Is Love A Synonym For Abolition?

Isabel Okoro and Timothy Yanick Hunter

Curated by Liz Ikiriko

Gallery 44, Toronto.

Sept.10-Oct.23, 2021

Conceived as a Black, feminist, collaborative process that encourages relation building and forefronts care, Is Love A Synonym for Abolition? presents the work of emerging Toronto-based artists Isabel Okoro and Timothy Yanick Hunter. Informed by the sharing of source materials and conversations with curator Liz Ikiriko and advisor Katherine McKittrick, the exhibition features photography, archival footage, poetry, sound, and sculptural installation.

Is Love a Synonym for Abolition? draws its title from scholar Saidiya Hartman’s essay “The End of White Supremacy, An American Romance,” published in the June 2020 issue of BOMB Magazine. Hartman lays bare the very real, sobering pain of Black existence within an age-old white supremacist system. The summer of 2020 was a fever dream, alighting cities on fire. For Black people, the continued police brutality, public killings, and the chosen inaction by those in power was too great a pain to be silenced or carried alone. Times like these are noted, written about, and reflected on while the behemoth structures of empire continue to consume and extract with absolute disregard for human life. How do we continue in the face of hopeless futures brought into presence by hopeless pasts? What does it mean to consider abolition in an age of continued Black death and an ongoing global pandemic?

This exhibition may not be a resolute answer and yet it creates possibility within an impossible time. Okoro and Hunter disrupt the linearity of our present tense to break the structural silence that maintains Blackness in a sunken place. Amid this age of COVID-19, when human physical presence is hyper-realized and limited, when embodied connections must be mitigated, they create environments that attend to bodies, psyches, passions, and conflicts. Through discussions, the artists encourage and support each other in their process and research. Extending their relationship into the gallery, a shared workspace created by both artists, equipped with influential texts, photocopies, and additional materials, is offered for visitors to engage in collective thinking and making.

A Nigerian, self-taught photographer, Okoro uses visual storytelling to consider colonial histories of the Afro-diaspora while also envisioning futures of Black love and autonomy. Her series If You Knew How We Got Here (2021) is a parable that contemplates cultural lineages, transatlantic movement, and home/lands. Using poetry and traditional colour and black-and-white film photography, Okoro sensitively depicts intimacy between friends and lovers, kindred relations that might be falsely perceived as fragile. Photographing both in Canada and Nigeria, Okoro confidently shows us lives fortified through tenderness and connections that transcend geographic territories.

Working with rare film clips, ‘90s R&B tracks, liner notes, poems, and correspondence, Hunter creates video mashups projected onto sculpted surfaces. These layers of diasporic ephemera span a range of cultural references, from Franz Fanon to Whitney Houston, and offer meditations on the amorphous qualities of time and space. In the worlds he conjures, our labour and dreams are united with our ancestors binding the past and present, not only through our admiration but also through our shared struggles. He presents ways of being both physically and virtually nurtured, offering these nostalgic images and sounds as instructions, ceremonies, and samplings to usher us through a portal of reflection to find a future that surpasses basic survival.

This past year of online conversations between artists, curator, and advisor reinforce a collective understanding of how precious and necessary it is to build supportive Black creative outlets, particularly in this anxiety-inducing time. In Dear Science and Other Stories (2021), Katherine McKittrick writes: “I imperfectly draw attention to how seeking liberation and, reinventing the terms of black life outside normatively negative conceptions of blackness, is onerous, joyful, and difficult, yet unmeasured and unmeasurable. Mnemonic black livingness. My heart makes my head swim.”

And so, we swim, and we dance, laugh, fight, sing, create, and share among ourselves to make worlds out of worlds built to destroy us.