Spotlight: Liz Ikiriko on Decentering Whiteness and Redefining the “Archive”

This month, we highlight Liz Ikiriko, an independent curator, photo editor and currently the art director for online media arts journal – The Ethnic Aisle. She has been immersed in the media arts community in Toronto for the past 12 years and has worked on national publications Toronto Life, Macleans, Canadian Business, AWAY magazine, among others. As a curator, she has organized exhibitions with BAND Gallery, Wedge Curatorial Projects, Sheridan College and the National Music Centre. She’s juried and reviewed portfolios at Ryerson University, Scotiabank CONTACT Photography Festival and Flash Forward Annual. Her curatorial work is centred on the practice of care, addressing hidden histories and foregrounding platforms for underprivileged artists. She is currently an MFA candidate in Criticism and Curatorial Practice at OCAD University in Toronto.

How did your media-making career start?

I always loved photography since I was pretty young. I did my Undergrad in Photography in Calgary. When I was there, I knew I wanted to live in Toronto and shoot editorially for music and magazines. I really wanted to focus on editorial portraiture and when I got here, I started working on a few series and stories. It was a really hard slog, being a freelance photographer. I was shooting live events and doing a portrait series and other gigs at the same time, but I couldn’t see how it was going to consistently pay my bills. It was a real hustle.  So I started looking at other avenues and how magazines are put together and realized there’s this role called the photo editor and it seemed like a great gig. I talked with Dr. Kenneth Montague about my interest in photo editing and he connected me with his friend who worked at Toronto Life.

I interned with her and then after that I started working at Macleans. When she quit, I was hired as the photo editor at Toronto life  where I would hire photographers and work with them on concepts and developing features, and I’ve been doing that for 12 years now. I’m also the art director of The Ethnic Aisle, which began in 2011.

Image from “Earth is the Queen of Beds,” 2018.

Can you talk about some of the common themes in the work that you’ve curated?

I think that my transition has been kind of gradual, but I’ve gone from being a photo editor to focusing more on curatorial work because I found that within photo editing where you’re part of a larger group of people, there was less opportunity to focus on the content that I was most passionate about. So curating gave me the opportunity to feature work by artists of colour. And being able to support bigger platforms for artists to be showcased was becoming more and more important to me. I just felt there were so many artists that I saw that were barely scraping it together and having a really difficult time finding the right galleries and spaces to show their work. The consistent thing through my curatorial practice is being able to work with predominantly African artists and artists of the diaspora.

Can you talk about the inspiration behind Light Grows the Tree?

Light Grows the Tree is a project that documents a community of black artists, writers, curators and collectors in Toronto. I wanted to do this portrait series that would be a first step into identifying the Black arts community in Toronto. Even with the 50 people that we photographed, that was just the tip of the iceberg. I had also wanted to focus on it being inter-generational, so that we would see artists that were working 25-30 years ago and doing work that was often poorly recognized or not recognized at all. I feel it’s so important to honor that history because I think that their challenges were so much greater as well.

Once we completed it for the website, I realized this can’t just live online. It’s too big to not have it be an actual show. Julie Crooks who is the curator at Band Gallery, was incredibly gracious in offering the space to us. So that’s where we had our show. I was really happy. It was really amazing for the opening. There were over 80 people there and the response was really wonderful. We also started a separate website altogether because I do see this as a first chapter. I really do want it to continue and grow.

Preview for “Light Grows the Tree.”

Could you talk about why you called it Light Grows the Tree?

I was having a hard time with the title and I was talking to Denise Balkissoon and it was one of the titles that she pitched. I just thought it was so perfect because I loved the idea. I wasn’t focusing on the specific artwork that each artist made. This was a portrait series of Black artists. And it was important to me to identify the artists, not necessarily their artwork at this point. That’s another show altogether. I think there is, at times, a separation between generations that needs to change. We’re only going to learn more if we can cross all these different lines. So it’s the idea of giving attention to these artists, fortifying our community.

Do you see this art is a way to talk and your art in general as a way to talk about representation and the importance of archiving?

I think that’s something I’ve been really spending a lot of time with in terms of looking at the archive and how the archives have been done previously and what needs to be done. Even just speaking to a number of artists who would mention certain artists that I’d never heard of before, and then trying to find information about them online was very challenging.  I think that’s a real challenge, and speaks to a lot of colonial issues. I think it’s important to be able to figure out a way to expand the archive and make it accessible to a wider audience.

Image is from a work-in-progress by Liz at the Summer Institute.

Why do you think it’s important to have not only these physical spaces but digital spaces as well for a women of color artists to share their work?

The online content is redirecting away from the archives that has had all these barriers in terms of how we access them – that haven’t been there for us. You know, I was speaking with a number of artists about how they would be looking for work or they would contact an archive looking for work by Black artists or Black subjects. And they’d say, “I don’t think we have anything like that.” And they did exist, but they just didn’t know how or where to look. So I think that this is a way of sidestepping that archive and creating a place that we actually have access to.

I also think it’s a great time to be challenging what we define as an “archive.” I was talking to my friend who said that hair braiding is an archive. She said that these are cultural forms where we are teaching generations how do something, and it is knowledge that is passed through generations and through time and history. And so I’m kind of anchored by that idea of how we pass knowledge on and that it doesn’t necessarily exist within this idea of the archives of library, this center that houses colonial practice.

Could you speak to the importance of a reclaiming narratives about diaspora communities?

It’s so important. I am Biracial – Nigerian Canadian and I grew up in Saskatchewan. At the time, it was rare for me to see anyone that was Black and/or biracial. I feel the stories that I tell – my own stories – I didn’t see them. Recently, there’s been more movement, which has been really exciting and I think that’s because I’m in Toronto. I think that things are changing in the prairies and all over Canada. We need to see our own stories reflected. I hear that so much lately, but it always surprises me how dominant culture doesn’t necessarily do that or even recognize how few stories by diaspora artists and Indigenous voices are being told. There’s so many more stories that we need to hear and see. We still got work to do.

Image from “Earth is the Queen of Beds,” 2018

Aside from being an artist or an active member in the arts education community, can you describe the work that you do as an arts educator?

Oh yeah. It feels still new, but I think I’m really aware right now of inhabiting institutional spaces and creating places where students can see a woman of color teaching them. I feel like I do have a lot of knowledge that I’m happy to share with photographers specifically. There are a lot of skills that I’ve gained along the way and I’m really excited to be able to share that with young artists.

What issues do you hope to change or address through your work?

I get most energized and excited when I focus on the communities that I’m a part of and that I know are sustained and supported by the work that I do. The work that I try to focus on is decentering whiteness. I’m focusing on positioning women of color and Indigenous voices at the forefront, looking at how we can learn from under acknowledged practices and knowledge systems, and figuring out how we can support each other in a more communal way. That’s the change that I look for. When I think of my curatorial practice and my life, I hope that they are seamless in terms of building a world around me that I am excited and happy about.