In a city with an already impressive art scene, Toronto’s Biennial of Art till stands out.

Advertised as “a new international contemporary visual arts event as culturally connected and diverse as the city itself,” it’s the first event of its kind in Toronto. The Biennial aims to represent the diversity and history of the city and its surrounding areas through the use of free exhibitions, workshops, and tours. This goal is reflected by the curation of the art and exhibitions, over half of which come from artists who are BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Colour).

One of the two main exhibition sites is the Small Arms Inspection Building in Mississauga, which I had the opportunity to visit.

Looking like an empty warehouse on the outside, upon entering you’ll find an open space dominated by windows, high ceilings, and brick walls. The only sound comes from part of the exhibit, a short film featuring a conversation between an Indigenous man and a white man, with the help of a translator.

The building, recently reopened as an arts center, was originally a plant used to manufacture weapons for the Allied forces during World War II. Later, it was part of the industrialization that dominated Toronto’s waterfront, until 1990 when an environmental audit revealed deep contamination from the manufacturing. After a halting of the factories and restoration of the land, the area is now home to the arts center.

The history of the building is fitting for the theme of the exhibition, which focuses on how the price of “progress” is exacted on the earth. Much of the artwork featured are by Indigenous artists of Canada and South America and depict their relationship to the land around them. The exhibit also examines the history of the area, including the long-lasting dispute over the Toronto Purchase, during which most of Toronto was “sold” to the British.

Quite a few pieces stand out in this exhibit, my favourite of which was Chair by Naufus Ramirez-Figueroa. The piece consists of aluminum casts of brittle-looking chairs held together by rope. The chair represents the silleros used in colonial-era Guatemala, to carry settlers, artists, and explorers up the mountains, literally on the backs of the Indigenous population. The piece was inspired by a revealing self-portrait painted in 1830, showing the bleak contrast of class. The casts aim to subvert what the silleros originally stood for, by depicting them as empty and reducing them to their basic elements.

A series of paintings by Abel Rodriguez, a Nonuya Elder, also stood out. Simple but detailed, the paintings display his vast knowledge of the Igara Panará River region in Columbia, accumulated over his lifetime. The paintings are colourful and pure. After armed conflict in the 1990’s forced him to leave his native land, Rodriguez started painting as a way to preserve his memories. “I had never drawn before, I barely knew how to write, but I had a whole world in my mind asking me to picture the plants.” Rodriguez is now considered one of the most important living artists in Columbia and was given the Toronto Biennial of Art inaugural Art Prize for his contribution.

Caroline Monnet’s The Flow Between Hard Places stands alone in the middle of the exhibit. The tall, rolling sculpture represents the sound waves when saying pasapkedjinawong in Anishinaabemowin (“the river that passes between the rocks”), said by Anishnaabe Elder Rose Wawatie-Beaudoin. The piece fits with Monnet’s ongoing attempt to communicate thoughts around Indigenous and bicultural identity.

There is something striking about walking through this exhibit. These pieces are statements from people who know what it is to lose or be forced to leave their land, or who are watching their land be unrecognizably changed. The art was created in an effort of remembrance, and their display in an exhibit that is ultimately temporary is somewhat sad. Many of these pieces were commissioned for the Biennial, and I hope they find a permanent home in Toronto once these 72 days of free art are over.

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