Lillian O’Brien Davis: Hi. My name is Lillian O'Brien Davis. I'm the Curator of Exhibitions and Public Programs at Gallery 44. I’m honored to be joined today in a conversation for an upcoming exhibition at the gallery called “Is Love a Synonym for Abolition?” curated by Liz Ikiriko and featuring the artwork of Isabel Okoro and Timothy Yanick Hunter, in conversation with Katherine McKittrick. Thanks everyone for joining me. I'm so pleased that we could be here today together on Zoom. I have a few questions prepared, but one of the first questions that I wanted to start with is how are you doing?
Isabel Okoro: So, I've been doing okay, mostly. I was back home in Nigeria for the past seven months. It was a longer period than I've been used to in more recent years, because even though I was born and raised there, moving to Canada, I would be limited to only seeing my family maybe once every couple of years. So, just being in the space again for such a lengthy period had a great impact on me. Not just as an artist but also as a person. In terms of going back to in person interaction, back in Lagos things have still been moving, you know, there wasn’t any lockdown. There was a lockdown I think at the start of the pandemic but after the first one, things have been back to normal. Life moves very fast in Lagos. I haven't been vaccinated yet, but I would like to be. I didn't get vaccinated in Lagos because they were only giving a specific type of vaccine there, you know, the ones that come in as like donations from the west or whatever. I was just kind of iffy about it. I'm also iffy about the Nigerian government, anything they do so, I just didn't want to take it there. I'm now in London adjusting back to a slower paced setting and having to be more cautious about things compared to when I was in Lagos. It's really been interesting.
Timothy Yanick Hunter: How long are you staying over there?
Isabel Okoro: I'm in London for like two months or until whenever Canada opens up. I wasn't able to come back right away because even though I'm a student and I have my study permit, they don't consider my travel essential because I was already done with school at the time that I wanted to come back. So, it's sort of made everything in limbo. I don't really know anything about the future, just waiting.
Liz Ikiriko: I feel like that's the theme of 2021. Now that we're 16 months into the pandemic, I've really noticed this difference between 2020. There was just such a great weight and gravity to it. I felt like everything was really hard last year. Things moved forward, but my relationship to time changed. Everything felt radical, a day felt like a month and then a week would feel like an hour. It was just super strange. I feel like 2021, every opportunity has been met with its equal challenge, so I appreciate what you're saying Isabel. In terms of thinking about where I'm at personally, it's reflected in everything, in every action. There's been so many great things that have happened. “Is Love a Synonym for Abolition?” came out of this time too. It’s been really amazing to be in connection with all of you. And even though, I wouldn't say fractured but the fact that Isabel, you've been away, even though we've been able to stay connected, there are challenges that we're always seeing. The actual exhibition has been delayed, and all these things where there's no one to blame. It's just like, here we go, and let's just keep waiting and hope things turnout. I would just say that that's the continuation of how it's going over here.
Timothy Yanick Hunter: Yeah, I’ve found not just our project, but any projects that started after the pandemic … maybe fractured is not the word, but having to work so remotely, the relationship to time has been very interesting. Ironically enough, like Liz was saying, I’ll admit it's been nice to not have to respond to people immediately because that's my nature. It has been very challenging though. Talking about my work… Yesterday, I went past the Reference Library, and I was just missing this whole period of my life when I would spend so much time researching and doing stuff there. I'll admit, I’m still not fully back to the rhythm I was in pre-pandemic. It's not necessarily a bad thing, I’m still working, but it's very different. Especially as an artist when your work kind of synthesizes life, not being outside and in social settings and seeing your friends and family and having certain kinds of conversations that really feed the work… Black Artists Union, we were meeting every week, right? So, to go from that to not meeting in person is very different. But at the same time, Liz like you said, the weight is very different. I've still had to get used to the situation. I think in a historical context, it would be really interesting to look back at everything that's come out of the last year, maybe two or three years, I’m very interested in seeing how we will talk about the work of especially Black artists during such a tumultuous time.
Katherine McKittrick: I'm trying to let it all sink in, what you've all mentioned. Thinking about being in limbo and living in a kind of fragmented world, but also how this opened up new possibilities for connections and conversations, and new ways of teaching each other ideas and talking about ideas in ways that we wouldn't have before. We would be sitting in a room for example, or perhaps not. Perhaps our schedules couldn't have met as easily. And so, the isolation has produced these really beautiful transnational contexts, but at the same time it's like activity in stasis. We're generating ideas and I'm doing this all from my basement. I just come downstairs and it's the same space, there's no new geography for me to choose that will add to my ideas. There's no bumping into someone on the street that will shift what direction I'm going. It's a really complicated time for me. I also like being alone, but I'm not sure I like being alone this much, right? At first, during the early months of the pandemic, it was almost a relief. We mentioned that with the different ways that we relate to people, just being able to retreat from that and this is significant. Especially Tim and Isabel, in terms of what you're thinking about in your art and how the pandemic creates a particular type of Black art. For me, it was a relief not to have to go back to campus because the university I work at is racist, right? So, to be able to not have to walk through that campus and wade through that white supremacy is a different kind of feeling. However, at the same time, I lost connections with my Black students. We get a new context, and we invent something new out of it, but then something gets lost. That's how I've been trying to think about what this long moment has meant. I don't know about re-entry. I'm nervous. I don't know what it will look like, but I'm excited about what is possible. I think one of the things that has come out of this are those new contexts, and that we can make ideas in a different kind of way now. We know it is possible to do more transnational conversations, even though there are limits to that. Lillian O’Brien Davis: Thank you all so much. I'm thinking about how this project is almost an experiment in a lot of the things that you're mentioning, Katherine, in terms of a way of working together that has had to evolve many times during this pandemic, with the dates shifting and all that. I'm curious to learn more of how this collaboration came together, what the process has been, and how it has shifted over the last 16 months?
Liz Ikiriko: The origin story of this exhibition started in 2019. Gallery 44 and I applied for the Ontario Arts Council funding. It's the Culturally Diverse Curatorial grant that we received. We applied quite early, thinking that this would be great to have a line. So, in 2019 when we're applying, I remember thinking like, oh 2021, we're good. We have all this time to work on an idea and whatnot. Even when the pandemic started, I was like, this is challenging for so many people, but this is great for the show because it's not going to impact us at all, there's no way it could. [laughs] Of course, it does. I was thinking about the importance of identifying different ways of curating and thinking through collective and collaborative practice and working with Black artists and thinking about the kinds of engagement I have had and wanted to pursue. At that time coming out of grad school - I’d done my degree in Criticism and Curatorial Practice at OCAD - I wanted to challenge a formal structure for curatorial practice. I wanted to be able to work with artists that would be interested to connect with each other and have work come out of this. Not just to say, I love this work and it would respond well to this work, so let's put it in a space together and send out a press release and make shit happen. That wasn't really of any interest. In terms of thinking about Tim and Isabel, I'll let you guys talk about the way that you've been working together. But I think both of you have practices that are already collaborative in nature - Tim being part of Black Artists Union and knowing that Isabel was self-taught and taking these incredible photos of friends that were so beautiful and with an intimate kind of engagement. I just thought there would be great synergies between Tim and Isabel and being able to create and support community within Toronto. That was the beginning premise.
Timothy Yanick Hunter: I can start with saying that some time last year when the restrictions were a little bit different, it was the first time we got to meet in Kensington market. That was maybe the only time we have been in the same room and discussed the work. I like the dialogue that we've been having leading up to the work. I do admit, due to the ongoing pushing of the dates and stuff, I think the conversations between all four of us became integral. I do feel that was the intention anyway, but because of how long the process was, the conversations were integral to what is to come. Also, to see the text and that kind of collaborative work. With this particular project, it's really interesting to see how there's not even much of a hierarchy between the end exhibition … Maybe at first that's how I was thinking - that we'd have a series of discussions, the book and then the in-person exhibition, but of course, because of the pandemic and this institution we're in … but this is the first time I've ever had such a multi-disciplinary project. Between all the collaborators, there's just so much dialogue behind the work. I’m interested to see how it manifests physically in a room. Also collaborating remotely, there are challenges of us not being in the same place, let alone the same continent. It's very challenging. So, I find a lot of the work has been just dialogue. Not to minimize the work, but I think dialogue is important. Katherine, you've sent us copies of your science work and reading through that, that's a whole other side. It’s been super influential, putting words to what I've been thinking. In a long-winded way, I’m saying that I’ve been very grateful for that the dialogue aspect of this project.
Isabel Okoro: To go from what Tim is saying, I'm really grateful for the entire experience and all the conversations, openness and sharing knowledge between us. When we started discussing the exhibition around this time last year, I already had an idea of the work I wanted to create and even made some of that work before we had even started speaking with Katherine. I can say, from these conversations that we've had and the papers that we shared, and then working on the publication, the ideas that I had back then now seem more mature. A silver lining of the show being pushed is that it's given me more time to be more intentional about the words to describe the work and the way I want the work presented. I was making a triptych, and I had made the first two images in Toronto last fall. I always planned to make the third one back home in Nigeria. I was going through a lot at the start of the year, so I kept postponing it and I didn’t end up making the image until February. I showed it to Liz and to some friends, and I just knew it wasn’t the idea I was trying to see come to life. It felt very far from me. Having the show postponed again gave me not only more time but also more space to consider a lot of things differently. I ended up shooting this image in two different shoots. The last one that I did embodied everything that I wanted it to.
I started to focus on this idea of surrendering to the flow. Even before making the image, we were reading a text – I can’t remember who amongst us shared it – but it was on Diaspora literacy and Marasa Consciousness and African traditions and all of that. Reading a lot of that text, considering a lot of different things, paying attention to the current context that we're all living in, how everything is stuck in limbo, I started to hone in on this idea of surrendering to the flow. If you see the third image in the triptych, it's sort of a double exposure image of a fantasized space where the faces aren’t obvious, but the bodies are obvious. It’s all these Black bodies in this space and things are in limbo. Nothing is set in stone. The double exposure nature of the image makes it such that things are just flowing. There's this natural flow. That's an example of something that I know for sure I wouldn't have been able to consider had it not been for the conversations that we had, the knowledge that we shared, and the context that we're in. Maybe if the show was held back in May, I wouldn't have been able to consider all these different ideas. So, at the end of everything, I'm just grateful to still be in a position where I can have conversations like this with people that I look up to or people that give me a lot to think about. After every conversation that we have, I do have a lot to think about. Tim said it's not often that we find ourselves working in these sorts of projects where it's not just about the work but it's about everything else too, the process. This show really emphasized every aspect of the process. It's not often that you see a gallery or collaborators that are willing to tear apart the process and break everything down and make sense of everything in a way that speaks to all of us.
Katherine McKittrick: Yeah, I really value and cherish the dialogue part. I'm a wordy person. I love words and I love thinking about words. One of the gifts of this is when Liz asked me to participate, it was a way for me to think about art as theory. To think about how creative work is a theoretical text with a curator and two artists who are thinking along the same lines, but they may not use the same grammar as I use. And so, for me, collaborative projects are always full of possibility. But, as everybody's pointed out, what did the dialogue do to allow us to theorize abolition, and theorize freedom or liberation in different kinds of ways? To go back to Isabel's story she just told, how the actual practical work of making, creating, and inventing something shifts because of a conversation that you've had … To be able to track that is really beautiful. To think that both of you are producing art in a very specific and individual way, yet it's tied to a bigger conversation, and a bigger dialogue. I don't think there is a hierarchy here, right? So, words aren’t privileged over the visual and the visual isn't privileged over the words. Instead, we need all these things to be entangled to bring the project forward, which is really lovely. I've been thinking a lot about abolition. I just finished Mariame Kaba’s book and had a conversation with colleagues and students about her book on abolition. I'm always in conversation with Ruth Wilson Gilmore about how abolition is ongoing and never resolved. This project is an expression of a struggle that we're having and doing together. There isn't necessarily an answer to freedom here, but rather working together to navigate the brutality of the world within the context of a global pandemic from very different locations. There's a richness to this. The delay is another part of the gift. We can have this conversation instead of scrambling for May to get everything together. One of the things I have learned through this process is and a lesson that I learned from working with Sylvia Wynter so many years ago, is that there is nothing wrong with being patient. Patient about ideas and patient about conversations, and having long, stretched-out conversations, rather than quick, snappy ones. Quick, snappy ones are great as texts and quick emails and so forth. They can be aesthetically pleasing and great too. But what's wrong with stretching out how we struggle to think through, you know, how we might get to a better future? We need to be patient about this sometimes. This created that space in limbo, a space of creation as well.
Liz Ikiriko: I think about the fact that in most situations we have such distinct goals in mind. Like, for exhibitions, we are going to produce this work, with this structure. So much of that was originally not planned. I didn't really want to make any space for having a very structured outcome and then on top of it, all of you were responsive. I mean, Katherine, we were probably the most aware of not wanting to impose ourselves on you. It was so wonderful to have this opportunity to be like, here's this space, and we all fed into it. It was like a research and resource sharing practice that we all contributed to in such an incredible way. Katherine, you had a talk not so long ago, maybe a couple of weeks ago, where someone was asking you a question about how to work with freedom as your goal or result. How to work towards the idea of freedom and abolition, and what I got from what you were saying was, well, if that's the end goal, we'll never get there. It's a process. It's a practice and it's what we're doing. It has to be something that we're enacting all the time. I thought that was so profound. I think it is really at the heart of what we're doing in terms of being able to envision the world that we want to live in, how it looks and feels, and how we can create that with this exhibition, with this space that we're utilizing. I think that's the part that has felt so gratifying. There's no hierarchy, the sense of time doesn't feel super … There's no panic. We are just creating this really rich pool.
Lillian O’Brien Davis: I'm really intrigued by this dynamic and how the relationship developed, and to have a scholar come into the curator-artist relationship. I'm wondering Liz or Katherine, or even Tim or Isabel, if you wanted to go into a little bit more about what that relationship is like?
Liz Ikiriko: I was kind of wishing for the stars. I was like, I would love to work with Katherine. Let's see what happens. I honestly did not think that I would get a response from you, Katherine. So, it was exciting. We initially met to discuss how this would work. Generous is a word that is used so much lately, but it's true. I feel you've been very generous in terms of your time and presence. We developed this idea of having conversations with Tim and Isabel. I've been happy and excited about the fact that this hasn't felt hierarchical. In a lot of ways, there has been an embedded Western hierarchy within academia and within the art world, in terms of the relationships between curators and artists and between scholars and students. That didn't happen here, and I think all of us really brought ourselves, and the way that we want to be in the world. I don't think any of us conform to having these rigid markers of scholar, curator, or professional artist. So, I guess that kind of made it easy.
Isabel Okoro: I feel really privileged to be in this kind of space considering my age and background and everything. It's not often that people as young as me, 19-year-old Black artists have these opportunities to have conversations with scholars, curators, or galleries. It's been such a comfortable introduction into these worlds for me. I haven't really felt intimidated, but I'm very open to learning. I have learned so much just from exchanging emails and having conversations. Sometimes it’s hard to sit down and make sense of just how much of an impact. As an artist, it's amazing to be given this sort of opportunity. From this time last summer when I had just started developing the ideas to right now when they’re almost complete, I've had a growth. Not only in the work but also in the way I think about the work. I'm more interested in reading as an inspiration to making images or listening to music or doing things that I wouldn't necessarily have done prior to this opportunity. I’m very grateful that everything has happened the way it has, and just grateful to be in conversation constantly with minds that are more mature than mine. Minds that are thinking about things that a young me obviously wouldn't think about. It's been sort of humbling, but also very interesting to navigate these spaces and try to hold my ground and not sound stupid around you guys.
Timothy Yanick Hunter: You have a neuroscience degree. [laughter] I feel like I’m the odd one out, Isabel. Congratulations, by the way.
Isabel Okoro: Thank you.
Timothy Yanick Hunter: I feel very privileged as well to work this way. A lot of what we discussed, especially when we were sharing texts, really opened my eyes to readings and research that I hadn't considered before. The really cool part about this, especially when we were working on that text, was Liz and Katherine as curator and scholar, to see you guys also work as artists on the text was very cool. Like you said, Katherine, thinking of art as theory, theoretical as text, music as text, and cultural work, I might overuse that word, but I find it kind of summarizes what we all do, as Black cultural workers. At any given time, I'm an artist but I'm also many other things. With this project that was very apparent.
Lillian O’Brien Davis: A theme that occurs in the show is the merging or crossing over of different media, with lens-based works, film, music, audio. I'm curious if you want to talk more about the importance of this method of working to the project.
Timothy Yanick Hunter: Me and Isabel both have websites that are a mix of a sound, image, video. It's just a starting place, where we're kind of working like that independently anyway.
Isabel Okoro: It’s also interesting because I had never thought of using a website in the way that I did with Colour and Feel until I was introduced to Tim's website, True and Functional. When I first saw Tim’s website, I was like, this is like the coolest thing I've ever seen, like, what's going on here? When I considered art before, I think my ideas on what art is and what art can be were very limited through the artists that I got the chance to work with. It's just sort of opened my mind to more possibilities. Just thinking about the ways that we can use different mediums to say the same things or the ways that we can utilize the tools that we already have to make newer things. That possibility is something that's really been emphasized from working on this project.
Katherine McKittrick: I really love interdisciplinary work and thinking across different textures and ideas and different media. I just finished an essay on Renée Green's archive, from about 1986 forward. I was blown away by how in the mid to late 1980s she was doing a lot of work with sound, with installations that are living room with books around them, which we've seen more recently at the AGO with Mickalene Thomas. Renée Green was doing that in 1986. With a lot of Black artists, you know, we can see a continuity, whether it be through someone like Renée Green or Carrie Mae Weems. I'm thinking in Canada about Charmaine Lurch who works with both wires and charcoal and brings together different texts and ways to think about, as Tim put it, Black cultural work. There's just this richness of possibility that reaches outside a specific genre, even if it is genre based. Even if it's photography, there’s a soundtrack to the photography that will draw us into the piece. We can also think about something like Ralph Ellison's “Invisible Man,” as an example. He wrote the first chunk of that as a jazz piece. That's one example where it's a novel and then if you know the story behind it, then it becomes something else.
I think with both Tim and Isabel's archives, you see that piecing together of multiple genres and media that produce a coherent narrative that simultaneously pushes against white supremacy, but also pushes against singular genres as the only way to produce art, right? There's something that says you can only do a painting, or you can only do a sculpture, but instead, there are several narratives, texts, songs, sounds, poetics that come together, that produce ways of being Black. I'm very interested in and drawn to that multiplicity, that ability to bring together a whole bunch of things that launch this monumental critique of the art world and of white supremacy. So, yeah, there's a lot going on and because it's so layered you can enter it. It's a flexible entry point. If you're not comfortable entering it through the sculpture, you might enter it through sound, or you might enter it through something else. There's a generosity and a capaciousness which is really beautiful.
Liz Ikiriko: I just discovered this piece of writing by Glissant – mind my French – called “La pensée du tremblement” which is ‘the thought of the tremor.’ Glissant’s thinking through this idea of trembling thinking as a way of refusing fixed ideas, framed in structured ways. Embracing the multiple. I really love this in terms of thinking of the way that with Black cultural work and Black presence, there is a refusal of giving shape or a distinct form to the work that we're doing. Instead, it's redirecting outward as opposed to trying to contain something. I keep thinking that the work that we're always doing is saying ‘and,’ ‘and,’ ‘it's this’ and ‘it's music,’ and ‘it's this song,’ and ‘it's here,’ and ‘it's here.’ What you said Katherine is so important about the multiple entry points. It's being able to say, ‘this is how you can enter,’ and ‘this is how we share.’
Katherine McKittrick: I think about one of my PhD students, Yaniya Lee, for her MA thesis she talked about the white space. To someone who's not from the art world, this was very new to me. But imagining and thinking through curating a white space or a white cube or whatever it is, how that produces the conditions for exclusion immediately. And so, if the premise is to think through, like I said, a capaciousness, or a way for Black, Indigenous and other racialized communities to enter into the art world, if there's a multiplicity there, think about how different that is than these closed museum doors where Blackness is archived in a way that’s like, pre-colonial. This is the Fanon story, you know, the history weighing him down. And so, if it's multi-textual, it's offering something else to people who would be closed out of the conversation, because they're already part of the conversation. I love that Glissant, that trembling thinking, like you said, redirecting it outward. That's beautiful.
Lillian O’Brien Davis: Thanks everyone! I'm appreciative of us being able to come together and speak. I look forward to hopefully seeing you all in person when the gallery opens in the next few weeks, fingers crossed. Please look for information about the exhibition and subsequent programming on the Gallery 44 website, as well as the publication. Once you're listening to this, there will be a publication available as well and there's more writing by Liz, Tim, Isabel and Katherine in conversation, as well as a playlist. So, multi-disciplinary there as well. Thanks everyone and please take care.