At the steps of the Museum of Contemporary Art Toronto entrance sits a large wooden game board. On its surface are more than a hundred black painted wooden tops that visitors are invited to try their hand at spinning. Upon closer observation and once they are in play, it becomes apparent that most of the tops are distorted and do not spin at all. The reason for this is that artist Ghazaleh Avarzamani has created each top to include the shadow it casts as part of its form. In doing so, she makes a statement about the imbalances of power in life and politics by making visible what is hidden or overlooked. Broken Circle (2021) sets the tone for MOCA Toronto’s GTA21 triennial, as many of the artworks in this exhibition demand a double take, asking viewers to look again and to engage again with what might be unsaid or unseen.

The group behind the inaugural survey exhibition is composed of guest curator Daisy Desrosiers and two MOCA staff members, adjunct curator Rui Mateus Amaral and artistic director November Paynter. The exhibition boasts a showcase of existing and commissioned works by twenty-one artists and collectives based in Toronto or “intensely” connected to the city. The triennial fills the gap left by the postponed 2nd Toronto Biennial. Despite its title, the show is not about the Greater Toronto Area; rather, it adopts the GTA as a metaphorical framework that refers to an expanded or reimagined understanding of place, beyond geographical and spatial boundaries. However, there is not much exploration of “place” or placemaking apart from the name. The triennial’s inception speaks to the institution’s desire to strengthen its relationship with the local community in an ongoing manner. In the development of new works, contributors were asked to consider what feels most urgent to them.

Although it was apparent that decolonization was at the forefront of most artists’ minds, I expected to see more works address critical environmental concerns and biopolitics, given the record-breaking natural disasters in 2020 and the social inequities exacerbated by the pandemic.

Kara Springer, Do I have to build you a fucking pyramid? (2021) Photographic prints, wood. Photo: Toni Hafkenscheid

The only work in the exhibition to confront environmental matters, and doing so in a poetic manner, is Kara Springer’s Do I have to build you a fucking pyramid? (2021), an installation of pyramid-like structures with close-up photographs of light reflecting off of thick, slick black oil. The work highlights oil extraction as one of the main causes of economic disparity, political violence, climate change, and displaced peoples. In conversation with this work is Springer’s The Earth & All Its Inhabitants (2019), which points to the impact of natural forces on a human-made structure. The photo lightbox depicts an image of a tall upright ladder placed in the ocean. In the staging of this scene, the ladder fell slowly enough to be photographed. The image provokes a delayed reaction and, after a prolonged look, offers a moment of suspended disbelief. It imbues a sense of hope but is also a reminder of the inevitable. Both works point to the fragility of human infrastructure, which is often ignored in the pursuit of power and progress. Double Gazebo (MOCA) (2021) by Native Art Department International (Maria Hupfield and Jason Lujan) is another work that investigates a familiar structure. The two black, intersected structures are stanchioned off from public use and experienced as a flat image. Echoing the spinning tops that open the exhibition, the structural study is a doppelganger or shadow of a functional gazebo that stands in the courtyard at Varley Art Gallery of Markham, also created by the duo. The doubling of the double gazebo creates grounds for new potential among opposing concepts of inside and outside, darkness and light, space and occupation.

Native Art Department International, Double Gazebo (MOCA) (2021) Painted steel and wood. Photo: Toni Hafkenscheid (installation view MOCA Toronto, 2021)

Found throughout the exhibition are miniatures of a two-headed creature, part lion and part bull. When they follow the trail of replicas, visitors are led to Nour Bishouty’s Permanent Collection (2021), a hidden drawer in the wall, reminiscent of both a museum display case and storage, that contains an assortment of miniature vessels. Because there is no accompanying didactic text, visitors must speculate and generate their own facts about the artefacts. In her specific research on the two-headed figurine, Bishouty discovered its historical counterpart at the Cleveland Museum of Art. This sculpture and its multiplicity encapsulate her desire to blur the concepts of original and copy or fake and to find authenticity and authorship in both. This work expands on concepts established in her film AḏrāʾSamar (2017), which shows melting ice sculptures cast from moulds created by her father for a souvenir shop in Amman, Jordan, in the 1990s. The ice sculptures, though replicas and urgently impermanent, are a means of evoking familial memories and an effort to piece together fragments of a life of dispossession and displacement caused by the Palestinian nakba and the Lebanese civil war.[1]

Azza El Siddique, Fade into the Sun (2021) Steel, bukhoor, sandaliya, slip cast ceramic, water. Photo: Toni Hafkenscheid (installation view MOCA Toronto, 2021)

Also drawing from familial narrative and heritage is the work of Sudanese-Canadian artist Azza El Siddique. Arguably the showstopper of the entire exhibition, Fade into the Sun (2021) is a structure that references the design of Nubian burial chambers. Centrally located in the museum, El Siddique’s framework turns the space into a site for ritual and reflection. An irrigation system slowly drips water onto slip-cast ceramics modelled after her cultural and family heirlooms. For the duration of the exhibition, the water erodes the objects on display, alluding to death and decay. Bishouty’s and El Siddique’s works ruminate on the repeated acts of care that we perform for ourselves and our departed ancestors. It is through these traditional and self-imposed rituals that we commemorate and invite transformation.

Repetition is a recurring point of departure for many of the artists in the exhibition, which is presented as inevitable and uncanny, reproduction and ritual. The works in GTA21 challenge viewers to take notice, observe, and study the changing same. It is the quiet attention to detail that ties this show together and encourages viewers to keep looking to reveal new findings where there are thought to be none.

The translation in French is published in the issue 265 (winter 2022).

Artists: Ashoona Ashoona dnd Alexa Hatanaka, Ghazaleh Avarzamani, Nour Bishouty, Jesse Chun, Tom Chung, Common Accounts – Igor Bragado and Miles Gertler, Julia Dault, Azza El Siddique, Kareem-Anthony Ferreira, Aaron Jones, Pamila Matharu, Native Art Department International – Maria Hupfield And Jason Lujan, Oluseye, Pamela Phatsimo Sunstrum, Jagdeep Raina, Tony Romano, Jennifer Rose Sciarrino, Walter Scott, Kara Springer, Sahar Te, The Collective Of Parastoo Anoushahpour, Faraz Anoushahpour and Ryan Ferko
Curators: Daisy Desrosiers, Rui Mateus Amaral and November Paynter
Museum of contemporary art, TORONTO
September 29TH, 2021 to January 9TH, 2022

[1] Kareem Estefan, “A Gathering Place for Objects That Have No Place: Nour Bishouty’s 1-130,” Journal of Visual Culture 20, no. 2 (August 2021): 325–30, 325,