A Toronto Artist Traces Family and Memory in Latest Exhibit
TORONTO | WORDS BY NAVYA POTHAMSETTY | VISUAL ARTS - Issue 10
"Alphonso" by Ilene Sova
Between founding the Feminist Art Conference, chairing the Drawing & Painting Department at Toronto’s OCAD University, and starting a creative-arts program for elementary school students, it’s hard to believe that Ilene Sova had time to work on a solo exhibition. Yet, Unknown Relative was put on this summer at the John B. Aird Gallery. Sova shares her artistic and personal inspirations, from her whimsical childhood daydreams to her interdisciplinary professional life.
sM | The title of your recent solo exhibition, Unknown Relative, came from the back of a photo in your grandfather’s album. How is your creative process augmented
by intimate subjects?
IS ── I think when dealing with family, everything in the collage collection is connected with deep memories of my childhood and the connection to my own aesthetic memories of the Bahamas. My dad’s 1970s Afrofuture record collection was one of my most inspiring influences. Afrofuturism is reimagining a future filled with arts, science, and technology seen through a black lens. The aesthetics of this movement include space, the universe, glitter, metallic, elaborate costumes, and innovative technologies. As a child, I vividly remember looking at these album covers like Boney M.’s Night Flight to Venus. I would sit by the record player staring at the glitter and imagining myself dancing in these shiny silver, beautifully coloured costumes.
"Hugh and George" by Ilene Sova
The second influence is my grandfather’s cousin, Eric Minns, who was a famous calypso singer and author. His iconic calypso music was playing in the exhibition as people explored the show. In his book, Island Boy, he wrote about the diasporic travel of Bahamian migrants to Toronto. This novel and his records were always at arm’s reach in my house, where I would stare at the images and imagine a false tropical paradise far away. I think this diasporic visual lens is a thread throughout the work
Lastly, my grandfather wrote copious amounts of letters back and would carefully save the stamps and bring them on my visits as small souvenirs of the island. I would carefully arrange them in my childhood scrapbooks. Later, after he left my house, I would stare at these tiny iconographic images of flamingos, palm trees, pineapples, coconuts, fish, and shells, and transport myself to this imagined hot and beautiful island. These symbolic icons came up again in my compositional choices as I worked through the studio research.
sM | You are also the Chair of the Drawing & Painting department at OCAD University, the largest art school in Canada. How does your teaching experience interact and inform your artistic practice?
IS ── I see my teaching and work in community arts as an integral aspect of my studio practice. Teaching and working in leadership at OCAD U is a pleasure because of all the inspiration and dialogue it brings into my life as an artist. As you can imagine, when you are learning about art with your community of students, discussing contemporary practices with your colleagues and programming engagements within the city of Toronto, you are constantly stimulated and pushed creatively. Teaching always presents creative challenges and problem-solving, and that stimulation comes into the studio research in a myriad of ways. This year in particular, I had the exciting opportunity as a faculty member to work directly with young emerging artists from the Bahamas through my work at the university.
"Grace" by Ilene Sova
I planned a residency supported by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council called Decolonizing Art from Turtle Island to the Islands of the Bahamas with co-researcher Nadia McLaren. For this work, I travelled to Nassau, Bahamas and engaged in historical and creative research with OCAD U students and students from a community arts studio called Project ICE and the University of the Bahamas. Those students then came to Toronto for two weeks this summer for the other half of the exchange. I brought those students from Nassau through the exhibition and did a walking artist talk. Their responses to the collection were significant. This work and the conversations it created were incredibly inspiring for thinking through the installation, the aesthetics, and the concepts within Unknown Relative.
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