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Hiwa K, The Bell Project (detail), 2007-15.Daniella Baptista/Courtesy the artist; Jameel Arts Centre, Dubai; and Collezione La Gaia, Busca

As installers busied themselves hanging an exhibition at the Power Plant recently, the Brazilian artist Paulo Nazareth was still making art … just hours before his show opened to the public. He consulted a list on a laptop and then, with a charcoal pencil, wrote out the names of Canadian residential schools on sheets of paper before handing them to an installer who mounted a cherry picker and stuck the pages high up on the gallery walls. Soon, a grid of names and dates – Sturgeon Lake Residential School, 1907-1961; St. Cyprian’s Residential School, 1900-1962; Joussard Residential School, 1913-1969 – emerged.

Nazareth and the Kurdish artist Hiwa K, the two international figures showing this summer at the Power Plant at Toronto’s Harbourfront Centre, are both men of simple gestures who make little distinction between life and art, often drawing others into their creative process along the way.

Nazareth, an Afro-Brazilian, walks and drives across the Americas, engaging people he meets and making art as he goes, exposing histories of racial and colonial oppression in widely different settings. For example, The Red Inside is a project for which he followed the route of the underground railroad from the Deep South to Canada, documenting his long journey with photographs and constructing concrete watermelons, a reference to the watermelon seeds with which abolitionists would mark safe routes for fugitive slaves. The Power Plant display includes these photographs, two pieces of clothing people gave him en route and the Ford pickup he used. Inverting a racist trope to recall a life-giving fruit, Nazareth poses with his watermelon at the Lorraine Motel where Martin Luther King was shot, at the Washington Monument, at a house associated with the abolitionist Harriet Tubman in St. Catharine’s, Ont., or in the back of his own truck, almost gleefully marking place and reclaiming imagery.

Hiwa K, What the Barbarians did not do, did the Barberini, 2012.Henry Chan Jr./Courtesy the artist; KOW Gallery, Berlin

Hiwa K is also a walker: As a refugee in the 1990s, he walked from Iraq to Germany, a disorienting cross-cultural journey he recalls here with a sculpture made of motorcycle side mirrors, all pointing in different directions. In a video, he balances the piece on his forehead like a circus acrobat and attempts to walk through a landscape. The video Do You Remember What You Are Burning?, which gives this exhibition its title, records a silent protest he organized during the Arab Spring of 2011. He asked students to assemble in a public square in his home city of Sulaymaniyah in Kurdish Iraq and read a book through a magnifying glass so that the sun would singe the words on the page.

The burning of common books; the writing of the residential school names – are these gestures powerful enough? That is, are they so imaginative they resonate as something beyond the mundane or banal? In Hiwa K’s instance, authorities intervened to clear the gathering, whether or not they recognized the pointed yet quiet symbol of censorship the artist had created. As for Nazareth, the artist’s approaches vary from the literal (the grid of residential schools is accompanied by others naming First and Second World War internment camps in Canada) to cultural references layered to the point of opacity, sometimes in the same piece. A new work featuring archival images of a 1964 civil rights protest against a segregated swimming pool at the Monson Motor Lodge in St. Augustine, Fla., uses efun, a Nigerian chalk intended for sacred purposes in the Yoruba culture, to mark the pictures with round circles that are also a reference to Brazilian modernism. These half-eclipsed images of the protest are accompanied, however, by a model of a swimming pool (cleverly fashioned from a shipping container) into which the artist actually pours real muriatic acid, a corrosive cleaner, which the motel owner dumped in the pool in an attempt to stop the protest by Black and white swimmers. (The much-diluted cleaning agent was probably more insulting than dangerous.)

Paulo Nazareth: STROKE.Henry Chan Jr.

Descriptions of Nazareth’s marathon trips across two continents – in 2011 he walked from his home in Brazil to New York – make it clear how much the process of his work is what gives it impact. For the duration of his Toronto show, he will be at the gallery greeting visitors at a desk with a sign that reads “Department of Investigation of Colonial Trauma”: how Torontonians respond may determine the success of this exhibition.

Hiwa K, meanwhile, depends on fruitful relationships with other creators – he is self-taught – and has a powerful urge to build the monumental. This show includes a bell cast from reclaimed Iraqi armaments along with a video of the scavenging in Iraq and metallurgy in Italy that was involved. There is also an impressive sand sculpture, modelled on the bronze canopy of St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican which Pope Urban VIII made with bronze pillaged from the Pantheon. It’s accompanied by videos of casting in contemporary foundries as it also draws links between art and war.

Paulo Nazareth, WATERMELON FORD, 2018.Courtesy the artist and Mendes Wood DM

Hiwa K is a consummate storyteller and, as a result, his thoughtful video work is notably accessible by the standards of most visual art exhibitions. There’s a selection of these tucked away on the upper level of the Power Plant to reward the more persistent visitor. View From Above, for example, tells the Kafkaesque story of M, an Iraqi who finessed his refugee claim by offering a convincing description of a zone the UN recognized as unsafe, even though he had never been there: The trick to satisfy European immigration bureaucrats was to describe the place as it appeared on maps or in aerial photographs – their only source of information.

In the midst of two exhibitions about power relations on the long roads that link the global north and south, who could imagine a more twisting metaphor for survival and resistance.

On a rather different note, the Power Plant’s summer exhibition schedule also includes a small group show organized by curator Ala Roushan on the theme of threats to our air supply. Breathless is a pocket-handkerchief show – its larger component is a book dedicated to its themes – that manages to successfully incorporate works by four international artists into a single outdoor installation. In a structure like an oxygen tent, Flaka Haliti provides a surface of bright blue pigmented sand on which Marguerite Humeau lays a chilling sculpture featuring a spine with various lunglike plastic bags. (The contraption, Waste I -1 (A respiratory tract mutating into industrial waste) looks like something out of science fiction; in fact, it reflects the anatomy of a dove.) Meanwhile Donna Kukama provides a sound piece based on her own breathing. And after dark, the installation enters another cycle as Julius von Bismarck’s video of forest fires screens on the white sides of the tent. The whole is a small but compelling example of curation as its own form of artmaking.

Works by Paulo Nazareth and Hiwa K are on show at the Power Plant in Toronto to Aug. 28; Breathless, outside the gallery’s south doors, is on view to Oct. 30.