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Jordanian artist Lawrence Abu Hamdan’s 45th Parallel (2022) is the Turner Prize-winning artist’s first major Canadian commission.Toni Hafkenscheid/Courtesy of Lawrence Abu

People need art. It’s an assertion Patrizia Libralato is passionate about as the second Toronto Biennial of Art finally opens this week. It’s a few months later than originally planned, the world is different but the need for art remains – has never been stronger, maybe. And that is what has kept Libralato, the biennial’s executive director, and her team moving forward with their vision through the slog and uncertainty of these dark times.

“It’s been one thing after the next. The pandemic, Omicron … and then this terrible war in Ukraine. It’s so sad and so upsetting and no one’s sure what they should be doing,” said Libralato, who has grappled with mounting an art event in the midst of world turmoil.

But what she has heard from sponsors and donors is that the biennial must return. And so, two-and-half-years after the first, here it is.

“I think art always matters,” Libralato said. “And I think that what we’ve learned through the pandemic is we really can’t live without it.”

The Toronto biennial model is somewhat unusual. In addition to being a commissioning biennial, it is a two-part event. This year’s edition, which opens Saturday, builds on themes explored in the first, with the same curatorial team and some of the same artists.

Kahnawà:ke Kanien’kehá:ka artist Ange Loft’s Toronto Indigenous Context Brief, created for the 2019 edition, remains a central guide and document for everyone involved, providing information about the land in what is now the GTA going back some 10,000 years.

The inaugural biennial focused on the history of the waterfront – in particular stories not widely told in the mainstream: stories of Indigenous and Black people.

The second biennial moves inland with the theme “What Water Knows, The Land Remembers.” While there is still some programming on the Lake Ontario shoreline, much of the work is now in locations that follow the trajectories of both visible and buried waterways.

There are 23 commissions at nine sites across the GTA, with work by more than 35 local and international artists.

They include legendary U.S. feminist artist Judy Chicago, who will produce one of her pyrotechnic Smoke Sculptures off Sugar Beach. It’s the first time she will create one of her so-called atmosphere works on the water and the first time she is making one of these works in Canada. A Tribute to Toronto will be presented on June 4.

Jordanian artist Lawrence Abu Hamdan’s 45th Parallel (2022) is the Turner Prize-winning artist’s first major Canadian commission. He wrote a monologue and created a performance for the Haskell Free Library and Opera House, which straddles the Canada-U.S. border at Stanstead, Que., and Derby Line, Vt. In the filmed performance, installed at Mercer Union, Danish-Palestinian filmmaker Mahdi Fleifel talks about a tragic incident on the U.S.-Mexican border.

More than 80 per cent of the biennial’s participants are BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Colour) and 37 per cent identify as Indigenous, according to Libralato.

They include Loft, Alutiiq artist Tanya Lukin Linklater and Tahltan First Nation artist Ts̱ēmā Igharas. Igharas worked with Vancouver-based artist Erin Siddall to create Great Bear Money Rock (2021-2022), for which they travelled to an abandoned uranium mine on Great Bear Lake.

Their installation is at 5 Lower Jarvis, where Dane-Zaa artist Brian Jungen’s Plague Mask sculptures are also being shown. Made from deconstructed and reconfigured Nike Air Jordan sneakers, they resemble the shape of the masks worn by so-called plague doctors in the seventeenth century. He made the first of these in 2020, as a new plague bore down on the world.

Choctaw-Cherokee artist Jeffrey Gibson has sculptures at three biennial venues. The U.S. artist uses a wide variety of materials including found tipi poles, glass beadwork and nylon fringe in his works All You Took, I Gladly Gave (2013), SPEAK TO ME IN YOUR WAY SO I CAN HEAR YOU (2015) and ALL FOR ONE, ONE FOR ALL (2015).

The work in the biennial is very much connected to place – not only the land and water, but its people, with Toronto’s reputation as one of the world’s most multicultural cities.

Libralato said the TBA has also been engaged in rigorous anti-racism and anti-oppression work, with the goal of making the organization, like the artists it commissions and shows, more diverse.

There are no admission fees for any programming – events or installations. Funding comes from sponsors and donors.

The inaugural biennial was well received and drew more than 296,000 visitors. After it closed in December, 2019, staff took time off for the holidays then returned to write their evaluation report, which they completed in early March.

“And we were like oh my God; we were so amazing, it’s awesome. We get to … go back to all of our partners and donors and say let’s do it again,” said Libralato.

And then COVID hit, making it impossible to plan the second edition with any certainty.

By late 2020, it became clear the event could not be mounted in September, 2021, as planned. Spring 2022 seemed more realistic. Meetings and site visits had to be held over Zoom. Another hitch: a spring biennial means preparing the sites in winter conditions.

“We’ve been installing in sleet and snow and rain,” said Libralato. “All of our signage has gone up in the worst weather conditions.” And the weather has affected the ground.

Argentinian artist Eduardo Navarro’s sculpture Wind Oracle (2022) invites audiences to interact with the wind – but its installation, on the lawn of Colborne Lodge at High Park, had to be delayed because of the wet weather. (It is scheduled to go up next week, weather-dependent.)

For all the challenges, during site tours this week ahead of the official opening, Libralato said it was powerful to see the work and hear the curators speak about their vision, particularly after all everyone has been through.

“This biennial in some ways has kept everyone dreaming and working and looking forward to this time,” said Libralato. “We kept our fingers crossed. We just kept on working, we kept on trying to raise all the money and just hoped that we would be in a better place. We hoped that spring could really be the time of renewal and we’re so happy that it is indeed that.”

The biennial will now run during even years, with the next edition planned for September, 2024.

The Toronto Biennial of Art runs March 26 to June 5.

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