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Artist DZI..AN finds joy investigating human vibration and finding pathways for connection

DZI..AN included a balafon in her installation at the Libby Leshgold Gallery. Photo by Charlie Smith.

Canadian interdisciplinary artist DZI..AN has an open heart, which has been forged by a very unusual life journey. In an interview in the Libby Leshgold Gallery at Emily Carr University of Art + Design, she reveals that she lived with many different families by the time she turned 18.

Over this period, the Quebec-raised sculptor, puppet and jewellery maker, and visual artist had a wide range of experiences. In one house, she recalls making her own breakfast and going to school by herself. In the next home, her foster parents wouldn’t even let her put on her own socks or permit her to butter her bread. And on it went.

DZI..AN is of Jamaican and Québécois ancestry. And she says that she looks more Black than white because her father’s features are more prominent within her. All but one of her foster homes were occupied by white people. The only exception was one where she lived happily from the age of two to four years old with three other boys in a family of African descent.

“I was the only coloured kid in school until I was 18,” DZI..AN says. “What I experiencd was that the white people would consider me Black while the Black people would consider me white.”

DZI..AN is in the gallery because she’s one of 10 Black women artists featured in a free exhibition called Practice as Ritual / Ritual as Practice. Eleven artists were part of the pioneering Black Wimmin: When and Where We Enter exhibition in 1989, including Suli Williams, which was created by the Diasporic African Women’s Art Collective.

Black Wimmin: When and Where We Enter was originally a travelling exhibition that made its way across Canada from Victoria to Halifax and included stops in Toronto, Montreal, and Ottawa.

DZI..AN Transition, 2022
DZI..AN’s Transition, 2022, invites people to enter the hut so they can walk the journey of the story. Photo by Charlie Smith.

DZI..AN includes own hair in sculpture

In 2019, DZI..AN announced at a gathering of Black women artists in Toronto that the original show would be re-created. Two of the nine other artists—Khadejha McCall and Chloe Onari—have since died, according to DZI..AN.

The Diasoric Women Artists Legacy Collective Legacy invited the original artists in the 1989 show to create a piece for the 30th anniversary exhibition The other participating artists are Buseje Bailey, Claire Carew, Mosa McNeilly, Barbara Prezeau Stephenson, Marie Booker, and Winsom Winsom.

The artists were asked to create a piece for this exhibition. Following visits with many of them, their chosen curator, Fatona, was inspired to call the show Practice as Ritual / Ritual as Practice. Nya Lewis was co-curator solely for the exhibition at the Libby Leshgold Gallery.

“It’s been in Toronto, Montreal, and now it’s here in Vancouver,” DZI..AN points out. “It’s going to Ottawa and then to Hamilton—the last place.”

One of the original artists, Grace Channer, could not participate this time around because her piece is part of a PhD project, DZI..AN says.

Her installation, Transition, is featured in the centre of the Libby Leshgold Gallery. It includes two large sculpted figures inside a large hut with an open door. A mature woman with twisted hair and with a plaster mask left white is breading the hair of a teenage girl with a similar white plaster mask.

DZI..AN emphasizes that by leaving their faces in original white, she’s reinforcing that we’re all part of the human race.

Meanwhile, the hair used in the sculpture is her own. on the two figures came from her own head. DZI..AN has, in fact, been saving her hair since the age of 20 when she enrolled in studio art at Concordia University and began repurposing it in her art.

“I made a wig for the young character in my sculpture with the tree breads that came from a haircut done in 1989, where they were sitting in the sand,” DZI..AN explains.

She adds that she already had some grey hair by that age. Plus, she was born with a bit of white hair on the back of her head.

Story accompanies Transition

DZI..AN incorporates her own hair in her art because she feels it’s representative of herself, carrying her entire DNA structure. On occasion, she’s also embedded her hair on ceramic pieces that she’s created. And over the years, she’s collected a giant bag full of the hair that had fallen and was cut through the years.

“I don’t sell the art that I have my hair on, usually,” DZI..AN reveals. “I give it to people as gifts.”

On a table beside Transition are white pieces of paper with a story written by DZI..AN. Visitors are invited to read the story as they visit the hut and look at the wire sculptures, which explains the path of the adventure.

The story speaks about a woman coming across a teenager who had stolen a piece of bread in a market. The woman takes the younger one home, allows her to wash, and gives her fresh clothes.

“She shared with her the meal she had prepared for the evening,” DZI..AN writes. “Then, while humming songs that soothe the soul, she proceeded to comb the young one’s hair, holding her firmly between her big thighs.”

Readers of DZI..AN’s story learn that the older woman “realigned the young one’s thoughts with each cornrow she created on her head”.

“As she did so, she also incorporated seeds in her hair,” DZI..AN continues. “She explained that traditionally, when a family was to go on a long trip, sometimes all the way across the ocean, seeds, rice, and even gold were braided into the hair to give them possibilities for the future wherever they would land.”

This poster about the original show is inside the Libby Leshgold Gallery.

DZI..AN’s perspective shaped by travel

In this case, the older woman and her protégée take a difficult trip to a deep cave, where they drink a very special tea. It makes the young one dizzy and sleepy. When she wakes up, the older woman is dead.

“She realized that she had been chosen by the old one to transfer her knowledge through the special ritual that had happened in the cave,” DZI..AN states in the story.

The artist is familiar with the terrain in Africa. As a young woman, she visited Senegal for two months, where she entered a deep cave created by a lava hole.

In the current show, the wire sculptures are above the woman and the teenager.

Meanwhile, outside the structure, is an African balafon, which DZI..AN plays during the interview. It’s a long wooden instrument resembling a xylophone with large gourds underneath.

“I like human vibration,” DZI..AN explains. “What makes humans vibrate? What makes them want to get up in the morning?”

In search of answers to this question, she has travelled extensively. She quips that after leaving her final foster home at the age of 18, she had to find her own fish.

“You’re like a 12-year-old in your mind, but you go,” DZI..AN relates. “I kept on coming back to Vancouver.”

She picked cherries in B.C. every summer for a few years—and she loved it. Over the course of her lifetime, DZI..AN estimates that she’s hitchhiked more than 40,000 kilometres in Canada, the United States, Mexico and Guadeloupe. She has also visited Haiti, Jamaica, Cuba, Spain, and Guatemala.

“That was my psychology class,” DZI..AN says with a smile.

Black feminist decolonial books are on display in the gallery.

Finding pathways for communication

DZI..AN notes that entering another person’s vehicle is like walking into their world.

“Once you close that door, you’re in their house,” she says.

That raises another question in her mind: “How do we get to communicate?”

DZI..AN maintains that she would find “the crack” in every person where the light comes through to begin the process of engagement. According to her, even the meanest person has cracks where the light seeps through, which opens a pathway for connection.

As an example, she mentions an angry man who kept throwing garbage out of his vehicle. DZI..AN asked what was wrong with him. He replied that she wasn’t going to tell him what to do.

“By the end of the trip, he was crying, telling me his story,” the artist says. “Every angry and extreme person—they’ve got a soft spot somewhere underneath. Me, I’m very good at finding it.”

The Libby Leshgold Gallery at Emily Carr University of Art + Design presents Practice as Ritual / Ritual as Practice until November 5. Co-curators Dr. Andrea Fatona and Nya Lewis will be in conversation at 6 p.m. on November 1 at the Reliance Theatre at the university. It’s part of a program of events created collaboratively between Artspeak, Black Arts Centre, and Libby Leshgold Gallery to coincide with the exhibition.

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Charlie Smith

Charlie Smith

Toronto Spark editor Charlie Smith has worked as a journalist in print, radio, and television for more than three decades.

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