BLMTO’s Tent City in artistic context one year on from protest

By Shaghayegh Tajvidi

For two weeks in March, Syrus Marcus Ware, Melisse Watson, Ravyn Wngz and Kike Otuije were artists in residence at the Gladstone Hotel, where they created diverse artworks in contemplation of the movement for Black lives at Black Art City.

March 9: Melisse Watson (front) and Syrus Marcus Ware (back) work on illustrations hours before Black Art City’s launch [Shaghayegh Tajvidi/This Is Worldtown]
In a light-filled art hut in Toronto’s west end, artists are labouring away on their distinct pieces, hours shy of their installation’s launch. Even with the minutes ticking, everyone maintains their calm. That’s because every day for the next two weeks they’re the resident storytellers behind Black Art City at the Gladstone Hotel in Toronto. Over this time, their visual works will transform daily, become more pronounced, and the exhibit at large will expand. Like the artworks on display, the room too transforms into a networking hub and invites gathering. It is reminiscent, by design, of Black Lives Matter Toronto’s Tent City action exactly a year ago; a 15-day protest that took aim at an entire system of racial injustice following the police shooting of Andrew Loku.


Early stages of Syrus’ hand drawn portraits of local activists [Shaghayegh Tajvidi/This Is Worldtown]

“We call [the installation] a ‘meditation on the movement for Black Lives,’” Syrus Marcus Ware says. It’s “a variety of different art projects that really think about the ways we want the world to look”. He emphasizes that this is what the world without anti-Blackness could look like, as he refines the shadows of a large, intricate portrait of a local activist that is adhered to the wall.

“I ask [activists] questions about their movement building as I draw them. It’s a way to make visible their labour, and hopefully to make people curious about their organizing.”

Syrus at work hours before the installation’s open [Shaghayegh Tajvidi/This Is Worldtown]

This is the first time I am watching Syrus create art. But in 2016 we were enmeshed in very similar conversation outside Toronto police headquarters. I was covering Tent City. Syrus, a key organizer with BLMTO, was breaking down the systemic underpinnings of why racialized people continue to be profiled and killed by police.

Syrus’ opening speech on the first night of Black Art City [Shaghayegh Tajvidi/This Is Worldtown]

On this, the first anniversary of Tent City, the exhibit explores the protest’s artistic recreation. Black Art City resuscitates the ephemera from the occupation, celebrating the art and organizers who brought it to life.

A banner that reads, “Which Side of History Are You On” was destroyed at Tent City and has been recreated for the installation [Shaghayegh Tajvidi/This Is Worldtown]

I ask Syrus if he thinks anything has changed since the protest a year ago.

“We’ve seen a really public conversation around anti-Blackness,” he says without hesitation. “ We need it to be trending issue. The reality is that it’s been pervasive in Toronto for many decades, centuries really. A public conversation allows us to document and record the breadth and scope of it – that’s important. At the same time we saw the death of another black disabled woman, Amleset Haile, at the hands of police [on January 1st this year]. She was in distress. Police came, [but] within 15 minutes she was dead. The same kinds of things we were fighting for in Tent City are still pervasive now.”

Kike Otuije creates body cast art [Shaghayegh Tajvidi/This Is Worldtown]

Across the room, Kike Otuije is sculpting body casts. On a textile-clad table there is a plaster face, frozen in expression, as well as a hand with its middle finger raised.

I ask if that’s the face of someone in the community, and Kike confirms that it is.     

Body casts [Shaghayegh Tajvidi/This Is Worldtown]

Kike explains:

“It’s supposed to talk about the act of shedding. Lots of people went through a lot… because of the trauma that went on at Tent City and outside of that. Everyone gets to choose what part of their body will be cast and they get to interact with it, write about things they want to let go of.

At Tent City, there was this intense moment when Black elders came out and said, ‘We’re so happy you’re doing this, but at same time it makes me sad that you’re doing the same thing we were doing decades ago.’ That was a powerful moment for me.”

Kike pauses, “I don’t want my children to be doing the exact same thing, decades from now. We need to uplift each other.”

Melisse Watson produces digital illustrations before printing them large-scale [Shaghayegh Tajvidi/This Is Worldtown]

Metres away, Melisse Watson is absorbed in an entirely different medium. “I’m doing digital portraits of individuals who were at Tent City, either physically, spiritually, mentally. A year later, it feels like it was yesterday and it also feels like it was a long time ago,” Melisse reflects. “What I hold on to is the degree to which community was built in that space. Our relationships deepened. I want to show the different ways people can participate in the fight for Black lives. Sometimes we can be invisibilized […] I’m drawing these portraits and collecting stories from these ten individuals – mostly so they and others can see themselves as relevant, important, valid. And that their experience and participation was necessary.”

Banners from Black Tent City [Shaghayegh Tajvidi/This Is Worldtown]

“Hopefully moments of reflection are still catalytic moments,” Syrus adds, looking up from his portrait. “There’s a lot more work to be done.”