GODS AMONG US by Esmond Lee as part of CONTACT PHOTOGRAPHY FESTIVAL at Malvern Town Centre (dates pending). contactphoto.com.
The suburbs are typically places young artists flee. The pull of the city centre, where all the festivals, galleries and big cultural events take place, is hard to resist. Architect and photographer Esmond Lee was one of those people – and then he moved back to Scarborough.
A self-described “architect who lives in the suburbs who really loves the suburbs,” he did a master’s in architecture at the University of Toronto, and has spent 10 years working on condos, malls, health-care centres and large institutions. After moving back home close to his Chinese immigrant parents in Scarborough, he noticed more sharply how what he learned in school was incompatible with how working-class immigrants create community with available buildings.
“In Scarborough, what you have are communities and migrants making things happen on their own,” he says. “Informal, adaptive reuse of buildings in commercial, retail and industrial spaces. It’s not conventionally pretty in the suburbs, but living here in the last 10 years, it’s become who I am.”
His Contact Photo Festival project Gods Among Us is a series of photos of churches, temples and mosques, many of which had prior uses. These buildings exemplify how immigrants start small. If they succeed, they might build a new free-standing temple or church, replete with amenities.
Lee is also mapping these places of worship, which he says number more than 300 in Scarborough alone. “The sheer number is quite miraculous,” he says. “But it’s about being hidden.”
When you think of a mosque you might imagine a grand minaret, an impeccably sculpted domed roof and a courtyard. In Scarborough, a mosque may look like a church, or a one-storey office building. It might have homey bricks and a gable roof, arched windows or no windows, or an austere cement exterior with only signage to indicate the building’s purpose.
“These places of worship are a process of migration,” explains Lee. “Because of Scarborough’s unique industrial history, they’re able to access low-cost gathering spaces from commercial units to industrial plazas. My photographs document how entrepreneurish [and] resourceful immigrants really are in adapting spaces for their own needs. Most of these spaces are less than ideal, but they make it happen.”
When Lee’s parents moved to Canada, the family attended a Protestant Baptist Church. He describes his family as “a little bit spiritual,” more interested in gaining a foothold in a new country than organized religion.
The church became a welcoming hub of social activity that, in some cases, served a purpose more important than religious observance. “I remember growing up and going to bible school, attending all these after-church events. I remember seeing my sister being baptized,” he says. “These are really important memories that I have. But really, it’s about remembering the open-heartedness.”
What makes Lee’s photos so compelling is that he’s able to communicate his fondness through subtle light and framing. His images are typically shot on sunny days; a pastoral light from an expansive sky dappling the environment around the image’s focal point. Slowly you realize you are looking at a church that used to be a factory.
“Something that you can really appreciate in the suburbs is just seeing the horizon, and seeing into the sky,” he says. “In my photographs I really try to capture that quietness, but vibrancy within the space.”
He feels his work is not “conceptually dense” enough for the art world. “I’m too punk for corporate but too pedestrian for the arts,” he tweeted recently. “My dual cultural identities prepared me for this.”
Contact will eventually exhibit his photographs in partnership with Doris McCarthy Gallery outside an entrance at Malvern Town Centre, which suits him fine. He’s happy that his parents will be able to see their architect son’s work in a familiar venue.
“Racialized folks aren’t just socially marginalized, but they’re spatially marginalized. When you have galleries and events that are all downtown, you already feel like you don’t belong,” he says. “For a lot of working-class people like my parents, art is seen as superfluous, a luxury in a way. When you’re forced to have economic survival instincts, you really can’t think of art as something that you belong to.”
As an architect, Lee is keenly aware that more density is needed to accommodate housing needs. Scarborough is now considered affordable by Toronto standards, and is changing as developers snap up land. Adaptive reuse of buildings is one lesson he believes all of Toronto should heed as the city grows.
“No one wanted to be in the suburbs for the last few decades because it lacks public transit, it lacks all the things that we would want in the city,” he says. “And now instead of recognizing what we’ve built, we want to push the lessons from downtown, which is densification, into the periphery. What does that mean for those that are living here?”
He sees a parallel in arts world, as big festivals like Contact and Nuit Blanche establish roots in the burbs.
“We should really listen to the communities here,” he adds, “as opposed to thinking, how do we take urban sensibilities into the suburbs?”
Listen to Kevin Ritchie’s interview with Esmond Lee in the latest episode of the NOW What podcast, available on Apple Podcasts or Spotify or playable directly below:
NOW What is a twice-weekly podcast that explores the ways Torontonians are coping with life in the time of coronavirus. New episodes are available Tuesdays and Fridays.