Artist & Curator Anique Jordan on Art, Power Dynamics & Developing a Culture of Affirmation

Artist and curator Anique Jordan is a force within the Canadian art scene, blending curatorial practice, artistic production and community engagement to come up with innovative projects like Every.Now.Then: Reframing Nationhood at the AGO and The Public: Land and Body, East at Y+ Contemporary.

This week, we chatted with her to learn more about her career, the steps that it took to get where she is now, and the wisdom she’s picked up along the way. 

SDTC: What’s your first memory of experiencing art work that really moved you?

AJ: My brother used to collect comic book figure cards. He had this excerpt that he pulled out of a comic book that he stuck up on his wall. It was a picture of a Black superhero running away from the police, trying to jump off. The speech bubble said, “I bet this never happened to Superman.” That stuck in my mind, how much my brother was so in-tune with the social and political contexts that we were surrounded with—and that I was so oblivious to—as a kid. It was one of the first things that showed me that illustrations can be teaching tools. They can illuminate something about life. What artwork is great at doing is giving us something to visualize where language might fail us. 

When did you realize you wanted to communicate in this way, through visual imagery?

As a kid, I’d always been really creative. Everyone says that, but I never really realized that was a real thing. When I was younger, I used to go in on the creative side of any elementary school project. We used to have to do these quizzes about what we were going to be when we grew up. I always knew I wanted a profession that allowed me to work on multiple projects simultaneously, outside of an office, be able to do my own thing, and be able to be creative. 

I used to do a lot of this around youth work, a lot of my background centred around community work, working with young people. The structure of that work tends to be either working in a not-for-profit or foundation. I ended up working in a foundation and it literally KILLED me. There was no art on the wall; it was the first time I realized that that had an impact on me. There was nothing that was inciting creativity. I felt as if those spaces didn’t allow me to use the breadth of my imagination or intellectual abilities. That pushed me towards being an entrepreneur early; that was the way I figured I could control all the things that fit best for the way I would function.

Your work encompasses both community economic development and art. Why is it important for you to include each of these, and how does each inform the other?

It’s through thinking about how we can re-imagine what business means as a creative endeavour, and self-determination and community-building ushered me towards me thinking more creatively about what I was doing. Initially, I talked about it as cultural production (“How do we use what we have to create what we need?) because I had been very focused on community development, and so much of that work tends to be about how we solve community problems, how we deal with deficits, in need of all these things. Many of us were pushing back against that and thinking about communities as a space of abundance, and a space of problem-solving and innovation. I wanted to think about how we can leverage that creative capital that already comes from communities as a way of surviving. 

Do you prefer the artist or curator role more?

It is two distinct hats. I recognize when I have to switch; they sort of ebb and flow out of each other, sharing similar types of characteristics, but are very distinct in themselves. 

As an artist, the relationship is more to yourself and the immediate ideas that you’re thinking about. For me, it’s also to the communities that most of my ideas stem from, and it’s also about the context I’m creating from. As a curator, a lot of it is also about what the artists are producing, and my relationship to them, their relationship to their work, and the context surrounding us. In a way, it’s caring for them, for their work, their development as an artist, and what it is we collectively produce. As a curator, there’s also a power dynamic there. Even when you’re an independent curator, you’re tied to an institution, or you’re tied to the funding that you’ve raised.

I think emotional intelligence is an important piece as well. The event that I just produced at the AGO called The Feast, there were so many different players involved. You have to be able to show respect in different ways, and speak the different types of languages that people understand, all while holding your ground and not have people see you as someone that can be taken advantage of. All while maintaining a larger vision and not going astray.

As you look back, what moments were particularly challenging, and how did you work through them?

What’s challenging, always, is building relationships. Everything I’ve ever done has required me to build relationships with individuals and within communities. Within that, there’s trust that has to be developed, an accountability process that has to be developed, strong communication practices that constantly have to be shifted.

Every time I work on a new project, I learn something new about what it means to build relationships with people, with elders, with children, with institutional spaces. I’m constantly pushing back against falling into the default of what the outcome of that work needs to look like. I have to constantly be conscious of allowing the product or whatever it is that comes out the other end, to also be as complicated and nuanced as the relationships that developed it. 

A lot of the work that we do as artists, once it ends up in an institution, it becomes part commodity, part colonial history, but we constantly have to push back against that. 

Have you noticed a shift in terms of how institutions embrace decolonization?

The people doing the decolonizing work, which really means working from a sense of community, recognizing their own value, trusting that people will uphold things are important to you, and understanding that difficult things cannot just be erased—that’s the work that community and youth workers have always been doing. Institutions in general have been adopting more of this language, whether or not it becomes part of an actual practice that is really making a shift is another question. But for sure, the use of the language has changed. The use of the language around anti-Blackness has also completely changed, but whether or not it leads to some practical change is debatable.

Can you walk me through a day in your life?

I wake up at 6:30 to take my dog out for a walk. I go to the gym. By 8 a.m. I’m back checking emails, eating breakfast. By 10 a.m. I start with meetings, either phone calls or in-person. Right now, I’m the Artist in Residence at Osgoode Hall Law School, so I’ll go up to Osgoode or go to the Toronto Reference Library to do research on the archives for a project I’m working on. Around then, I’ll start looking at a video, listen to something, look at different images, think of new ideas.

At 5:30 I’ll come home, take my dog out, take a break. 8-10 is all meetings, then after that I’ll do my own art practice, thinking about the things I’ve learned, journaling. I write this series of love letters to a group of friends. It’s a way of trying to bring all the ideas I’ve just learned in the day together, and just experimenting with them. By 12:30 or 1 I’ll go to sleep.

What does your Osgoode project focus on?

It has to relate to Canadian legal history, the present context, and the future of law in Canada. My project looks at all three; I’m continuing to look at a woman called Clara Ford, who was a Black woman accused of murdering a man from a wealthy white family in Toronto in 1894. She was put on trial for this murder and eventually found not guilty, even though she had said, “I am guilty actually,” because he had tried to rape her, and he and his friends had been calling her all these racial epithets.

Throughout the entire court case, she became this caricature of herself through the media. They would constantly talk about what her skin looks like, whether she’s actually Black. She was also a person who said she wished she had been born a man, because things would be much easier for her. She would wear male clothing and walk around with a loaded revolver for her own protection. She was this serious outlaw that stood up for herself.

What I’m most interested in is the way she was able to take the sovereignty that we ascribe to the Canadian state and put it in her own hands and say, “I know you’re not going to protect me.” Within the era of #MeToo, I think her life is very poignant, like I know you’re not going to protect me, I have to protect myself. The state has so much power to take life through incarceration, through pervasive systemic violence that leads to loss of life. She was like, “I’m not going to continue taking this.” I’m thinking about how I can uncover her archive to make it as visible as possible, and interject what is happening today.

Who have been your biggest mentors?

Priya Ramanujam, the founder of UrbanologyMag (which she founded when she was like, 19). She grew up in Scarborough in Malvern, and when I was younger and really detested high school, she created a program to have a group of us work on developing our own magazine. We created this magazine called STEPS (Showcasing The Endless Possibilities of Scarborough). We worked so hard, around the clock, on producing it. My mom would bring us food at like 12, 1 a.m. We did our own fashion shoots featuring young designers, we did a trade show with vendors, we also commemorated the life of this man named Shawn “Blu” Rose who died the year before, who was a community worker in Malvern. Working on that magazine taught me to work hard, to grind and work on something that is impacting that community. Priya is one of the hardest working women I know. 

The most recent mentor to push me to being an artist—I wasn’t calling myself an artist before I met her—was Honor Ford-Smith, who was my supervisor at York. She pushed me to think about what it means to produce work from a Caribbean perspective, and seeing her work as an artist—she’s very much a theatre-based artist but also does installation and social practice—I didn’t realize those were actual options, and could be considered art. That led me towards the whole thing.

What’s your mantra these days?

Return to the communities what they gave to you. Part of my role is to return what I’ve learned back into the communities that informed them. That means my work has to be intellectually accessible and accessible within communities. 

Your career has morphed from what you initially set out to do, what would be your advice to other young women in the same position that you were in a few years ago?

Keep toiling. Experiment with anything you may be interested in, because its going to give you some insight as to direction. It might just take five per cent from that thing you tried out, but that may explode into something bigger. Take risks, trust your gut, and check in with people who affirm you. You need a culture of affirmation around you as much as you possibly can, even if its just your own journal notes. Remind yourself that there is something here for you to do, and there are ways to find it. 

I was talking to my mom about this the other day. There is a degree of privilege that comes from the education I have. I grew up in a single-parent home in communities that dealt with violence all the time. I’ve lost so many close friends to violence. There’s not anything in my life that’s spectacular, other than the fact that there are mentors who saw something in me bigger that I could have seen in myself, and I’m striving towards getting to what their vision of me is. Trust people who see more for you than you can for yourself, we may not be able to see it, but someone else can. Allow them to carry some of that for you.

Interview has been edited and condensed.

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