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Now in its 25th year, Toronto’s annual Contact Photography Festival routinely transforms a host of sites across the city — from parking lots to hotel facades — with cutting-edge work by national and international artists working with lens-based media. While consistently engaging public and private venues during the month of May, this year sees the showcase actively explore additional outdoor and virtual environments as well as workshops for a longer time frame in response to the pandemic (all while waiting patiently for Provincial guidelines to dictate the access to indoor gallery exhibitions).

For the design-inclined, we’ve rounded up only a few of the many must-see projects addressing a broad range of emergent issues — from the climate emergency to places of collective life — that intersect with (and perhaps move beyond) the built environment.

Plastic Ocean
Thirza Schaap “Lotus”. Courtesy of the artist and Bildhalle Zürich + Amsterdam

Davisville Subway Station, Outdoor

The vibrant and playful still-life images by Thirza Schaap share an uncomfortable secret: they’re all made of plastic debris the Dutch artist salvaged from Cape Town’s shoreline. Installed along the open-air platform of the Davisville Subway Station, these colourful renderings deliberately appropriate elements, tropes and locations of contemporary advertising to ruminate on the economic systems that have resulted in our current climate emergency. Together, they’re a series of artifacts are as seductive as they are terrifying. A conversation between the artist and curator Sara Knelman on May 8 complements the installation.

The Brotherhood FUBU (For Us, By Us)
Esmaa Mohamoud “The Brotherhood FUBU (For Us, By Us) (production detail, mural)” (2020-21). COURTESY THE ARTIST AND GEORGIA SCHERMAN PROJECTS

Westin Harbour Castle Centre, Outdoor

From cast basketballs and chainlink hoops to jersey gowns and patterned football helmets, Toronto-based artist Esmaa Mohamoud has centred her practice on the dimensions of Black material culture. While these investigations often leverage sport as a way of interrogating labour, gender and identity, Mohamoud’s latest monumental work (the first in a two-part commission) mounted on the facade of the Westin Harbour Castle Centre near the shores of Lake Ontario explores the du-rag and its connection to masculinity. In the artist’s hands, the trails of fabric flow like water across the bodies of her subjects resulting in tender, intimate portraits juxtaposed against the collectivity of the public realm.

Gods Among Us
Esmond Lee “Jame Abu Bakr Siddique” from the series “Gods Among Us” (2019). COURTESY THE ARTIST

Malvern Town Centre, Outdoor

A mosque next to a Pizza Nova. A Pentecostal church in a strip mall. A tabernacle off Birchmount Road. Scarborough-based Esmond Lee‘s ongoing series documents approximately 300 sites of worship in the area that occupy improvised spaces throughout the Toronto borough. But, for the artist and architect, these places are endemic of something larger, namely the resourcefulness and ingenuity of the majority immigrant population. Fittingly, Lee’s large-scale images will be presented in similar locales as those he documents, reinforcing their integral role as places of community and belonging.

Jessann Reece “Shelter Rock” (2020). COURTESY THE ARTIST


During her visit to Jamaica in January of last year, Jessann Reece retraced the steps of her father, visiting the sites he often frequented in a week-long road trip across the island. However, what the Toronto photographer soon encountered was a destabilizing clash between old and new, between encroaching infrastructure as well as tourism and ways of life endemic to the country. Reece began capturing these occurrences in a series of documentary images that comprise ROAD!, a transportive online exhibition that’s part travelogue, part pilgrimage and part meditation on the inaccessibility of the past.

For Jimmy
Jeff Bierk “Jimmy, Blue Sky” (2020). COURTESY THE ARTIST

Billboard at Dupont St and Perth Ave | Billboard at Dupont St and Emerson Ave, Outdoor

Toronto-based photographer Jeff Bierk’s intimate portraits emerge from long-standing collaborations with a number of his friends, many of whom live on the city’s streets. His more recent images relay the systemic issues faced by the city’s homeless population in tandem with the mass evictions and encampment raids that followed the COVID-19 lockdowns. Yet, it’s his body of work done with Jimmy James Evans that will now prominently feature on a pair of billboards along Dupont Street as part of the festival.

“The camera is one way to capture these short, fading moments, to make them feel eternal,” Bierk explains of these photographs in an open letter to Evans. “They are fiercely for me and for us in a way that they aren’t for anyone else.” In other words, feeling instances turned monuments that offer passersby a brief glimpse into their world.

Community Life
Farzaneh Moallef “An Afternoon by the Lake, Ontario Place” (2019). COURTESY THE ARTIST


Curated by Connection Earth Collective, “Community Life” is an exhibition of works by Jessica Dawn Darzinskas, Chenxi Bao, Farzaneh Moallef, Huaijun Wen and Isabella Presnal that examines spaces of collectivity. In light of the ruptures and transformations in the very notion of togetherness brought about by the pandemic, the distinctive works by each artist meditates on the spaces integral to, as the title suggests, community life. “We derive a sense of community from people but also from places,” explains the curators. “The photographic lens allows us to reflect and contemplate on such moments when we find ourselves in the presence of a community; engaged.”

Figure as Index
Luther Konadu “Figure as Index #2” (2020). COURTESY THE ARTIST

Harbourfront Centre, Outdoor

With work that makes reference to the likes of Carrie Mae Weems and Moyra Davie, Winnipeg-based Luther Konadu’s distinct practice of re-photography highlights not only the malleability of images but the identities they capture. Sections of tape, folded edges of paper, post-it notes, hands encroaching into the frame and more remind us of the constructed and material nature of photography as a medium — even more so when portions of Konadu’s series Figure as Index will be mounted on monumental billboards in the Reece Street parking lot near Harbourfront Centre.

The 2021 Scotiabank Contact Photography Festival officially launched on May 1, 2021, across Toronto and online. Check back regularly for updated times and hours pending government lockdown guidelines.

What to See at Toronto’s 2021 Contact Photography Festival

Designed to be viewed from a distance, a bevy of outdoor installations and virtual projects define the annual festival’s latest edition.

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