Georgia O’Keefe at the AGO

Georgia O’Keefe is one of the current special exhibitions on at the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO). It details the life and work of the artist from her first few years in New York to her final ones in New Mexico. Aside from O’Keefe’s own paintings and drawings, the exhibit is supplemented by photographs of O’Keefe, her husband, the photographer and curator Alfred Steiglitz, and her home and surrounding land in New Mexico. We also see some works by Steiglitz and some by O’Keefe’s friends and contemporaries, like Ansel Adams and Paul Strand.

Walking through, I noticed that the gallery was set up in both chronological — from O’Keefe’s early life and works to her final works — as well as thematic order — showing her different styles and subjects. When you think of O’Keefe, you probably, like me, think of all those stunning close-up flowers, but she also painted skulls found in the desert, other plants and parts of nature, and abstracted drawings of buildings and places. As you move through the gallery, you see how her art style developed, as well as the changes in her life, and how they affected her work.

Before the exhibit, I honestly didn’t know much about O’Keefe herself. The gallery gave intimate, personal details of her life. For instance, I saw several nude photos Steiglitz took of her in various poses and expressions. I learned that while she was somewhat reclusive in later years of her life, she still took time to set the record straight on the “other meaning” behind her paintings. O’Keefe complained that rather than seeing the art as it was, many (mostly male) critics instead were all too eager to insert a sexual meaning to her work where there was none. The exhibit also highlighted various quotes from O’Keefe on art and life, including this one, which was my personal favorite: “It takes courage to be a painter. I always felt I walked on the edge of a knife.”

Also, O’Keefe’s works are just really beautiful. Of course, I was entranced by her famous flowers, but I was surprised by how many other subjects she painted, and wondered why, despite having just as much artistic merit, they are so often ignored. Either way, I was moved seeing her depictions of pueblos and stone cliffs around her home in New Mexico, and her gridlocked and grey paintings of the streets of Manhattan in the 1930s. This beautiful look at Georgia O’Keefe’s art and life is on now at AGO until July 30th.

Continue following our arts & culture coverage on FacebookTwitter, and Instagram.

Novel Ideas: David Sedaris’s Theft by Finding

In the beginning of his newest book Theft by Finding (Diaries 1977-2002), David Sedaris suggests that the reader not read the book as a whole from start to finish, but instead dip in and out of it. I elected to ignore his advice, and was surprised by how quickly I went through it. Maybe it’s because each entry has been whittled down to a few paragraphs or less, or, as is more likely, it’s simply Sedaris’s brilliant writing style. You would think that reading Sedaris recount some of the more minute details of his life would be boring, and yet there’s something about his style that has the power to make even his grocery lists interesting and his gripes about phone bills amusing.

In general, I’m not so sure publishing people’s diaries is such a great idea. I don’t think most people are all that interested in listening to someone recount all of their innermost emotions and thoughts, especially if they are ones that have been carefully selected to portray the author in the most flattering way possible.

But this is precisely what Sedaris stays away from. As he said in a recent interview with PBS NewsHour, “usually it’s the worst thing you can admit about yourself that most people can relate to…if you write about, say, your own jealousy, people aren’t going to think ‘Oh, he’s a horrible person because he’s jealous.’ They’ll think, ‘That’s me.’” 

Not that David Sedaris comes off as being particularly jealous, but it doesn’t feel like he’s trying to mold himself into a better version of himself. And though this book is apparently only a small selection of the diaries he’s kept since 1977, it doesn’t necessarily feel like anything is missing. For instance, in the early eighties, while working in construction, many of Sedaris’s coworkers express racist attitudes and use slurs. Sedaris writes that he doesn’t approve of this behavior, but he also does not pretend that he stood up to them or told them off. He creates a thoroughly honest portrayal of himself and the people around him, perhaps because when he was actually writing it he wasn’t doing so for a particular audience. Although, Sedaris does note in his introduction, “Every so often, I’ll record something that might entertain or enlighten someone, and those are the bits I set aside.” Also in the introduction he acknowledges that editing changes how he comes across to the reader. “And entirely different book from the same source material could make me appear nothing but evil, selfish, generous, or even, dare I say, sensitive.”

Theft by Finding author David Sedaris

It also helps that he’s just a very talented writer. While I was previously a fan of his essay-writing, I wasn’t certain that those skills would translate to his diary-writing. Luckily, they do. While Sedaris’s essays always tend to have some kind of central point or to tell a specific story, in his diaries he doesn’t feel the need to bring us to that specific point. Instead, he’s just talking about the ins and outs of his life, as well as relating anecdotes from and about his friends, family, neighbors, coworkers, and strangers. By providing the reader with a small dose of daily interactions and observations, Sedaris manages to give us many different types of stories in a short amount of space.

Sedaris talks about a wide variety of topics, from a brief note in 1981 about his first time learning about AIDS (at the time, referring to it as a “new cancer”), to a lengthy passage after 9/11. He mentions his own feelings and thoughts from time to time, but these seem mostly in passing and less important than the world outside. Sedaris’s outward focus is the reader’s gain, as we see the world through his eyes over 25 years with humor, charm, and an ever-sharpening wit. Don’t let the size of Theft by Finding intimidate you. It’s a fantastically, surprisingly fun read.

Continue following our arts & culture coverage on FacebookTwitter, and Instagram.

Has Pride Lost Its Way?

On February 5th, 1981, Toronto Police raided four major gay bathouses in Toronto, leading to over three hundred men being arrested. It is an event often considered the Canadian version of the events at Stonewall in 1969, and indeed the raid was the catalyst for the first Pride March in Toronto. Back then, Toronto Pride was a riot, a protest. It was the year before the AIDS crisis would begin to ravage our community. It was well before legal gay marriage would become a reality. And, of course, it was a far cry off from Pride of today, which feels more like a month-long party, expensive and inaccessible, and catering almost exclusively to white cis gay men.

Which isn’t to say that we should return to where we were as a community in 1981. We have made extraordinarily amazing progress as a community in the years since the first Pride. The problem isn’t really how far we’ve gotten, it’s who we’ve been leaving behind, and what history we are forgetting.

How many people really know the history behind Pride? How many of us know who the major players were? Or, perhaps worse, simply don’t care? And this lack of care is what leads to, for example, the exclusion of Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera, both trans women of color, from the 2015 film Stonewall, even though both were extremely integral to the actual riots, much more so than the fictional cis white gay man who the movie makes out to be the instigator.

Besides, is Pride even for us, as in the LGBTQ community? It’s doubtful. Over the years, Pride has gone from a sense of protest and demanding of inclusion, and has become more corporate, more exclusive, and those who try to remind Pride of its roots in protest are shut down. Isn’t BLM trying to bring Pride to a place of tolerance, where black and brown queer people don’t feel like they are being pushed out of their parade for the “feelings” of some police officers? Besides, nobody’s saying police can’t show up as civilians out of uniform, just as proud as any of us. Instead of pushing themselves into a parade, wouldn’t it be more productive to actually try to build a better relationship with the communities they are meant to help? Police chief Mark Saunders apologizing for the bathhouse raids was a good first step, but much more needs to be done.

Men being arrested in the bathhouse raids of 1981. Image from the Toronto Star

A Pride full of TD floats, ever-flowing booze, and non-stop partying isn’t exactly made for a history lesson. I’m not saying that Pride shouldn’t have parties. The celebratory aspect is wonderful. But it has consumed Pride to the point where wanting anything else makes you feel like you’re not a real part of the community.

Not to mention, when the feelings of corporations are prioritized over actual queer people, then you have a problem. After all, it’s a lot easier to pitch a float than make real change. I reached out to several queer people around Toronto and asked them their thoughts, and many stated their outright discomfort with the level of corporate involvement in Toronto Pride. As, Laura, a bisexual cis woman told me, “I feel like pride has become very commercial, especially with corporations being involved. A bank with a rainbow flag on its door doesn’t really increase acceptance of [LGBTQIAP] individuals, just increases liberals patting themselves on the back for not really doing anything other than saying ‘I don’t hate gay people.’” Similarly, L. G., who identifies themselves as queer, enjoys “Participating in collective resistance” but dislikes the “Corporatization…straight ‘allies’…onlookers occupying space ignorantly…[I] often feel like Pride is for cis white gay men with money”

Chris, a queer trans man, notes that he wants to “try to always be learning about fabulous, badass queers of our past, but it’s hard to know what you don’t know through a history of erasure.” Indeed, queer history has been consistently erased from the past. Even when the record is there, it’s through a lens of disgust for queer people. For instance, Daily Xtra recently ran an article promoting an upcoming Heritage Toronto tour of LGBTQ history. In the article, Jade Pichette the volunteer and community outreach coordinator for the Canadian Lesbian and Gay Archives is quoted as noting “It’s expected in some ways that the only places that we would find material about our communities before we started creating them ourselves would be in the places that would be trying to shame us,” The article goes on to say that “Historical records of queer life in Toronto in decades past can be difficult to find; when material was written explicitly by gay men, it was often later destroyed. So tabloid clippings help to paint a picture of life for queer individuals of the era — and later generations.” 

Still, any learning is impossible if the history gets lost in a party, and if Pride only lives inside one month of corporate parades and parties for rich white gay cis men. Progress is rarely made by those who get to feel comfortable in their position, and indeed this is the case for LGBTQIAP history right here in Toronto.

Celebrating queer identity in its many forms is a wonderful thing, but partying can’t be the centre of Pride, or the only thing that it offers. Pride needs to be inclusive for all and a way to connect with our shared past.

Continue following our arts & culture coverage on FacebookTwitter, and Instagram.

Review: Hasan Minhaj: Homecoming King

You might recognize Hasan Minhaj as the Senior Indian Correspondent over at The Daily Show, where he was hired in 2014. Since then, he’s done numerous pieces on a wide variety of topics, many of them focusing on Islamophobia and how it affects Muslims in the U.S. and abroad. He also did a noteworthy interview with Justin Trudeau, where he (Hasan) wore a Canadian tuxedo and, among other things, asked the PM to apologize (or not apologize) for everything from Drake on Degrassi to Justin’s Movember goatee. In any case, on May 23rd, Hasan Minhaj also released a new comedy special for Netflix called Hasan Minhaj: Homecoming King.

About a half-hour into Homecoming King, Hasan relates a story about how, following 9/11, his family got an anonymous phone call in which he and his father heard someone repeatedly calling them racial slurs and accusing them of aiding terrorists before saying their address and threatening to kill them. Hasan describes looking at his father after and says, “Do you ever see your parents, and see the mortality in them?” Minutes later, the family heard the sound of their car windows being smashed in. He compares his own reaction, running around looking for the perpetrators, to that of his father, who sweeps up the glass “like he works in a hate crimes barbershop.” While Hasan’s father asserts that “these things happen” and considers it the price of being an immigrant, Hasan has a different realization: “We really are from two different generations…I was born here. So I actually have the audacity of equality…I’m equal, I don’t deserve this.” Following this incredible speech, Hasan adds on that his father once tried to return used underwear to Costco. Hasan will tell you all about how annoying he initially found his younger sister (who he didn’t even know about until he was 8), before he reveals that she is currently an accomplished attorney, and that she interfered on his behalf when their parents were reluctant to accept Hasan’s relationship with his then-fiancée (now wife), who is Hindu, not Muslim.

Hasan Minhaj performing in Homecoming King

That is the genius of Hasan Minhaj’s comedic style. In one moment, he is completely serious, relating the intensity of the racism and Islamophobia he and his family have experienced, and in the next, he is quipping about the oddities of these experiences. He laughs at the differences between himself and Bethany, his white friend/crush in high school. In one particularly amusing moment, he describes sneaking out of his house in a JC Penny suit and six puffs of Michael Jordan cologne, and biking to Bethany’s house to be her prom date. However, he arrives to learn that Bethany’s parents have found a white boy to be her prom date instead — because they were taking pictures and didn’t think Hasan would be “a good fit.” The camera zooms in on Minhaj’s face, betraying heartbreak and shock and confusion, as though he is still a kid in high school having his prom hopes dashed. He contrasts this type of quiet racism with other types he’s received. Bethany’s mother is sure to call him “honey”, say that the family loves him, but it is still brutal. Shaking off the people who refer to him and his family with racial slurs is one thing, but shaking off the more subtle hatred from supposedly nice people is much harder.

Minhaj’s comedy and his sharp takes on racism and Islmophobia are desperately needed in this political climate. He wants to ensure that he and his family are seen as multidimensional people. He is honest about his childhood, neither pushing away some of the less seemly parts of it nor allowing the accomplishments of his family to be pushed away either. More than anything, he is here to remind us that he cannot be boxed off as being just an Indian Muslim, and that he is not willing to allow his identity to be erased or pushed aside. He peppers his jokes with Hindi and Urdu, and also mocks himself for his work in a Pizza Hut commercial. He comes off as fun and cocky, brimming with a confidence he may not have had in high school.

Hasan ends the show by discussing his audition for The Daily Show, in which he did a piece about Ben Affleck defending Islam on Real Time with Bill Maher (you know, the guy who just said the n-word on TV). We don’t see the audition, but considering the brilliance of the comedian saying it, and the fact that it evidently worked, we can imagine that it was pretty darn funny. Homecoming King was an awesome comedy special, and I honestly can’t wait for him to continue with new material both on The Daily Show and off it.

Continue following our arts & culture coverage on FacebookTwitter, and Instagram.

Wonder Woman Lives Up to Hype

In the last few years, DC has tried and failed to match up to the Marvel Cinematic Universe with their own series of related films, most of which have been massively hyped but ended up being disappointments. Man of Steel was so-so, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice was an epic failure, and Suicide Squad, which had promising trailers, turned out to be such a dumpster fire that countless blogs and videos attempting to unpack exactly what the heck happened (depending on who you ask, there was either too little or too much Joker — I think the movie would have been better if it was just Margot Robbie, but that’s just me.) In any case, Wonder Woman was similarly burdened with high expectations. However, unlike its predecessors, it lived up to the hype.

There was so much to love about Wonder WomanGal Gadot’s earnest performance as the titular role and her romantic/comedic chemistry with Chris Pine as Steve Trevor; Patty Jenkins’ marvelous direction; and the movie’s ability to stick to its comic book origins without losing focus on its themes or feeling too silly.

Chris Pine as Steve Trevor and Gal Gadot as Diana Prince/Wonder Woman

Part of the issue with previous DC-Universe films was that Suicide Squad and Batman v Superman (and Man of Steel, in a way) were both attempting to live up not only to high expectations, but also to their predecessors. Jared Leto was trying to match up to Heath Ledger’s brilliant turn as the Joker (but failed to do so), Batman v Superman was facing the Dark Knight trilogy, and Man of Steel is one of many, many depictions of Superman on film. It gets old after a while.

Man of Steel and Batman v Superman were meant to have a gritty, more serious feel than most superhero movies, and Suicide Squad was meant to be dark comedy. None of that really worked. In order to drive gritty movies, you need some actual conflict, some moral ambiguity, and better character writing. And dark comedy needs to be, you know, funny.

In Batman v Superman, what is meant to feel like a conflict between two superheroes with opposing values, feels more like a boring rich guy fighting a boring powerful guy, both ultimately wanting to be good people. As characters, Batman and Superman come rife with interesting questions. Superman is all-powerful and all good, but what happens when his god-persona comes into conflict with his own wants? Batman is just a privileged rich guy with fancy gadgets, so why does he get to act as the moral judge of Gotham? Sadly, Batman v Superman doesn’t really know how to deal with any of these questions, and in the end the movie doesn’t have anything to say.

If Batman v Superman had troubles with its expectations, Suicide Squad was destroyed by them. After the release of what was admittedly a great trailer, Warner Brothers actually hired the same people responsible for making the trailer to reshoot and re-edit the movie, to the point where there ended up being two Suicide Squad movies with two different tones, one funny and one more serious. In the end the versions were merged into the bizarre and sub-par version that wound up in theaters. Also, somewhere along the way most of the Joker’s scenes were cut. This was a strange choice, considering how much the trailers focused on him, and how hyped Jared Leto acted about his acting decisions and his disturbing on-set behavior. Of course, if I oversaw the editing, I would have cut him out altogether, but that’s not the point.

So how does Wonder Woman match up to the other DC-Universe movies? It’s a vast, vast improvement, containing the kinds of interesting moral questions that Batman v. Superman tried and failed to ask (in this case, asking if humans are intrinsically bad or good), and the humor and fun that Suicide Squad tried desperately to provide.

Also, unlike almost all superhero movies, Wonder Woman is definitively a feminist one. It’s the first major superhero movie featuring a female lead directed by a woman. Where other movies have women in near-constant states of needing rescuing and reassurance, Wonder Woman gives us Diana Prince kicking ass, saving Steve’s life, and trying to help those around her. Sure, the movie may remind us a little too much of how beautiful Diana is and how her wearing a skimpy costume is a bit distracting for the men around her. But the camera never ogles her, nor does it stop her from being strong and athletic. And yes, her armor may be revealing, but at least it’s armor and not just a metal bra or a glorified corset. And when Diana is confronted with the sexism of the 1910s, her confusion and annoyance is meant to remind the audience that our assumptions of gender roles are invented, not inherent. And seeing an island full of badass warrior women ready to battle is also very cool.

Still from Wonder Woman showing Themyscira, the mystical all-female warrior island

Right now, Warner Brothers has a long list of future movies for the DC Extended Universe, featuring characters like Aquaman, Shazam, The Flash, Cyborg, Nightwing, and Batgirl, along with more sequels and team pieces, like the upcoming Justice League. If Wonder Woman is any indication that DC has finally figured out how to make a quality superhero movie, then I’m quite excited to see what’s next. If not, there’s always Marvel.

Continue following our arts & culture coverage on FacebookTwitter, and Instagram.