VE (2002)
Neon sign 210 x 736 x 4 cm
Courtesy of the artist and Stephen Friedman Gallery

Can Altay is a Turkish artist and architect based in Ankara. His work addresses the politics of the street, how people survive economically, secret organizations, and the undermining of urban space through improvised architecture. He constructs settings for social gathering that challenge the accepted meanings and systems of organization within public space. Kendell Geers, a conceptual artist born in South Africa, is interested in language and the signs that we employ in our sociopolitical experience. He uses these, together with performance and film, in questioning and disruptive strategies in public space, embracing themes such as terrorism and environmentalism. Meschac Gaba is a Rotterdam-based conceptual artist from Benin who inserts playful yet critical Africanized objects and sculptures into traditional Western cultural contexts such as museum displays. He focuses on systems of trade, referencing colo­nialism and addressing valuation systems, blurring the boundaries between art, craft, and political intent. Maya Stovall, from Detroit, produces performance videos and installations that connect art with life through movement and dance. She gives voice and body to the urban unseen through her art, revealing urban marginality, ethnicity, and gender issues. Vietnamese artist Tuan Andrew Nguyen uses rituals and supernaturalism invested in objects and videos as a point of political resistance aimed at reclaiming public space, addressing environmental extinction, consumerism, and political activism.

Cultural identity and acknowledgment of other histories are prevalent themes in the work of multimedia artist Dineo Seshee Bopape, also South African, who narrates her personal history through photographs, sound, video, and sculptural installations. She uses soil in dense installations that investigate land with reference to history, gender, and identity issues. Soil is used in Africa to create mud dwellings. Themes of immigration and displacement are evoked by Nikolaj B. S. Larsen, a Danish filmmaker and artist based in London, who focuses on refugees through powerful videos such as Quicksand. In this futuristic video, he imagines the state of the world in 2033, which is an accurate projection of the current sociopolitical and economic situation.

The Canadian artists selected are congruent with the mandate yet seem to have a greater emphasis on spiritualist beliefs. Nep Sidhu is an interdisciplinary artist who makes large textile works from industrial materials. He uses forms and techniques from his cultural background integrated with his present personal experience. He has satellite projects in India that contextualize the sacred and divine through textiles. Rajni Perera is originally Sri Lankan and interested in a slew of areas, such as hybridity, deities, gender, and sexuality. She combines a love of female science-fiction characters with historical reference points such as Indian miniature art. Jeremy Shaw, based in Berlin and Vancouver, uses video to record transcendent mental states initiated by psychedelics and religious rapture. In these intimate films derived from vintage pop-culture footage, Shaw explores boundaries between euphoric trance and extreme dread. Tim Whiten is a Toronto artist interested in mortality and manifesting spiritual mystery through installations that include crystal glass skulls, a reliquary, and ritual performances. Carl Beam, an Ojibwa artist who died in 2005, will be represented by his Columbus Suite etchings that record the tragedy of European landfall in the Americas and seek catharsis for the future. Matilda Aslizadeh is a video and installation artist based in Vancouver whose three-channel videos present a time-based collage of our historical origins and consumerism, contrasted with the environmental consequences that we ignore.

“I think questions around beliefs and values and ideologies and behaviours are at the top of that. The show opens up a lot of questions for us to tackle.” (Heidi Reitmaier, director)

BELIEVE will occupy the second and third floors of the museum. The ground floor will be open and free of charge. DemosA Reconstruction by Greek artist Andreas Angelidakis is an installation of sculptural blocks that will entice visitors to interact and structure their own forms. Western audiences are notoriously reluctant to touch art, so this installation will encourage people to see art as part of their life.

MOCA will connect with the local creative milieu by holding workshops and discussions alongside a series of projects that stimulate interaction. It has commissioned artists Tania Bruguera, Ange Loft, Hiba Abdallah, and Adrian Blackwell to produce new projects.

Akin Projects, an organization that transforms under-utilized industrial spaces into rental studios for artists, has partnered with MOCA and occupies the fourth floor with a program granting one-year studio residencies. Artists will engage with visitors at open studio events.

Art Metropole, a renowned not-for-profit organization dedicated to publishing and dis­tributing artist’s books, multiples, and editions in all media, has embarked on a new model with a two-year residency in MOCA. The bookstore will produce pop-up projects and instigate programming for its experimental space, located on the ground floor.

Several art-world political narratives, such as relational aesthetics, feminism, diversity, and plurality, are evident in MOCA’s programming. The museum displays an undercurrent that seeks to engage with society using art as a conceptualizing force for social change. I find it heartening that MOCA intends to reach out to and inform its potential viewers through workshops and talks. It will be important to keep visitors involved with educational programs so that MOCA becomes a functioning creative hub in the community.

In a similar vein, I suspect that although artists will enjoy the exhibitions, some may feel alienated from MOCA as an institution engaged with their own work. It’s a desert out there for most artists I know, and I wonder if MOCA understands that. Although MOCA is elevating certain kinds of art, such as interdisciplinary strategies, there is a need to integrate other art forms or risk being perceived as elitist. 

Liss says, “We’re opening this place, finally, because it’s something we believed in from the beginning: that there could be a major contemporary art museum in Canada’s largest city. But to get to the point, it’s taken a lot of belief to get us here and we’re finally able to honour all the people that did.”3

MOCA’s opening will be thoroughly appealing, and we can look forward to an extraordinary new contemporary museum embedded within the burgeoning creative precincts of the Junction Triangle.4 BELIEVE promises to deliver an incredible exhibition that will engender new respect for this intrepid contemporary art museum. 

Curator: David Liss
MOCA – Museum of Contemporary Art Toronto
September 22, 2018—January 6, 2019

(1) REITMAIER, Heidi. MOCA needs to be goundbreaking… [Press Release], Museum of Contemporary Art, April 2018.

(2) WHEELER, Brad. “Museum of Contemporary Art plan housewarming party after ‘pretty intense’ relocation project,” The Globe and Mail, January 21, 2018.

(3) WHYTE, Murray. “MOCA Toronto announces opening date and inaugural show”, Toronto Star, January 30, 2018.

(4) The Junction Triangle is located in West Toronto where the railway tracks form a triangle. Bloor Street, Dupont Street, Lansdowne Avenue, and Dundas Street West form its perimeter. It is rapidly developing into the new arts district.