I first encountered Heather Rigg’s curatorial work for An unassailable and monumental dignity at Contact Gallery in 2017, and was blown away. It reframed images of Black masculinity in the public sphere. Each work sparked off one another in a way only a strong curatorial vision can create. Rigg grew up in Victoria, BC and relocated to Toronto in 2008 where she received her MA from Ryerson University’s Photographic Preservation and Collections Management (PPCM). She worked at the Art Gallery of Ontario as part of that program, then as Programming Administrator for the Contact Photography Festival. In July she was appointed Curator of Exhibitions and Public Programs at Gallery 44 Centre for Contemporary Photography. Last year, Rigg initiated the project space ma ma, with long-time friend and collaborator Magdalyn Asimakis. Recently at a Gallery 44 opening I overheard someone say about her: ‘she’s such a firecracker’, and I’m inclined to agree. Rigg is an exciting new voice in curation in Toronto. I caught up with her at 401 Richmond, a hub for galleries and arts institutions in Toronto, and where Gallery 44 is located.
"there needs to be a complete uprooting of the systems and people in place: mandates need to be re-formulated, boards need to completely change, school curriculums need to be re-written. We can’t be sifting around for token diversities, we need complete structural overhauls. These types of overhauls will take time and resources that the current systems are not always willing to put in place."
You took the title for An unassailable and monumental dignity from a James Baldwin text that was a letter to his nephew, where he says “It will be hard, James, but you come from sturdy, peasant stock, men who picked cotton and dammed rivers and built railroads, and, in the teeth of the most terrifying odds, achieved an unassailable and monumental dignity.” Can you tell me a bit more about how you put the show together?
The title comes from Leslie Hewitt’s work, from her Still Life series. One of the books in her Still Life photographs that were on view is James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time, which contains that letter. I found that sentence so poignant and beautiful, and it really distilled what I felt the works in the exhibition pointed to.
Mohamed Bourouissa’s Shoplifters series started my idea and research for the show. I was really intrigued by the artist’s recontextualization of the found photographs of men who had been caught stealing basic grocery store items such as sandwich meat and laundry detergent in Brooklyn. Bourouissa’s literal reframing of them was a gesture that for me, opened up larger questions around structural and economic inequalities in that city and elsewhere. I started researching other artists’ work that I felt took on complementary investigations.
Installation view of An unassailable and monumental dignity at Contact Gallery in 2017
I liked how the idea of dignity played out throughout the show. I was impressed with such a mature and complex examination of it coming from a relatively emerging curator. When did you decide you wanted to be a curator? You did the Photographic Preservation and Collections Management (PPCM) Masters program, how much did that point you in that direction? I know it’s more focused on preservation and collection management than other MAs that are purely about curation.
I had originally thought about an Art History masters, but the PPCM program really appealed to me. With curating you’re studying and presenting objects and I would say that that’s at the core of PPCM: caring for objects, understanding why they were made, their provenance, their historical context, etc.
I realized I was interested in pursuing curating while I was completing PPCM, and I was able to cater my studies towards that. I did a placement at the Art Gallery of Ontario because I was able to work with the photography curators there, and I worked with the Curator of Photography at the Museum of the City of New York.
PPCM was a great experience for curating. Even though I am interested in mediums other than photography, what I really took away from the program was something that our professor always used to say to us, which is to: start with the object itself. It provides a way to unpack an object’s meaning, and an artist’s intentions. When researching I might say “this is a daguerreotype, it was made in 2011, and so what does that mean? Why is a contemporary artist making a daguerreotype?” I use this method when approaching any medium including ones I don’t feel I know as well, and when approaching any kind of writing: curatorial statements, reviews or essays.
Unfortunately I found out late on about ma ma, the art space you ran in the Junction area of Toronto for about 5 months. So I only caught the very last exhibition In the Air, which I thought was excellent. There was a pared-down quality and an intensity in how the two works – Steffani Jemison’s Escaped Lunatic and Julia Phillips’ Shake (A Choreography for Flying Hair) – interacted with each other. Escaped Lunatic centres on parkour artists, most of whom are young men of colour, running through an urban environment, and Shake depicts a black woman with cropped hair moving her head as though flipping and tossing long hair. The former immediately brought to mind the scrutiny and danger that Black men experience when moving through public spaces, especially when doing anything ‘suspicious’ like running, and those who have been shot when running from the police. Shake evoked the way Black women’s hair is scrutinized, and the personal, or internalized, gendered ideal of long silky blonde hair. The energy that these frenetic choreographies sparked off each other was so generative.
Magdalyn and I had been interested in both artists work for some time, so we were honoured to work with them. We weren’t sure that the two films would work together as an exhibition, but we wanted to allow ourselves to be slightly experimental in the space so we went for it; it was nice to push our curatorial practice in that way. We decided to show the two works together without a specific organizing principle. We wanted people to think about them separately and together, and think about the multiple dialogues around the potentials of the body, and of imagination, that emerge from these works. The small physical scale of ma ma allowed for an intimate installation that we felt encouraged viewers to think about their bodies in relation to those represented in the films.
"Our interest in [gesture, embodiment, and moving through space] comes from the politics and experience of moving through this world as women, and for me as a woman of colour - the barriers we are forced to navigate, and how we literally hold and protect ourselves."
Can you tell me about why and how you and Magdalyn launched this crowdfunded venture? It must have been a lot of work whilst you were still working at Contact Photography Festival, and later at Gallery 44 full time and while Magdalyn is doing her PhD.
ma ma was born out of our friendship, we talk about art all the time. We have a lot of ideas, and we were craving a platform. We were inspired by a lot of smaller, “DIY” spaces that have emerged in Toronto – 8eleven was one of the first in this generation that I was aware of, and more recent spaces such as Bunker2, a shipping container, and Little Sister, a garage space (which is now Sibling) were exciting to see open up. I often say that ma ma was an explosion of our friendship - because we were brimming with ideas the programming came together quite quickly and easily (and excitedly).
Crowdfunding gave us the space and time to do what we wanted. Because we were brand new, we didn’t qualify for any grants. We found a space surprisingly quickly which pushed us to crowdfund ASAP. Magdalyn and I did all of this voluntarily, we used the funds we raised to pay artists fees, to bring out of town artists to Toronto to do programming, and to pay for the gallery space.
I think because we had both curated before, we thought, sure, we can curate a few exhibitions and have our day jobs, but it ended up being quite insane (laughter)! By the time we got to the second show, we were just like… ‘whoa!’ this is 2 of 4 exhibitions and we’re working 24/7. We did lots of programing, which was important to us, but small things took up a lot of time, such as borrowing and transporting chairs for each artist talk. But it was a really wonderful experience because so many people were on board to help us. Many people gave donations in kind. People were lending us things such as speakers and projectors, and offering to help. It felt really good to be part of such a generous community.
And where did the name come from?
It’s rooted in a nod to womanhood and motherhood, and it’s a play on Dada. It was our most playful title that we thought of. A friend suggested that we separate the two syllables, which we really liked as it made it more distinct from Dada, and for me it sort of speaks to the fact that there are two of us.
Installation view of Elizabeth M Webb For Paradise at ma ma projects in 2018
So you both felt a need to start this new space, outside of institutions you were working within. How does your mandate differ for ma ma from what you were able to do at Contact and now at Gallery 44? The most obvious one is that Gallery 44 is medium specific, or at least comes out of a dialogue with lens-based media. On ma ma’s vision statement you say that you focus on video, photography, text, sculpture and performance. So that is quite a wide range, but it does exclude perhaps traditional fine arts like painting.
We are open to all mediums, but we are particularly interested in artists using technology and the body to have socio-political conversations. The video work Escaped Lunatic, for example, opens up really complex structural questions, and I feel that all the artists’ work we have exhibited so far do that. ma ma’s first show was about racial passing in the United States; told through the story of one family. The exhibition – For Paradise – opened up a difficult and important dialogue about race and visibility.
To go back to your question, no we haven’t shown painting and it’s not part of our mandate. Painting has its own context and history, one that I haven’t really delved into. But that’s not to say that ma ma won’t someday. There’s also the very practical aspect of exhibiting film and video work, which is that there are limited shipping costs involved. This is great because then we can focus our funding on bringing out of town artists to Toronto for talks and events.
Gallery 44 is sort of the opposite of ma ma in that it has a very long (40 year) history of being a medium specific space. And one of many wonderful things about Gallery 44 is that it includes facilities for artists to make work in, amongst many other community-based programming initiatives.
Gesture, embodiment, and moving through space, are themes that come up in many of ma ma’s exhibitions - I’m thinking of Sofia Mesa’s Field Walkers and Tanya Lukin Linklater’s works that explores Indigenous history and knowledge through movement. Where do you think those interests come from?
Our interest in that comes from the politics and experience of moving through this world as women, and for me as a woman of colour - the barriers we are forced to navigate, and how we literally hold and protect ourselves. We are art practitioners but also people, I think Magdalyn and I look for locations where those two things connect. I like returning to Sara Ahmed’s essay “The Phenomenology of Whiteness” where she eloquently examines this. And this is definitely something you can talk about with Tanya and Sofia’s work, as well as many other artists we worked with, who think about bodies navigating space and specific relationships with land.
In the last few decades there has been a lot of discussion about the ‘crisis’ of photography, there have been symposiums, books, and shows called things like ‘What is a Photograph?’ and ‘Well, What is Photography?’ and ‘Why Photography Matters as Art as Never Before’. Where do you see photography as a medium right now? Does it matter?
I don’t know if it’s a “crisis.” PPCM provides a very lateral or horizontal study of the history of photography, so to speak, which is not the history of art; it’s the history of a science, essentially, and therefore mostly things that are not art. Photographs taken in a dental office aren’t going to be talked about in Beaumont Newhall’s History of Photography, for example…therefore I feel that taking a lateral approach to analyzing photography is so important. I feel as though the questions you mentioned stem more from an art historical crisis.
It’s important, of course, to analyze what photography currently is and how it affects us. Hito Steyerl, for example, has done incredible work about how photography, and lens-based technologies are used, and how that impacts our lives. The questions I am more interested in asking are: how are cameras being used, and how is this impacting us?
I enjoyed the reading group you did for An unassailable and monumental dignity. The texts by bell hooks and James Baldwin illuminated your thinking in the exhibition. And it was a nice mix of people versed in these discussions and those that seemed totally new to engaging in conversations around art and race. And for all the ma ma shows you had really interesting talks and workshops. Can you speak a bit about your approach to programming events around exhibitions?
I was a bit nervous to do the reading group at Contact because that space had never done one before, so when people actually showed up, it was really exciting to engage in these conversations! And yes, it was nice to have so much diversity in the group, and to provide a productive space to have hard conversations. I was happy to be able to provide a time and place for people to learn about or dive deeper into, the writings of hooks and Baldwin.
The first reading group we did at ma ma was a bit smaller than the one I did at Contact but we had a really rich conversation. It was an institutional critique reading group, and it provided a space for those present to really unpack frustrations and experiences garnered from working in different art contexts.
For me programming provides a way to build on the conversations an exhibition is already having, but teased out in a deeper, more nuanced way. During Tanya Lukin-Linklater’s exhibition at ma ma, we had Camille Rojas give a talk that directly responded to themes found in Tanya’s work such as the female body, knowledge and ballet. As Camille also deals with these subjects, it was great to have a younger, more emerging artist create a conversation that echoed Tanya’s work.
In the last few years the cultural conversation in the West has really moved front and centre on Equity, Diversity and Inclusion. And a lot seems to have changed in terms of the art and culture we see. I’m thinking of some amazing exhibitions by Black artists we’ve had recently in Toronto, which haven’t just been during Black History Month for example. E.g. there’s been Michele Pearson Clarke, Deanna Bowen, Mickalene Thomas currently at the AGO, Sandra Brewster currently at A Space. Where do you see real structural changes happening in the art world (and beyond), and where do you see white supremacist patriarchal modes simply adapting or mutating to absorb social justice issues, or using diversity and inclusion as smokescreens, without fundamentally changing?
There needs to be a complete uprooting of the systems and people in place: mandates need to be re-formulated, boards need to completely change, school curriculums need to be re-written. We can’t be sifting around for token diversities, we need complete structural overhauls. These types of overhauls will take time and resources that the current systems are not always willing to put in place.
Are there some young or emerging artists whose practices you are particularly excited to see develop? Or some more established artists who you think should be getting more recognition than they are?
One that comes to mind is Sylvia Matas who is based in Winnipeg. She does a lot of text-based work, books, drawings, and recently videos that incorporate still imagery with text; she has a very thoughtful and poetic practice. I am excited about Luther Konadu’s practice and writing, he is currently the writer-in-residence at Gallery 44, and it’s great to see his photographic practice getting attention. Camille Rojas has been showing Toronto and I would love for ma ma to work with her outside of the city, perhaps on projects that push the live performance aspect of her practice. I’ve recently really enjoyed working with Tricia Livingston, and I am interested in American Artist’s practice.
Can you tell us about some upcoming projects at both ma ma and Gallery 44?
Opening in September at Gallery 44 is a solo exhibition by Montreal based artist Eve Tagny, called Lost Love. The project is about trauma, renewal, healing and nature.
At ma ma we are currently nurturing a lot of things right now, using down time between spaces to do a lot of research. We are working on an exhibition that will take place in a small domestic space, and will do some programming and reading groups before that. We will also be applying for grants – enough money for basic things like artist fees (and chairs!).
Clare Samuel is an artist/writer based in Toronto