Three-Thirty: Ebti Nabag, Aaron Jones, and Kelly Fyffe-Marshall
by Huda Hassan
It’s impossible not to see Ebti Nabag’s 24-foot-high portraits when you pass by two schools in the Toronto east-end neighbourhood of Scarborough. The piece, I’m Listening (2020), is of two teenaged Black girls sporting Air Jordans and athletic wear, standing side by side as they stare at their phones, displaying no interest in speaking to each other. Taken together, the size and colouring of the piece, as well as the demean- our of the subjects, command you to stop what you’re doing, and observe.
When imagining power, some might be compelled to consider external structures and bureaucracies, and how those structures shape or impose themselves on our lives. The exhibition Three-Thirty, however, con- siders the power and autonomy of youths and the ways they enact their presence in the space and cities they live in. Scarborough-born curator and artist Anique Jordan interrogates these questions in the exhibition. The project is a multi-site, map-making exercise that connects different public spaces within Malvern, an east-end neighbourhood that has the highest population of youth in Canada. The exhibition reckons with how geographies are transformed by young people living at the margins of power.
Three-Thirty is an ode to the after-school programs accessed primarily by Toronto’s working-class families who need additional care for their children—a pivotal part of Jordan’s upbringing. This multi-site exhibition, co-presented by Jordan as part of the CONTACT Photography Festival, occupies prominent cultural landmarks in the Malvern neighbourhood: local high school Lester B. Pearson Collegiate Institute, the Malvern branch of the Toronto Public Library, and the Doris McCarthy Gallery (at the University of Toronto’s Scarborough campus).
A blown-up copy of a 1969 Ontario Housing Corporation (OHC) document greets visitors at the entrance of the Doris McCarthy Gallery, confirming the state’s interest in Malvern as a housing project to be focused on in the years to come. Although Malvern’s open spaces near its river valleys are a local tourist attraction, in the late ’50s it was largely an industrial and agricultural area. The OHC document outlines the needs for the emerging community: malls, stores, recreation spaces, and housing. It also shares plans and the necessity to develop public transportation access—access that still doesn’t exist 50 years later. This is a common narrative for a city where urban design failed to anticipate the magnitude of Toronto’s expansion. Beside the OHC document is an archival picture of a large expanse of empty land, occupied right in the centre by one building: a small grocery store called FreshLand. The picture evokes narratives told by colonial archives that implicate a place as having a lack of history or presence. Today, that land is the site of Malvern Town Centre, and the grocery store remains open.
By the late ’80s, Malvern had been developed into a multi-ethnic and vibrant neighbourhood that quickly became home to many low-income residents. By the early 2000s, public investment in the community led to the development of the Malvern public library, new parks, stores, and further expansion. But this process also subjected residents to over-policing, surveillance, and criminalization. Three-Thirty offers an alternative perspective, providing glimpses into the day-to-day life of youths in the areas that contribute so much to Toronto culture.
Using archival images, Aaron Jones’s Seeking Knowledge (2020) explores knowledge production about Black people in Canada. Presented at the Malvern public library, the work uses images from the Rita Cox Black and Caribbean Heritage Collection. Using the archival photographs in a colourful and vibrant collage format, Jones compels the observer to think through histories of Black diasporas beyond what we might already know. The images used include artists, revolutions, protests, sports, and titles of texts important to the Black radical tradition, such as We Are the Young Magicians by Ruth Forman (1993). Jones also includes a bibliography: an archive for the seeker of knowledge to explore further. He leaves one empty citational note called Unknown Unknowns blank—albeit intentionally—as a gesture toward the overlooked and unidentified components of Black archives. Archives allow us to trace the histories, ideas, existence, and contributions of communities. But in Canada, Blackness remains what Rinaldo Walcott calls an absented presence, in that Blackness is foundational to the nation-state but cannot cohere in the national archive. Jones’s engagement with Black Canadian archives, overflowing with detours and complexities, compels his audience to render Blackness anew, and always in continuum.
In Nabag’s life-sized portrait exhibition, The Bubble of Youth (2020), she intimately depicts the students of Pearson Collegiate Institute exploring the physical, spiritual, and aesthetic components of teenage friend- ships. On the walls of the Doris McCarthy Gallery, Nabag mounted life-sized photographic murals of young people interacting through conversation and laughter, captured with their friends, smartphones, and skateboards. The portraits reveal the wide range of youth diasporas and aesthetics in the Malvern neighbourhood.
Kelly Fyffe-Marshall’s three-channel video, POWER (2020), produced by Tamar Bird, explores the collective anxieties and strife of Black artists and community members during the COVID 19 pandemic. In the video work, artists and community members discuss what their lives looked like before the pandemic, what they look like now, and the insights that this experience has brought out. Simultaneously displayed on three different screens, the conversation is intergenerational, with subjects reflecting on the meaning of power during a global health and climate crisis that cannot be separated from anti-Black racism. Observing the testimonies is chilling, as Fyffe-Marshall’s project speaks to the urgency of these times.
The purpose of Three-Thirty, Jordan explains, is to use art in public spaces to visually and psychologically shift our understanding of who occupies power. She centres Blackness both thematically and geographically, reclaiming the narrative of Toronto culture back to its various points of development. It took two and a half years to develop the exhibition, and the team struggled with funding along the way, relying on limited local resources to transform a part of the city. Thinking about the recent critical attention on the cultural work and producers of Scarborough—a borough that is often falsely compared to Brooklyn Jordan is committed to cultivating spaces that reveal the multiplicities of Toronto. Three-Thirty uses Scarborough as a backdrop, and Blackness as a lens, to reveal the possibilities, and impossibilities, of power.