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On photography and jazz

As the Scotiabank CONTACT Photography Festival continues across Toronto, we chat with the British curator and cultural historian Dr. Mark Sealy, about the work of Tyler Mitchell and Sunil Gupta.

Tyler Mitchell and Curator Dr. Mark Sealy

Artist Tyler Mitchell and Curator Dr. Mark Sealy stand in front of Cultural Turns Metro Hall. Photo courtesy of Scotiabank CONTACT Photography Festival. May 2022

The work of American photographer Tyler Mitchell can be seen across Toronto right now—bringing rich portraits of Black life to three public places—in an exhibition at CONTACT Gallery, and in outdoor installations at Metro Hall and on billboards positioned at the intersection of Dupont and Dovercourt. Meanwhile, at the Ryerson Image Centre, a retrospective of Sunil Gupta’s photography continues, showcasing the New Dehli-born artist’s long-standing social activism, from the radical Gay Liberation Movement in the 1970s to his recent campaigning in India. Core exhibitions at this year’s Scotiabank CONTACT Photography Festival, both are curated by British curator and cultural historian, Dr. Mark Sealy. Also the Director of Autograph Gallery in London and author of Photography: Race, Rights and Representation, we caught up with Sealy following the recent Festival Launch to learn more about these exhibitions and why he uses jazz as an adjective. 

This interview has been condensed for length. 

AGOinsider:  You've been an advocate for Black photography for a long time. What do you think accounts for the current flourishing of Black representation and Black artists?

Sealy:  We've seen culture turning in all kinds of directions over history, towards modernism, towards postmodernism, towards South Asia, towards women, sometimes towards economies. The political and cultural circumstances of these turns are sometimes really meaningful and sometimes very superficial. I think there is a cultural turn in the West, in Europe and North America at present, around who gets to speak for whom. I think this turn is a combination of several things: the amplification of the George Floyd murder, the lack of representation in cultural institutions of people from the Global South, and people that have been locked out of history. And I think now, with social media being so controllable by individuals, there are new platforms for these conversations. I'm just hoping that within this cultural tum, that things kind of stick a little bit more than they have been in the past. Cultural institutions need to embrace the multiplicity of presences that are very much in front of us. 

AGOinsider: The word jazz appears throughout the accompanying text that you wrote for Tyler Mitchell’s exhibition. What do you mean when you say jazz? 

Sealy: One of the reasons why I like to talk about work through the lens of jazz is because it's a very, very open and often abstract concept. It’s a place where you can actually go off, wander, have an individual kind of presence within it, but still be part of the collective. And jazz can be very simple, just a few notes or incredibly complex. Either way, for me, the place that I always go to when I'm feeling down is not the visual, it's the audio. I like the idea of looking at the jazz of space, if you like, it suggests a place of freedom.

AGOinsider: Did you always imagine Tyler Mitchell's works at the billboard scale? 

Sealy: What CONTACT does so well are these large-scale public installations. There’s no comparable in London really.  I was excited about the opportunity to have a three-way conversationbetween the billboards, the installation at Metro Hall and in the Contact Gallery on Spadina. Each in their own way is very consideredwe spent quite a long time thinking about which two images would go on the billboards. It's one exhibition across three sites really, but each has to stand alone. 

AGOinsider:  You also curated the Sunil Gupta retrospective currently at the Ryerson Image Centre, which is delightful. Do you see any intersections between the work of Sunil and Tyler? 

Sealy: They are generations apart, I mean, Sunil could be Tyler's grandfather. But I do think there is a connection around trying to bring communities that have been historically rendered problematic (for lack of the better word), into a place of acceptance. Sunil’s work is a journey through queer politics, that continues into the twilight of his life. He's looking for pleasure, looking for acceptance, looking for love, really and tenderness. And I would say those few words, absolutely join these two artists together.

AGOinsider: As a scholar do you look with optimism or skepticism at the renewed discussion of repatriating African art and objects?

Sealy:  I want to be optimistic. I'd like to think that things could be repatriated. Absolutely. But I'd also like to think things could be shared. I really do. Ownership as an idea is colonial, and I’d like to think that the international museum community, which is so good at circulating objects, could enter into a kind of global discourse, where human material cultures are shared. Giving and taking, are to me kind of a colonial narrative. How about a conversation where we ask what is the best way to care for these objects that might not be a museum for instance? I’m not sure everything belongs in that type of space? Is there a way we can acknowledge indigenous ownership of objects and imagine different places for objects to rest. Decide together what is best for the objects and respect that outcome? That's a very different conversation from saying we're going to take or give something back. I like the idea of asking how we are ALL going to care for and respect difference. Going forward the words generosity and justice might have to enter the frame. I’m thinking here about human rights and our relationships to material cultures and what kind of international legal structures need to be in place to make sure justice is served.

Tyler Mitchell Cultural Turns is on view at the CONTACT Gallery until June 30, Metro Hall until July 4 and on billboards until May 30. From Here to Eternity: Sunil Gupta, A Retrospective is on view at the Ryerson Image Centre until August 6.  Visit scotiabankcontactphoto.com/ for a complete schedule of exhibitions and programs.

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