Kennedy Colalillo, Geoff Crowther, Joanne Feng, Steven Fenn, Andrea Gonzalez Marroquin, Richard Griffin, Janis Angelica Hernandez Salazar, Jessica Hymers, Darrell Jose, Solaris Morenz, Susan Munn, Anya Nandkeolyar, Katia Oltmann, Laura Phillips, Faizan Rama, Kai Suzuki-Smith, Dani Wong
This article is a participatory review of the exhibit Dazhiikigaadeg Maanendamowin: Wanichigewin gaye Wiijiiwidiwin gii-ayaag COVID-19 / Transforming Grief: Loss & Togetherness in COVID-19, displayed at Fort York in Tkaronto/Toronto, Ontario, Canada, from March 2023 to January 2024. A graduate class from the University of Toronto visited the exhibit as part of the Winter 2023 ischool Information Management workshop series ‘Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Museums, Archives’, taught by Dr. Laura Phillips.
In early May 2023, the World Health Organization declared the end of the COVID-19 pandemic. This declaration was made without any indication or directive of how we, the collective of individuals who survived this global health emergency, should process the emotional, physical, intellectual and financial toll of this 3 year event (which is arguably on-going, depending on where in the world you are located).
For people based in or near Tkaronto/Toronto, a visit to the Dazhiikigaadeg Maanendamowin / Transforming Grief exhibit hosted by Fort York can help understand the pandemic from multiple perspectives of diverse survivors from a wide array of community groups. Curator Raven Spiratos, on behalf of Toronto History Museums, presents COVID-19 stories, belongings, artworks and installations that demonstrate our collective experiences need to be shared as part of the process of moving forward.
This review is based on the experience of our University of Toronto’s Information Management grad course visiting the exhibit for our last class of Winter term 2023. Instructor Dr. Phillips’s doctoral research looked at ways to decolonize and Indigenize museums and other cultural spaces across this Land, especially locations that might not seem to have an obvious or immediate potential for hosting these conversations. Dazhiikigaadeg Maanendamowin / Transforming Grief is an excellent example of how community groups and ingenuity in activist curatorship can be shaped into layers of narratives that to present best practices working beyond inclusion, accessibility, healing, representation, self-care, mental health, and the importance of embracing our unique selves – alongside the actual exhibition content itself.
Exhibit Context & Development
This exhibit did not happen by chance, but took the efforts, ingenuity and new ways of approaching curatorship from multiple individuals. The innovative ways that Spiratos presents stories and content to help visitors transform grief started with Toronto History Museums looking at community collaborations in ways that centred community needs as the first priority. Armando Perla, former human rights lawyer, newly appointed Head Curator at the Textile Museum of Canada, and curatorial activist whose work centers “the human”, was appointed Curator for the City of Toronto in early 2022, and their immediate focus was meeting with communities that have historically not been collaborators with the Toronto History Museums (THM). Perla asked these groups and individuals how THM and THM properties could meet their needs. This laid the ground work for what became the core exhibit contributions for Dazhiikigaadeg Maanendamowin: Wanichigewin gaye Wiijiiwidiwin gii-ayaag COVID-19 / Transforming Grief: Loss & Togetherness in COVID-19. In a Facebook post, Perla shared that one of their key goals was to connect lived realities of queerness and the LGBTTQI+ community:
As LGBTTQI+ folks, we have been told that queer sex and our experiences of sexual intimacy are dirty and perverted and that we should hide them and feel ashamed. Most history museums have only presented white and sanitized versions of our lives, desexualizing us and erasing such an important part of who we are. Hearing from the community how this work has made them feel seen and how true to many of our experiences it is, makes me really proud.
Raven Spiratos, as curator and in collaboration with artists, community members, and the collections team at THM, presents these expressions of trust and community together as a narrative of grief. This gift, in the form of a multi-sensory, participatory exhibit is a model of accessibility, helps us process our collective experiences living through the COVID-19 pandemic, and reminds us that the HIV pandemic continues to this day.
The exhibit includes some displays in the corridor as you enter Fort York, then a series of connected rooms, and concludes in a space of reflection. The exhibit introduction takes up multiple wall panels, with the local Indigenous Anishinaabemowin language centered. The texts and interpretation panels are presented in Anishinaabemowin, English, French, Braille, ASL. Due to the brief space here, we can only include a selection of the incredible works showcased in this exhibit – but hopefully this will encourage you to visit in person!
The first area of the exhibit includes many of the signs and items we suddenly became familiar with at the onset, and throughout, the most critical days of the COVID-19 pandemic – Personal Protection Equipment (PPE), and signage to encourage social distancing (Fig. 1). These signs and protective items became immediately commonplace, yet now seem a distant memory.
Crip Collective, a group of racialized queer artists living with disabilities, uses the installation Gichi-es, Anami’e-atoopowin, gaye Izhichigewin / Chrysalis, the Altar, and Performance to transform beautiful textiles and (used) PPE face masks, into an art piece that can be presented in multiple configurations (Fig. 2), with an altar of personal belongings, and a video of waves washing over rocks. This was created in memory of their beloved friend Amelia RV Nelson.
Moving into the first exhibit room, you are confronted with a screen surrounded by color, words (some of which are slurs, repurposed, and owned as expressions of power and deflection) playing a film about drag and performance. Visitors can watch the film from a lounge chair that surrounded by a mountain of hoarded personal items – recognizable as realities of our daily lives that might not be visible outside our homes (Fig. 4). In the corner of the room, there is a dress on a mannequin – which, refreshingly – visitors are encouraged to touch with ‘Please Touch’ signs (Fig. 3). This dress was worn by Bom Bae on Canada’s Drag Race Season 3. This area was developed by Passion Fruit Collective / Club Kid Alley, a group of racialized, non-binary and gender fluid performance artists, entitled Club Abinoojii Miikana gaye Bezhigowin Wajiw / Club Kid Alley and Isolation Mountain.
The next room contains the Ozhibii’amawishin / Write To Me interactive by Lenape and Potawatomi neurodiverse artist Vanessa Dion Fletcher. This area documents an Indigenous pen pal project during the pandemic that used writing to connect and provide distanced support for each other during the pandemic.
In another ‘touch me’ piece, the ballroom attire work by Malik is accompanied by a video of their performance. This piece was created by FUNCTION, a collective created by Ballroom community members formed during the earliest days of the pandemic to ensure safe community spaces for the ballroom community (Fig. 5).
There are many other examples of community specific creations and contributions that document the ways people survived the COVID-19 pandemic. The final area of the exhibit is a space of reflection and decompression curated by Heather George, Gaa-izhi-bangang / Quiet Room. This room is dark, with soft furnishings, music, and the Haudenosaunee Thanksgiving Address playing in multiple languages (Kanien’keha, English, French). This installation brings life, warmth and care into the Fort’s vault – a space that had formerly stored war memorabilia and instruments of violence like guns. Visitors can take a few moments to sit with their own pandemic experiences alongside those they had witnessed throughout the exhibit (Fig. 6).
As an expression of accessibility, inclusion, decolonizing and Indigenizing done alongside rather than as the foci of an exhibition, Dazhiikigaadeg Maanendamowin / Transforming Grief surpassed our expectations of what a colonial fortress (Fort York) could contain. This exhibit, from the rich attention to detail in all manner of accessibility (from the multi-lingual and multi-ability texts and navigation aids) to the diversity of communities drawn together to share their stories, all becomes a shared experience as visitors process this exhibition with whatever unique life views we bring with us. The live-ness, the love, the care, the community, the stories, the belongings, the space, the texts, the tangible (“touch me”), and the intangible – these moments that make us human all come together to help us process what we lived through during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Laura Phillips is a sessional Lecturer, ischool, University of Toronto, Toronto, Ontario, Canada
Kennedy Colalillo, Geoff Crowther, Joanne Feng, Steven Fenn, Andrea Gonzalez Marroquin, Richard Griffin, Janis Angelica Hernandez Salazar, Jessica Hymers, Darrell Jose, Solaris Morenz, Susan Munn, Anya Nandkeolyar, Katia Oltmann, Faizan Rama, Kai Suzuki-Smith, and Dani Wong are students in the Master of Information Management program, ischool, University of Toronto, Toronto, Ontario, Canada
Acesso Cultura. 2022. “The activist museum: Going deeper. With Armando Perla and María Acaso.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2p4LsFL3ZHo
Canadian Museums Association. 2022. Moved to Action: Activating UNDRIP in Canadian Museums. https://museums.ca/uploaded/web/TRC_2022/Report-CMA-MovedToAction.pdf
Perla, A. 2020. “Democratizing Museum Practice Through Oral History, Digital Storytelling, and Collaborative Ethical Work.” Santander Art and Culture Law Review 2 (6): 199–222. https://doi.org/10.4467/2450050XSNR.20.016.13019
United Nations. 2007. “United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.” Documents. http://www.un.org/esa/socdev/unpfii/documents/DRIPS_en.pdf.