Anthony Gebrehiwot (with Bárbara Wagner and Benjamin De Burca) Communities of Love
As a young Black girl who grew up influenced by the courage of the greats
I respect the struggles of the past, but I represent the changes of today
Do not let others’ experiences define you
Do not let them define you, let them inspire you
Do not let history become your destiny …
– Shahaddah Jack
It is not by coincidence that the self-taught photographic practice of Anthony Gebrehiwot began by borrowing a camera from his close friend Brit. Sharing is how things get done in Scarborough. Paying it forward is how things continue. By the time Gebrehiwot bought his own camera—as a second year Kinesiology student at York University—he had started “Shooting for Change,” an initiative that used photography to generate proceeds to feed the homeless in Toronto’s downtown core.
It was not long after “Shooting for Change” that Gebrehiwot found R.I.S.E. (Reaching Intelligent Souls Everywhere). Or, R.I.S.E. found Gebrehiwot. The match was surely mutual: a magnetic force, a vibratory effect, a genetic attraction. When Gebrehiwot started shooting for R.I.S.E., he changed. Working under the auspices of his company XvXy Photography, he began to capture fellow spoken work poets, rappers, and singers. Through this growing archive he quickly established himself as a portrait photographer committed to picturing a new generation of Scarborough’s creative community. Like Scarborough, photography was part of his DNA. R.I.S.E. has since become a life-force that echoes the voices of Toronto’s tomorrow.
The spoken word is a gift
And you can emanate life or death
by the mere intention coming out of your lips
We can speak dreams into existence
creating a world united or divided
You can choose to be the change, or remain silenced
By size, the tongue is the strongest muscle in our bodies for a reason
A tool to connect us to the divine
A portal between time and space mixed
The inspiration of ancient hieroglyphs …
Do not allow the ‘from’ and ‘to’ on your tombstone to just be dated
Let the dash in between reveal the story you told
of the magic that you created
Reaching Intelligent Souls Everywhere, or R.I.S.E., was founded by Randell Adjei, a young spoken word poet and visionary from Scarborough whose weekly spoken word event cut through the stereotypical image of Scarborough to reclaim it as a safe space for contemporary cultural expression. Every Monday, this open mic event draws established and emerging performers from across the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) to share their work with a diverse and intergenerational audience in an atmosphere of generosity and support. Collapsing entertainment and education into a form of expressive empowerment, R.I.S.E. operates under the principles of what rapper KRS-One calls “Edutainment.”
Communities of Love is Gebrehiwot’s first solo exhibition in a public gallery, though, in the spirit of Scarborough, he shares the space with other artists: the spoken word poets and rappers pictured in the photographs, of course, but also a film called RISE. Commissioned by the Art Gallery of York University (AGYU) and produced in conjunction with the AGYU and R.I.S.E’s Truth Be Told spoken word mentorship program, RISE was filmed in Toronto in June 2018 on the Toronto Transit Commission’s new Line One subway extension by Brazil-based artists Bárbara Wagner and Benjamin de Burca. Operatic in nature, this experimental documentary looks at rhythm and poetry as forms of creative labour that constitute contemporary collectivities of diasporic belonging, intra-cultural dialogue, and relational expression: the call-and-response, the recitative, and the cypher. RISE provides the context for Gebrehiwot’s sonorous body of photographic work and Finch West, York University, Pioneer Village, and Highway 407 subway stations set the stage for a group of performing artists from across the GTA to converge and, importantly, to claim space. History is not their destiny. The tunnels they dig are visionary.
It might seem strange to call a collection of photographs sonorous. But this photographic series is a heuristic for attending to the sonic energies inherent in the Black and brown bodies pictured, whose performances in the film transform the public institutional spaces of this city’s new suburban transit system into platforms for creative cultural resistance. Their affective frequencies attune us to the power of presence, particularly in what could appear as situations of potential trouble. Black and brown bodies abound: Jane-Finch rappers illicitly shoot their own music video in York University Station and the real-life station supervisor catches them. Their punishment? A song!
Each portrait in this series is a word in a story whose poiesis pivots on the rhythm of collective harmony. As a collective, their presence is loud and declarative: gestures transform escalators into liminal spaces of identity formation rather than a mere device for getting from point A to point B; postures turn stairs into stages that know no difference between the street or the community centre. Turning this public place into a safe space, poets and rappers command our attention: the rhythm of their rhymes resound in the reverberating architectural structures of these new stations. The walls now echo Toronto’s poly-vocal futurity in and of the present. Or, as Black feminist photography scholar Tina M. Campt would say, “a tense of possibility… the future real conditional… a performance of a future that hasn’t yet happened but must.” (Listening to Images, 2017, pp. 17). These artists represent the changes of today; a portal between time and space.
We feel the full clamour of “Scarborough sounds” in these portraits. They capture not the stillness of moments but the movements of a generation on and through a subway extension that was built precisely for Toronto’s future.
No longer “arriving at,” these poets, rappers, and singers have simply arrived.
Commissioned and produced by the Art Gallery of York University
Born and raised in Scarborough by parents from Rwanda and Ethiopia, Anthony Gebrehiwot is a passionate photographer, community leader, and social entrepreneur, whose creative lens re-visions photography as an ongoing dialogue of social change between subject and society. Gebrehiwot has a long-standing commitment to social justice work through photography. His most recent community-based project From the Margins to the Centre was commissioned by Cultural Hotspots Toronto and presented in May 2018 at the Malvern Town Centre.
The collaborative works of Bárbara Wagner (1980, Brasília, Brazil) and Benjamin de Burca (1975, Munich, Germany) use documentary narrative structures to observe diverse relations between tradition and progress in emerging economies. Their work was shown most recently at Skulptur Projekte Münster, Germany; São Paulo Museum of Modern Art; 32nd São Paulo Biennial; La Biennale arts actuels Réunion; EVA International, Ireland, the 68th Berlinale, Germany, FRONT International Triennial of American Art, USA, and the Art Gallery of York University (AGYU), Canada. Wagner and de Burca live and work in Recife, an old colonial city located on Brazil’s northeast coast. They were the AGYU’s 2017–18 artists-in-residence and are represented by Fortes D’Aloia & Gabriel, São Paulo.
Emelie Chhangur is an artist and award-winning curator and writer, who works as the interim Director/Curator of the Art Gallery of York University (AGYU), Toronto. She is the Executive Producer of the film RISE, commissioner of this series of photographs, and curator of Communities of Love.