DesignTO at a distance still sent meaningful messages through art

Feb 5, 2021 | Arts, Headlines

DesignTO gave exhibitors such as Roxanne Brathwaite an opportunity to share a powerful message amid the pandemic.

“It felt great to be included,” Braithwaite said. “It’s a good place to showcase your work. Especially if you’re an emerging artist.”

The festival, which was held in the span of the last 10 days in January, displayed digital exhibitions online as well as window installations.

Brathwaite was always interested in furniture growing up. Often she would create furniture to furnish her three dollhouses.

“I didn’t have enough furniture to furnish all three dollhouses, so I just started making furniture from stuff that I had on hand,” Brathwaite said. “I’ve always liked furniture, and that was my first introduction to miniatures.”

Brathwaite launched a furniture company, Hollis Newton Canada, in 2018 where she reimagined antique and vintage furniture, but stopped later production. She shifted to miniature dioramas to stay preoccupied.

“It was a way to stay creative,” Brathwaite said. “Part of my background is fine art history so I’ve always had an interest in iconic designs.”

Brathwaite had three miniature suites on display during the festival. Each suite tells a story about a social issue that has been impacted by the COVID-19 lockdown.

“One of them was domestic violence,” Brathwaite said. “The other was law enforcement interactions with people suffering from mental health issues, and the third was child abuse.”

Brathwaite wasn’t the only one who had artwork display powerful messages during the festival.

The Daniels Art Directive’s “Support Black Designers” mural was displayed across the north wall of the University of Toronto’s John H. Daniels Faculty of Architecture, Landscape and Design on Spadina Crescent.

Tarek Mokhalalati, a curating executive at Daniels Art Directive, noted the Black Lives Matter movement was a source of inspiration for their project.

“We wanted to do something about the Black Lives Matter movement,” Mokhalalati said. “Specifically, the nature of the spaces provided for Black students and faculty.”

He noted during a consultation session, a professor that was supposed to judge dropped out due to the representation of Black designers in the final product. However, it struck a chord with him.

“She said that you shouldn’t be having non-Black designers getting paid for a mural about Black designers,” Mokhalalati said. “It made sense. Why would we monetarily reward primarily white people for making pixels celebrating Black culture?”

Mokhalalati decided to revamp the mural, to not have non-Black artists and not offer to pay the artists.

“We decided that because it wouldn’t be supporting Black designers, it’d be supporting designers,” Mokhalalati said. “And that would defeat the whole purpose of the mural.”

Most artists did not feel comfortable having their work on the mural as is, and became a reflection of the nature of the space and the faculty itself.

“We had a lot of voices telling us their lived experience being Black students and what professors and students tell them,” Mokhalalati said. “And we realized, let’s make sure the truth comes out.”

Mokhalalati believed the meaning of the mural being a representation of what the faculty wanted was the most important to him.

“It was what the faculty wanted to say, the students specifically, rather than the administration,” Mokhalalati said.

Being included in DesignTO was a surprise for Mokhalalati, however, he notes it was all a team effort.

“I didn’t really comprehend the nature of how big DesignTO was until I saw people reaching out to me who became interested in the mural,” Mokhalalati said.

Deborah Wang, the artistic director of DesignTO, believed this year’s festival embraced a broad spectrum of artists and their work.

“It gave a platform for other people’s projects,” Wang said. “Not having a theme gives a lot more options for a lot of projects.”

The transition to a distanced audience was an easy transition for Wang and her colleagues since they didn’t always work in the same room in the past.

“We utilized our strong digital presence and the window exhibitions were something we did in the past that we brought back,” Wang said.

Moving forward, Wang hopes their online programs will continue even after the pandemic, in the meantime, they plan to continue with their Ask Me Anything program, as well as their partnership with the Ontario College of Art and Design University in Toronto.

Meanwhile, Brathwaite, plans to capitalize on the popularity of miniatures and continue making them and sharing them on Instagram while incorporating social messages into her work.

Mokhalalati and the Daniels Art Directive want to create more murals in the future, but more importantly, they want to create spaces where artists get paid to create art as professionals.