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Picturing People at the Scotiabank Contact Photography Festival

BY CRAIG MOY

This year's Scotiabank Contact Photography Festival examines the theme of Identity—though portraits and other photo-based works of art (see the gallery at the bottom of this article for full caption details)

This year’s Scotiabank Contact Photography Festival examines the theme of Identity—though portraits and other photo-based works of art (see the gallery at the bottom of this article for full caption details)

MAY 1 TO 31  In Toronto, the arrival of May reliably brings flowers, crowded patios and thousands of thought-provoking images. All month long, the Scotiabank Contact Photography Festival makes what is arguably the most populist of visual art forms even more accessible at museums, commercial galleries and other culturally inclined spaces. More than 200 venues have caught the shutter bug this year.

The power of Contact is not only in its numbers, but also in its curatorial theme. For 2014, that theme is identity—contemplated specifically as part of the festival’s 13 primary exhibitions and eight public installations, all of which use photography to address ideas such as race, class, gender and sexuality.

According to Contact executive director Darcy Killeen, these latter modes of identification played an explicit role in determining the motif for this edition of the festival, which notably occurs only a few weeks before Toronto hosts the 2014 WorldPride celebration. Indeed, among the Ryerson Image Centre‘s scheduled shows is an exhibition by Zanele Muholi, an artist who seeks to change the perception of lesbian and transgender communities in South Africa, and at the University of Toronto Art Centre, a group show of Chinese women artists looks at notions of femininity in that country’s rapidly modernizing society.

Also prevalent are surveys of nationality and culture, exemplified by a major display at the Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art. Here, notes Killeen, a cosmopolitan octet of image-makers explores “how different nationalities wear different costumes for different reasons,” and the ways by which cultural identity—amongst peoples living everywhere from Guinea, West Africa to “tribal” Europe—is informed by these uniforms and the rituals surrounding their use.

Elsewhere, the idea of affiliation moves closer to home: the McMichael Canadian Art Collection takes inspiration from the Arctic—and our own perceptions of what it means to dwell in the global north; Prefix Photo has Newfoundland’s Steve Payne using the vernacular architecture of his home province to examine the concept of place identity; Toronto-based photographer Michael Awad further focuses this idea in a series that captures the total interior experience of the Royal Ontario Museum.

Seeing all these shows, not to mention the many other compelling Contact-affiliated presentations, can be a challenge. Killeen suggests starting at MOCCA, where you can pick up a copy of the festival’s catalogue; within a few blocks there are dozens more exhibitions. Or just wander the city; eventually you’ll stumble upon a unique public installation, like Dana Claxton’s Indian Candy billboard project, which speaks to pop culture’s appropriation of Indigenous iconography.

“The best thing for people coming to Toronto is to pick a few of the particular highlights,” says Killeen. “But also know that no matter where you go you can very quickly get lost in the world of Contact.”

The Scotiabank Contact Photography Festival runs throughout May at hundreds of locations across Toronto. Visit scotiabankcontactphoto.com for a complete list of exhibitions.

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