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SPAO presents new exhibition Descendance until September 18

By Sonya Gankina on June 9, 2022

Located at 77 Pamilla St. in Little Italy, The School of the Photographic Arts (SPAO) is nestled between residential buildings on a quiet strip, steps away from bustling Preston St. As I turn the corner, I am in awe of the building’s modern design, which features large-scale art, hung up outdoors, coupled with thoughtful gardening surrounding the structure.

The current exterior of SPAO. Photo provided.

“We played with big and small scale intentionally,” says the co-curator of the new exhibition Descendance, Darren Pottie, “to allow viewers to fully immerse themselves in the work.” The photos seen in the image above are by Farihah Aaliyah Shah, a contemporary lens-based artist. The work is titled Billie Said ‘Strange Fruit’ and comments on the lack of representation of Black bodies in the history of photography while corresponding to the Black Lives Matter Movement. The title echoes the song “Strange Fruit,” popularized by Billie Holiday, which talks about racialized violence in the American South.

This intimate collection invites us to consider our own origins, heritage, and histories. What is your relationship to the land you are on?

This is just one of many thought-provoking works of art on display in Descendance. The exhibition features first-generation Canadian and immigrant artists, with each artwork deeply examining the creator’s own memories and history. This intimate collection invites us to consider our own origins, heritage, and histories. What is your relationship to the land you are on?

Co-curator Myriam Farah Cobb gently guides me around the space, pointing out each work and its significance: “Leila Fatemi’s Chador XXIX from the series Wandering Veil is a deeply reflective ongoing project, where the artist finds a spiritual connection with the space and captures the prayer in a self-portrait, adorned in a veil.” As a practicing Muslim woman artist, Fatemi’s veil series represents the spiritual and intimate act of worship, paying homage to both an esoteric and exoteric life.

Chador XXIX from the series The Wandering Veil by Leila Fatemi.

Another work that stood out to me is Highway Reflection by Kriss Munsya. This beautiful composite art piece features Black people adorned with huge beautiful flowers, and this piece tells a story. Munsya is a Congolese-born visual artist who experienced racism from a young age as a first-generation African immigrant. When he was little, he remembers one time his family stayed at a low-budget hotel during a road trip. While playing with a ball, Munsya saw the upscale hotel next door with rich white people dining on a patio with flowers everywhere.

This stuck with him as a core memory, and Highway Reflection symbolizes the reframing in his own mind—from feeling resentment towards his parents at first, to realizing that he wouldn’t trade them for the world and he was exactly where he was supposed to be. Munsya is revisiting his experiences and memories in critical reflection, digging deep.

Highway Reflection by Kriss Munsya displayed on the back wall. Photo provided.

The exhibition also features work by Nigerian-Canadian artist Kosisochukwu Nnebe, photographer and painter Ananna Rafa, who has Bengali heritage, and more. But that’s not all. Established in 2005 as an alternative to for study in the photographic visual arts, SPAO offers the only two-year photographic arts diploma in Canada, numerous classes such as printmaking, bookmaking, studio lighting, and food photography, and is the only critical and independent gallery in the region dedicated to lens-based art.

Discover the new exhibition at SPAO and take a gander at the diploma program and educational programming on offer.