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Issue 149

Wildseed: A Fellowship Model by and for Black Creatives
by Erica Cardwell

From her home studio, visual artist and fellow Natalie Wood clearly recalls the palpable tone of the Wildseed Black Arts Fellowship’s first virtual gathering. “We looked at all the little squares,” she says, noting the now-ubiquitous gallery view of Zoom meetings. “Everyone was Black. It was a visceral moment. I felt that. I know a number of the other artists felt the same way. It [is] absolutely rare where you’re seeing yourself reflected.”

  • Elicser Elliott, <em>Maya’s First Album Cover</em>, 2018, aerosol on wood, 51 cm x 41 cm

While the desire for community—a sense of collective belonging—involves the universal need to feel and be seen, meaningful connection is often rooted in the simplistic beauty of seeing one’s own likeness. The fellowship fulfils this complex yearning with tremendous intent. Following its inaugural 2019 installment, which saw artists Kara Springer, Kosisochukwu Nnebe, and Kim Ninkuru working together at the Wildseed Centre, this recent iteration represents a significant expansion. Over 20 months, 13 Black Canadian artists from a wide range of disciplines undertake seven distinct residencies led by an array of visual artists, writers, and other practitioners—including but not limited to Curtis Talwst Santiago and co-founder of the Movement for Black Lives, author and activist, Patrisse Cullors. Each residency will touch upon specific areas of creative practice and inquiry, such as drawing sessions and writing workshops, as well as fundamental lectures on how visual art is integral to social justice movement work. For example, Black Arts Fellowship coordinator, Mila Natasha Mendez, describes a recent session wherein Deaf advocate and educator Ashlea Hayes led the fellows in a practice of embodied storytelling where they reinterpreted a Black folk tale without words, using the space and props around them. Additionally, disabled poet and community activist Leroy Moore provided powerful lectures on Black disabled ancestors, art history, and movements worldwide.

At the heart of this program are the values and imperatives of Black Lives Matter (BLM) – Toronto which upholds art and visual culture as a crucial means for engaging communities around anti-racist resistance and systemic reform. The Wildseed Centre was formed out of these efforts and officially opened in 2020, just before the Toronto lockdown, as an artist-run centre for Black creatives to work alongside one another. Rooted in principles of immortality and transformation found in Octavia Butler’s 1980 novel Wild Seed, the centre was founded “to be fertile ground for [B]lack creativity and organizing.” Around late 2019, the board of prominent “artivists” who co-founded BLM – Toronto—including Syrus Marcus Ware, Rodney Diverlus, Ravyn Ariah Wngz, and others—started to brainstorm ways to make their space available for the Black Canadian arts community. In a virtual interview, Ware also cited the public lynching of George Floyd and subsequent uprisings as intensifying the charge for what would become the fellowship. “The summer uprisings fuelled our fire to do this work […] It grew out of this desire to bring together artists who are interested in creative practice and activism […] to build the network of care and support that could fuel future collaborations and innovations.” In other words, the passion and inertia from this global moment defined a shift in the board’s thinking about their physical space to a more conceptual—and eventually virtual—one. During the pandemic, community engagement has become an untenable prospect somewhat relegated to the unforeseeable future. Despite this, the Black Arts Fellowship has managed an impressive switch to virtual space, all while upholding their mission.

The function of political art is a perpetual question within the art world. In both name and principle, it often signals to the viewer that in order to see value in the work, they necessarily have to forsake aesthetic considerations, thus reducing it down to intention. Quite inevitably, Black artists have been historically tasked to make meaning amid an onslaught of racist, violent, and disparaging attacks to our civil and human rights. Our responses are often distilled and reproduced as blueprints for macro-level movement building despite scant professional opportunities or critical engagement throughout entire careers. The fellowship counters this colonial vestige by arranging regular opportunities for dialogue, encouraging each artist to use the program for visioning, self-study, and consciousness-raising. Me Time considers this to be one of the radical approaches of the fellowship: that the concept of “political art” is positioned as a fundamental framework for the artists, rather than as a scrim through which audiences must filter their work. “Very early on, we realized that just us being together was the work.”

When I interviewed the DJ and producer from her home, Me Time candidly described the “identity crisis” the pandemic has inflicted upon her life. It has been over a year since her last in-person event. Given that the energy and controlled chaos of interactive in-person events is central to her creative process, Me Time has had to completely reshape her practice. She found Wildseed to radically address this crisis with a conscientious and liberating solution: no deliverables. Their primary objective, as she understood it, was focused on cultivating and preserving the collective imagination of the fellows. Currently Me Time is working on a “pre-COVID” commission called R.A.V.E. (Real Audio-Visual Experience), an immersive theatre performance that encourages audience interaction with the environment, props, and actors. In a bit of foreshadowing, Me Time developed the premise for R.A.V.E. as “a world with no dance floors, and […] ultimate isolation.” The performance was intended to take place in a large public venue, but she’s planning for alternative presentations as lockdown measures persist.

According to the Wildseed fellows, the program’s inclusive framework is all-encompassing, including the application process. Me Time made a video for her application, rather than writing a lengthy artist statement or proposal essay, seeing the organization’s openness to this as an example of “meeting us where we are at.” Any problematic and misguided skepticism or doubt about the volume of talent amongst BIPOC creatives (often flippantly dismissed as mere “identity politics”) is swiftly curtailed by the fact that there were more than 75 applications. Based on this demand, and after making their final selections for the 13 funded fellows, the board created five free “enrichment sessions” led by Wildseed board members for the top 26 applicants, holding fast to their intention of inspiring and extending the network of emerging Black artists. In thinking about the competitive, high-stakes structures of most fellowship programs, this model signals a radically new and refreshing departure in general, but especially for Black artists who are typically vying for the same positions within the margins. Muralist and painter Elicser Elliott perceives the fellowship as “levelling the playing field.”

In a groundbreaking move, the program is also teaching Black ASL to the fellows; as one of the two Deaf artists in the fellowship, Natasha “Courage” Bacchus considers the weekly classes to be proof of a sincere dedication toward inclusion. In my virtual interview with the actress, conducted with the support of ASL interpreter Marcia Adolphe, Courage shared the cultural disconnects that Deaf people often face. “I use a visual language. I always wanted to connect with the Caribbean Black community, but because of the bullying and the marginalization, [I was] not able to communicate and have access. I always felt that I wasn’t a part of the Caribbean Black community.” It’s another example of how the program has been successful in identifying factors that keep Black folks alienated from each other.

Children’s book author Janine Carrington continues to marvel at the feelings of centrality this fellowship has created within her. “Number one: it’s definitely a platform for us, a space where you feel important [and] you’re a main contributor, one of the stars of this show. That is not normal for Black Canadian artists—you are usually on the fringe.” In her current book project, an illustrated YA novel called Tropicahlia centred on climate justice, two sisters who live close to the equator set out on “an epic journey to stop the destruction of their land, culture, and people” and, in turn, discover their true power. The manuscript is on track to be finished by the end of the year, and Carrington hopes that the story will one day be made into a movie.

As for Wood, she opened her solo show “Exordium” at Paul Petro Contemporary Art in Toronto earlier this year, which includes encaustic paintings, wearable performance pieces, and a series of works on Mylar. One stand-out image is Packed in Blue, from the series Accounting (2020), which depicts the Blue Devil archetype from Caribbean folklore, which inspires you to “tear up the social contract.” This framework for resistance is at the heart of her Blue Devil Posse, a QTBIPOC political performance group whose mandate is to tap into “different imaginations for the Black body in the world.” Prior to the pandemic, they performed as a group at Pride, Caribana, and other public events. Her research on Caribbean archetypes will continue during the fellowship with the support of a Canada Council grant. Wood is also hoping to use the studio at Wildseed Centre—which is being made available to one artist at a time—to return to her encaustic practice for the first time in more than a decade. As she mused about the future, the artist spoke with both passion and urgency. “I feel like I’ve been activated, and it feels like my ancestors have been activated, too, like [asking me] ‘What are you doing with your time?’ I’ve got to respond to the now.” Elliott agrees: “I’ve been really feeling the pressure of making it my duty to do work—if it’s on the streets or in a [museum]—to educate and inform.” Given that he lives in his studio, the pandemic hasn’t affected his creative practice on that level of access. However, like many of his peers, the community connection has been a much-needed source of inspiration. Along with experimentation with digital prints, Elliott is preparing a body of work for the City of Toronto’s “Year of Public Art.”

Considering the already groundbreaking impact of this program, which is only a few months in, the Black Arts Fellowship has mostly flown under the radar. As a way to embed community in institutions, its framework should be replicated and innovated upon. At the time of writing, we are nearing the anniversary of the global protests against state-sanctioned violence; what remains to be seen is if the organizations who “committed to making a shift” had a serious commitment toward marked change. This will require a decentralization of whiteness and its cultural framings, tipping the scales in favor of rarely recognized Black creatives.

What remains timeless is the work being done from within communities. The Wildseed Black Arts Fellowship has modelled a dynamic program that is sensitive to each fellow’s needs and intent on world-building, proving that if the dominant culture will not make space, we have always been exceptionally good at building our own.

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