4 February 2019


She’s My Muse | Kathleen Lew

This week, I had the pleasure of sitting down with Zanette Singh (Creative Director) and Roya DelSol (Gallery Coordinator) of Margin of Eras Gallery to talk about running a multidisciplinary art space dedicated to new generation artists who live and work on the margins. Read our conversation below*:

Margin of Eras Gallery (interior) at 1684 Queen St W. Photo courtesy of Margin of Eras Gallery. 

KL: Can you tell me about the history of Margin of Eras Gallery and its relationship to CUE?

ZS: Margin of Eras Gallery is a project of CUE and it opened two years ago. CUE is an arts organization that is primarily an arts funder. We realized there was a huge need and gap, much like in the funding world, for a space for young, emerging, marginalized artists to show their work. We opened this space to fill that gap and to exhibit work from the artists that CUE had been supporting and other artists as well.

KL: Can you speak about how this socially conscious work continues internally as an organization?

ZS: Everyone on our team reflects the community we are supporting, has lived experience, and are practicing artists. The employment structure as an entire eco-system is accessible. We’re making sure as an organization we are not re-creating environments that are continuing the same problems we see in traditional models. We want to be malleable, adaptable, and accessible for each person. Traditional structures are in a reactive place which perpetrates the same problems. Planning ahead has allowed us to keep the adaptability within the employment structure.

KL: Can you give me an example of this strategy in practice?

ZS: If someone on your team is struggling with mental health issues, you make sure there is enough time to adapt and you have back up plans. You create an environment where that barrier is recognized and it’s safe to say, “I’m struggling, I can’t do this” and it’s not punitive. There is a real struggle for marginalized folks who are dealing with multiple things to fit into conventional and rigid structures that perpetuate alienation and exclusion. It compounds what people are already struggling with. It is important for everyone who works here to have that lived experience so it’s easy for them to understand why that adaptability exists, embody it, and ripple it to the rest of the community. That’s the foundation of CUE.

KL: There’s concern that specifically branding projects for people on the margins risks further othering participants. Was this a consideration when branding Margin of Eras, and how does this contribute to the gallery’s mission?

ZS: It’s a really fine line for me, it’s a really hard thing. As someone who as been through multiple programs targeted towards the “marginalized young person”, I have felt very patronized and not taken seriously as an artist—how can I create something that’s not patronizing while also making it clear that this space is for people on the margins and have that be empowering? It’s in the name, we are not shying away from that. It is important to me that the money we raise for grants goes to marginalized people and the people showing in this gallery are marginalized. It has to be at the forefront of everything. Marginalization is a very complex issue, it’s not just ticking off boxes.

RD: We definitely speak about language, it has a lot of power. What colloquial terms have been used in the past to describe marginalized peoples that we don't want associated with the work we are trying to do? The wording in the window says ‘new generation’ as opposed to ‘youth’ which was a distinct decision to not be patronizing to folks coming into the space. While branding something for marginalized voices can feel patronizing, it’s also very freeing for certain folks who have not had space to say their narrative. For example, the last show that happened here was Shatha Al-Husseini. Shatha mentioned that she felt there wasn’t a lot of spaces in Toronto where she could put forth this narrative. Because we are so blatant about what we want to do, people know it’s a safe space. It’s tricky, but at the same time it’s important to put that forward because I think people who have not spoken up feel safe to tell those stories.

Margin of Eras Gallery (exterior) at 1684 Queen St W. Photo courtesy of Margin of Eras Gallery. 

KL: How do you think Margin of Eras challenges and/or fits into Toronto’s arts and culture sector?

ZS: I think this space challenges a narrative around inclusivity that exists in large institutions. Curators say, “well there just hasn’t been that many artists of colour”. What are you talking about? If you don’t know that there are huge communities of artists that need to be shown and supported, then I don’t know what planet you are living on. This is what I have heard for my entire adult life as an artist, that artists of colours don’t exist. This space challenges that notion. There is something that everyone who comes here feels, it’s just different.

RD: It’s warm and communal. A lot of people mention that, which is different than your regular white cube space. I consider this space a bridge between community and contemporary art in Toronto. A lot of artists we have shown were very emergent. It’s a good bridge to show work within a contemporary gallery type space but with support. We provide lots of mentorship and support, not just with putting up your work, but anything needed to ensure that you’re comfortable.

ZS: There is something missing from the trajectory of artists on the margins, which is the opportunity to try something and fail. When you are stuck in the scarcity model of “only one of us gets to be the one token artist,” it’s not a good place to be. The opportunity to learn and fail is so often given to privileged white folks. People need experience, to build their practice, and understand who they are as cultural producers. You can’t do that if you don’t have a space, or an opportunity, or people supporting you and recognizing that what you have to say is valuable. It needs to happen for culture to exist and move forward. I am very committed to the emergent demographic because that’s the seeds, people gain experience and change the landscape of the larger Toronto art scene.

KL: What are the challenges and rewards of incorporating activism into a gallery space?

RD: A challenge is ensuring that you are representing things properly and making sure you are always being thoughtful of the narrative the artist is trying to put forth. You need to understand where that lived experience and is coming from and make sure you are really putting their voice first.

ZS: We don’t work from the top-down, everything is artist led. We offer advice and mentorship, but we are not referencing the traditional ways of thinking about art. I went to art school, I know how I’m supposed to think about my work, all in relation to whiteness and the canon. Removing that and having the artist leading the vision is both the best thing and the most challenging. Being fluid all the time is challenging. I understand why those rigid models exist, it makes linear sense. Choosing as an institution to be in contact with someone’s humanity is a very bold choice. You are now responsible in a different way. That is both a challenge and a thing that separates us from other spaces.

RD: Another challenge is that marginalization is so broad. What does it mean to be marginalized? What’s your conception of that? Our conception of that? What does that mean when determining the artists we work with? I think that’s a minefield that we have really evolved to navigate. It has been so beautiful and mind-blowing to see communities gather around the work, feel like the work is speaking to them, and consume something that they have been looking for but haven’t been able to find.

ZS: Being able to see someone execute their vision? As an artist, that is so exciting for me. A huge reward is building an amazing team. I do not dread coming to work, everyone is very caring and we all respect each other. It makes me feel like something different in this world is possible when you see this machine function.

KL: Who are your museum muses in Toronto?

RD: Black Artist Union is an incredibly strong collective. They unapologetically center Blackness and black artists, prioritize creating opportunities for and re-distributing money directly to artists, and are willing to speak on issues that others will not touch. Brianna Roye [from Blank Canvas] is a photographer whose work is centered on the queer Caribbean experience, and has really increased representation and opened up conversation for Black Queer West Indians of the diaspora in Toronto.

ZS: Rosina Kazi from Unit 2 is old school Toronto. She has done so much in this city for DIY culture. I’m also really excited about the energy of zine and comic culture that is happening in Toronto.

RD: Amber Williams King is really amazing artist, so sharp and thoughtful. Very soft-spoken but also unafraid to ask the hard and important questions, she’s rad.

HABIBIZ at Margin of Eras Gallery. Photo courtesy of Margin of Eras Gallery. 

What’s next for Margin of Eras? Their exhibition, Habibiz, opens Thursday February 7 (7-10pm) and runs until February 23 (1684 Queen Street West). Curated by Jessica Kirk and Mitra Fakhrashrafi of the artist collective Way Past Kennedy Road, the show is about the intersection of place-making and surveillance focused on the motif of the shisha lounge. Read more about it here.

*This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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