Out of the Covidian ashes of 2020, Toronto’s visual art scene has risen like a phoenix and is flourishing.
Galleries across the city are offering a rich smorgasbord that ranges from Renaissance Venice to avant-garde Toronto, from the ancient Silk Road to contemporary Switzerland.
Each exhibition is distinct; still, themes overlap. There is a collective fascination with intercultural crossroads: the places where art, craft, trade and wealth all intersect to create moments of extraordinary creativity.
At the Gardiner Museum, Renaissance Venice: Life and Luxury at the Crossroads features 120 pieces gathered from major international collections. The exhibition demonstrates how migration and mobility within this multicultural city created a network that enriched both the arts and the lives of its residents.
“One thing that makes this exhibition special is the wide range of objects from different cultures, all gathered in one place,” explains curator Karine Tsoumis, who spent four years putting the show together. “Venice was the linking point of Europe to the Islamic world; one of the objectives of the show is to highlight these connections, to show Venice as a global city.”
Renaissance Venice traces the flow of stylistic influences and techniques from one culture to another – specifically within Venice’s famed maiolica (ceramics) industry, which is the focal point of the exhibition.
Another maelstrom of cultural interchange was the legendary Silk Road, a network of trade routes that connected East and West from as early as the 2nd-century BCE, originating in China and expanding through Central Asia, the Indian subcontinent, Persia and Arabia, Africa, and finally, Europe.
The Aga Khan Museum’s Hidden Stories: Books Along the Silk Roads captures evidence of life and communities along the way, through rare books, manuscript paintings, textiles, scrolls, prayer sheets and marriage contracts. All the artefacts were sourced from Canadian-based collections, including the ROM, the Thomas Fisher Rare Books Library and seldom-displayed works from the museum’s permanent collection.
Venice was the linking point of Europe to the Islamic world; one of the objectives of the show is to highlight these connections, to show Venice as a global city.— Karine Tsoumis, curator, Gardiner Museum
Hidden Stories is complemented by The Silk Road: A Living History, an outdoor exhibition of photographs by adventurer Christopher Wilton-Steers that records his 2019 expedition along the Silk Road, from Venice to Beijing. Landscape, architecture, history and humanity all testify to the stunning diversity that still defines the 40,000-kilometre route.
Diversity also lies at the heart of GTA21, an eclectic offering at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA). Twenty-one artists (or art collectives) with strong connections to the city were commissioned to create works based on whatever felt “most urgent” – in their practice, their lives, and the cultural issues that engaged them.
“This is an investment in Toronto, and it’s overdue,” says executive director Kathleen Bartels, who worked with three curators to assemble the exhibition. “I don’t think a lot of people are aware of what’s going on in the city.”
MOCA intends to remedy this blindspot by creating a triennial survey of the Toronto arts scene, periodically taking the pulse of what’s happening in the city; GTA21 is the inaugural event. The commissioning of art, Bartels explains, gives artists the opportunity to produce works they might not otherwise be able to undertake.
“They all bring their background and experiences – a diversity of perspectives, of materials,” says Bartels. “They tell the story of what’s happening in the society. The range of artistic response means that the exhibition holds something of interest for everyone.”
At the other extreme, Harbourfront’s Power Plant gallery has – very unusually – dedicated its entire space to a single artist, Switzerland’s Miriam Cahn, for her first major solo exhibition, Me As Happening, in North America.
Curator Gaetane Verna describes Cahn’s work as “seminal” and “very current, speaking of issues that are in the forefront of society today” – women’s rights, gender roles, refugees, heteronormative bias. The exhibition presents 215 works, ranging in size and medium, and all projected through Cahn’s fiercely feminist lens. “She doesn’t just paint pretty pictures,” says Vernal.
Renaissance Venice: Life and Luxury at the Crossroads runs until Jan. 9, at the Gardiner Museum; GTA21 runs until Jan. 9, at the Museum of Contemporary Art; Me As Happening runs till Jan. 2, 2022, at Power Plant; Hidden Stories: Books Along the Silk runs till Feb. 27, 2022, at the Aga Khan Museum.
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