14 must-see shows at Contact Photography Festival 2021

The 25th annual photo festival's shows will roll out across public spaces and galleries throughout the year


Contact Photography Festival is celebrating 25 years of taking over Toronto billboards, building facades and galleries with photo- and image-based art. Since galleries remain closed due to pandemic restrictions, this year the festival is switching things up.

With more time to prepare than the 2020 edition, there was a concerted effort to bolster virtual exhibitions and outdoor programming. No longer working in the confines of the month of May, Contact will roll out shows into the fall to overlap with the city’s Year of Public Art initiative in September.   

Toronto and Markham-based artist Esmaa Mohamoud’s The Brotherhood FUBU (For Us, By Us) and Montreal-based artist Calico & Camouflage: Assemble! are two highly anticipated but delayed public exhibitions.  

Contact’s curatorial visions are often rooted in social, economic and environmental dilemmas. Following the groundbreaking year of widespread critical analysis of the power structures that govern our world, artists created works that explore the Black experience in contemporary and colonial times, Indigenous sovereignty and anti-colonialism, women’s bodies as sites of power, humanity’s impact on the environment and surviving extended periods of isolations throughout the pandemic. 

Here’s a mix of Contact Photography Festival shows to can see now and coming soon in the months ahead. For complete exhibition and event info and updates, visit contactphoto.com.

Will Munro, Every Action Tethered

Two years after his death from cancer in 2010, queer nightlife promoter and artist Will Munro was the subject of a survey exhibition at the Art Gallery of York University. That work is now on display for the first time since via Paul Petro Contemporary Art’s website. Munro was known for his hand-stitched reconstructed underwear, a medium that became the perfect canvas for blending his crafty ingenuity with queer and punk subcultures.

Online, paulpetro.com, April 30-May 29.

Jeff Bierk and Jimmy James Evans, For Jimmy

The Toronto photographer best known for taking portraits of his close group of friends lands on two billboards during Contact with photos of his friend and collaborator Jimmy James Evans. His work explores ongoing consent between photographer and “subjects,” and the way unhoused people are represented in media. This show documents his decade-long friendship with Evans. Read our story on Bierk from our Contact Photo Fest issue here.

At Dupont and Perth and Dupont and Emerson. May 1-30.

Kim Hoeckele, Seated Woman in leisure (attributed to Ingres, after Man Ray), 2019. Courtesy of the artist.
Courtesy of the artist

Kim Hoeckele, epoch, stage, shell

The New York-based artist’s overlaid and laser cut prints will take over billboards at Dovercourt and Dupont for the month of May. She takes black-and-white images of different parts of her own body and splices and cuts into them, remodelling her body parts to critique idealized conventions of beauty. On face value they’re intriguing images but on deeper inspection they’re alluding to art history, notably works by Gustave Courbet (L’origin du monde) and Joan Miró (The Birth Of The World).

Corner of Davenport and Dupont, to May 30.

Max Dean, Still – Living Through Cancer And COVID

If you were wondering what happened to the animatronic figures from Ontario Place’s Wilderness Adventure Ride, wonder no more. They wound up in Max Dean’s photo studio, collaborating on a number of projects. The latest is helping the artist work through his prostate cancer diagnosis, which happened to coincide with COVID-19. The resulting photographs are downright ro-bodily.

Online, bulgergallery.com, May 1-June 26.

 Girl In Ice Block, a photo from August 20, 1966 taken from the Canadian National Exhibition Archives, MG5-F1620-I4.
Courtesy of the CNEA

Erik Kessels & Thomas Mailaender, Play Public

The Canadian National Exhibition is a late-summer Toronto icon, but Dutch designer Kessels and French artist Mailaender were more interested in uncovering oddball imagery from the CNE’s archives (there will be cats) for this outdoor exhibit. The images will eventually be mounted on a large wooden structures at the Bentway, giving them a playful new context.

The Bentway at Canoe Landing (dates pending);  artist talk May 14, 1 pm, eventbrite.ca.

Aaron Jones, Ebti Nabag, Kelly Fyffe-Marshall, Three-Thirty

This multi-site exhibition curated by Anique Jordan opened last fall as part of the 2020 Contact Festival but it was extended. It’s an ode to Malvern, the neighbourhood she grew up in, and the children and teens who shape its identity. The exhibition is spread across cultural landmarks like the Malvern Public Library and Lester B. Pearson Collegiate Institute. Larger-than-life collages and photographs cover the building facades, imposing the stories and images of the Black and brown youth that give Scarborough its heart onto the landscape. Read more in our September feature on the project.

Lester B. Pearson Collegiate Institute, Malvern Public Library, ongoing; Doris McCarthy Gallery (dates pending).

Dana Claxton, Scotiabank Photography Award 

This retrospective celebrates the work of the Hunkpapa Lakota photographer and filmmaker after she won the Scotiabank Photography Award last year. The exhibition spans from the 1990s until present day, with an emphasis on Claxton’s multidisciplinary practice of performance art, installation, film, video and photography. Freeing herself from colonial control, Claxton’s striking images defiantly challenge stereotypes about Indigenous life and people.

Ryerson Image Centre (dates pending). 

Esmond Lee, Gods Among Us

The Scarborough-based architect explores the experiences of immigrants via landscape and architecture photography. For his Contact show, Lee turns a lens on churches, mosques and temples that have turned relics of the eastern suburb’s industrial past into community hubs. His bright, simple images emphasize suburban vastness, turning unassuming structures into subjects of fond reflection. Read our feature on Lee from our Contact Photo Fest issue here.

Malvern Town Centre (dates pending)

Luther Konadu, Figure As Index

The rising Winnipeg photographer returns to Contact with photo collages of his ever-expanding community of family and friends who appear more like active participants rather than passive images to be gazed upon. Through his thoughtful constructions, Konadu draws attention to the limits of photography, shifting the focus from the people pictured to the medium itself and ultimately, back at the viewer.

Harbourfront Centre, parking pavilion (dates pending).

Esmaa Mohamoud, The Brotherhood FUBU (For Us, By Us)

For Us, By Us has been a common parlance in the Black hip-hop community since the 90s. In the context of Mohamoud’s continued exploration into the public perception of Black men, it takes on new meaning. With her billboard and sculptural installations at Westin Harbour Castle Conference Centre and Harbour Square Park, she takes control of the image-making associated with Blackness and imbues it with a vulnerability and fragility that they are not often afforded in media, in the carceral system or the world at large.

Westin Harbour Castle (dates pending).

A Slippery Place 4 (2019) by Séamus Gallagher.
Courtesy of Séamus Gallagher

Group show, We Buy Gold

Artist (and former NOW cover star) Michèle Pearson Clarke moves into a curatorial role for this group show featuring 10 emerging LGBTQ photographers living and working in Canada. Featuring work by Séamus Gallagher, Isabel Okoro, Brianna Roye and more, the show aims to capture a younger perspective on queer life using portraiture, still life and sculptural elements. The gallery show is TBD but the AGO is hosting a talk later in May.

Gallery TPW (datings pending); AGO Art In The Spotlight: Talking Queer Photography, May 25 at 4-5 pm. contactphoto.com.

Isabel Okoro and Timothy Yanick Hunter, Is Love A Synonym For Abolition?

These emerging Toronto-based artists shared a workspace throughout their art-making, a collaborative process that included curator Liz Ikiriko and advisor Katherine McKittrick. The show draws its name from a June 2020 essay written by American writer Saidiya Hartman about the movement toward the end of policing. Incorporating photography and poetry by Okoro and archival footage projected on sculptural installations by Hunter, the works create a conversation about the possibility of abolition and the route to get there. The artists contemplate Black death and hopelessness with tenderness and optimism.

Gallery 44 (dates pending).

Miao Ying, How to sell a counterfeit ideology II, (GIF animation; element from Chinternet Plus) 2016
Courtesy of the artist

Miao Ying, A Field Guide to Ideology

For her debut “offline” exhibition in Canada, the Chinese artist sends up the government of China’s attempts to apply technology to traditional sectors with her browser-based Chinternet Plus and Hardcore Digital Detox projects. The work will be refashioned for multimedia viewing stations at U of T’s Art Museum this fall and features original gifs and videos riffing on the visuals and architecture of Chinese internet culture to suggest a resilience among users in the face of state censorship.

Art Museum at the University of Toronto – Justina M. Barnicke Gallery, September 8-November 22.

Skawennati, Calico & Camouflage: Assemble!

The Montreal-based Mohawk artist’s 3D-cyberpunk avatars are coming soon to to the digital screens and concrete columns at Yonge-Dundas Square, tapping into the space’s frequent use as a site of protest. Her work is often about imagining a future for Indigenous people, with an emphasis on personal style as a form of protest. She recently made the jump from designing clothes in Second Life to exhibiting real-life garb at Indigenous Fashion Week in Toronto.

Yonge-Dundas Square (dates pending).

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