Issue #2 – Bodies as Archives: QTBIPOC Art and Performance in Toronto

Part of Special Issue #2 – Bodies as Archives: QTBIPOC Art and Performance in Toronto

Alvis Choi

Queer and/or trans Black, Indigenous and people of colour (QTBIPOC) spaces in Toronto are filled with stories that are often erased in mainstream maps and archives, both of the heteronormative and the homonormative (white, queer, North American) variety. In issue one of the Marvellous Grounds blog, we examined through these rarely recorded stories how QTBIPOC folks in the city take, make, and contest space.

This second Marvellous Grounds blog issue, entitled “Bodies as Archives: QTBIPOC Art and Performance in Toronto,” highlights such stories further, and does so through the lens of the archive rather than the map. In this issue, we present art and narratives from QTBIPOC artists, organizers, facilitators, and performers who create and deliver stories that, read together, form a collective archive that is quite unlike the heteronormative and homonormative archives. Unlike the traditional archive, the one we offer here transgresses neatly packaged realms of past, present, and future, and troubles linearity. Whether it is through the art of drag, spoken word, burlesque, theatre, writing, or zinemaking, these stories are told not only to reenact the past but also, through queries and reimagining, to reinvent the past. At the same time, they challenge the present, and envision, embody, and explore alternative future possibilities. 1

Art and culture have always been ways through which QTBIPOC communities manifest, bond, demand, and fight. By taking up physical space, the authors in this issue affirm shared experiences of multiple forms of oppression through their practice. QTBIPOC folks in Toronto create art and performance that resist white heteronormativity and challenge dominant versions of queer history that are prescribed by archives that often remain white and homonormative. 2 Through embodied performance of lived experience as Black, Indigenous and people of colour, as well as queer and/or trans people, QTBIPOC artists and performers facilitate a deeper understanding of the power relations in society by speaking to and from various intersections of injustice. The topics discussed in this special issue range from Indigenous sovereignty and solidarity, slavery, anti-Black racism, Islamophobia, migration, and the meanings of identity; to decolonizing through the arts, the power of performance, and community organizing. They are addressed in a way that is at once deeply grounded in the personal and local and goes beyond the city of Toronto. Taken together, the essays ahead contribute to an alternative archive of the arts by engaging with wider discourse of race, place, and identity.

Across North America and beyond, there is a strong sense of solidarity and desire to find resonance between different QTBIPOC communities. As a newcomer to the city, it took me a good few years to begin to understand the breadth of QTBIPOC history in Toronto. I was struck by how storytelling was used in QTBIPOC art and performance scenes in order to create channels for knowledge and experience to be shared with new generations and passed on to the future. While I read some literature here and there, most of the things that I learnt before I became involved in the Marvellous Grounds project were told to me by elders and folks who have been around longer than me. This oral history was shared spontaneously in friends’ backyards, or at performances and art projects that uncovered QTBIPOC legacy. This journey of learning from many others, including all of the contributors to Marvellous Grounds and its collective members, not only helped me make some sense of the exclusion of QTBIPOC history in white queer archives. It also, perhaps more creatively, had me contemplate the nature and form of the QTBIPOC archive and its differences from the white queer archive. It made me ask: What is it that we need to preserve when building the QTBIPOC archive, in order to preserve wisdom from past generations so that we don’t have to wonder in isolation what we can do to make things better? And, if the people who hold knowledges of the community are the source of the history that we need to learn, then shouldn’t the preservation of this history entail the preservation of the people (alive or passed) who embody it, rather than the preservation of “legitimate” forms of documentation that are recognized by the institution and yet covered in dust? Further, if performance is an embodied way through which QTBIPOC reenact, reinvent, and write history, how can we take care of these bodies and treat and pass them on with the same care we would have with archival materials? Rather than preserving for the sake of keeping a historical record, what would it mean to archive in order to build on struggles that have existed for decades and that continue to impact our everyday lives in the present?

The traditional “archive” is often understood as something that is static, fixed, and from the past. As I argue in my major paper, through performance, archives can instead be thought of as living bodies. Specifically, I view performance as an ephemeral act of building archives that are unstable. 3 The QTBIPOC archives of art and performance in this issue, too, are always works in progress. In the essays and art gathered here, this is illustrated in three ways. Firstly, a QTBIPOC archive of art and performance is unlike the static and stable colonial archive, sheltered, protected, and often unchallenged. As argued by Haritaworn, Moussa, and Ware (2017), the colonial archive “begins and ends with whiteness.” 4 It excludes queer, trans, Black, Indigenous and people of colour in order to maintain a whitewashed history. 5 QTBIPOC presences are constantly and actively erased from history, through murders and disappearances, police violence, displacement, exclusion and selective, tokenistic inclusion and appropriation, and therefore are inherently unstable. In order to maintain a presence, we must always actively resist and re/create. 6 The initiatives and practices featured in this issue demonstrate the effort required to build a QTBIPOC archive. It needs a whole community of people to constantly carve out space, fight for funding and resources, and rally support to create and present QTBIPOC art that is marginalized and neglected by mainstream cultures.

Secondly, QTBIPOC art and performance often incorporates a strong physical embodied presence that is nonstatic. Each time we create and perform, we are not only externalizing; we are also internalizing. As performers, we know that whatever is manifested through the body (e.g. words, gestures or feelings) is simultaneously getting written into the body, becoming part of what the body remembers, an archive that is the body itself. In this sense, while our body has its own memory (for instance how our body remembers trauma), we also have a say in shaping what our body remembers, by choosing what we embody. As Camille Turner argues in my interview with her, identity is not something fixed. We can choose what we want to present to the world and sometimes, it is through fantasy. As seen in many performances discussed in this issue, performance can be a medium through which we realize ourselves. As our body invariably shifts and transforms based on our experience, our journey, and our relationships with others, it also serves as a generative conduit that becomes an ever transforming retrievable archive. This is demonstrated in the interview with Camille Turner where she shares her experience of being transformed from a shy person to a confident public speaker through performing the outgoing persona of Miss Canadiana.

Thirdly, the counter-archive that we are highlighting as part of the Marvellous Grounds project is a work in progress. As the Marvellous Grounds collective wrote in our chapter in Any Other Way (2017), this counter-archive “meets memory where memory happens.” It builds on the memory of those who have come before us and is constantly growing. The books and issues that have resulted from this collaboration are clearly not “it.” The project is nonstatic because it requires ongoing conversations and nurturing relationships with fellow community members that are grounded in mutual accountability and reciprocity. It requires balancing between academic and community expectations, and forces us to engage in deep reflection, honest communication, and ethical practices of the kind that prefigure the kind of community we wish to be a part of.

As storytellers, QTBIPOC artists engage their bodies as a conduit that transmits knowledge and emotions, through words that illustrate their truths, voices that transmit through the air, and imagery that enters our mind. They stage vulnerability in ways that invite and encourage empathy, respect, compassion, and empowerment. As Patrick Salvani argues in “The Drag Musical: Let Us Sit On You,” in QTBIPOC performance, the audience-performer relationship is mutual. It has to be that way when the people in the audience are also people that we hang out with, people that we have arguments with, people whom we love and care for, people whom we have heart-to-heart talks with about a friendship that is stuck, a soon-to-end relationship, a misunderstanding, a disappointment, or a raging or seething conflict. Vulnerability is a constant practice for any artist in the QTBIPOC community. In fact, I would go so far to say that interpersonal relationships are one of the key areas that need to be considered, navigated, and managed when making and presenting art in QTBIPOC communities. After all, it is these relationships that ground our being, and therefore our creations.

In her prologue “On These Grounds,” Lisa Myers revisits her research on Indigenous art in the archives at Grunt gallery in Vancouver and discusses the forerunning interventions by queer, trans, Two Spirit, and gender variant Indigenous artists into the contemporary performance art scene in the early 90s. Myers’ prologue highlights the legacy of queer, trans, Two Spirit, and gender variant Indigenous artists in their effort in carving out space at a time when their work was not recognized as legitimate or proper art. The piece urges us to reflect on the connection (or the lack thereof) between the mainstream arts scene and the community-oriented QTBIPOC art and initiatives that are featured in this issue. While “being included” is not always beneficial, given the harmful tokenistic practices and the diversity model in the arts, it nevertheless has an impact on QTBIPOC artists’ access to resources.

The question of resources and representation is also taken up in the roundtable with queer Indigenous artists Cherish Violet Blood, Ange Loft, and Jada Reynolds Tabobondung, which was supported by Muskrat Magazine and facilitated by Amandeep Kaur Panag. In “Round Dance Square: community. art. parties.”, these artists discuss the stakes of doing their community art and music practice in a settler colonial context. Incisively, Ange Loft sums this up with regard to Canada 150’s violent forgetting and selective remembering of Indigenous histories and presences on Turtle Island. She argues that it is artists’ responsibility to remember and decolonize because “they [are] the only [people] with a national memory, an institutional memory.”

In addition to the initiatives mentioned in the roundtable, such as Bold As Love, 2Spirit Skillshare, the Centre for Indigenous Theatre, and the Talking Treaties Project, this issue covers the making of three other initiatives that are important to many QTBIPOC in the city – Asian Art Freedom School, the Drag Musical, and Unapologetic Burlesque. These initiatives facilitate spaces where stories can be written, bodies freed, and voices heard. In their pieces, Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha, Shaunga Tagore and kumari giles, and Patrick Salvani teach us about the inspirations, obstacles and dreams that come with organizing spaces and holding space for creative expressions that are rarely prioritized in other venues.

Besides looking at the stakes of making QTBIPOC art through the wider lens of grassroots collectives, this issue also includes essays in which artists speak about their own art, and for themselves. In “My being is not your colonial hotel: Performance as a ceremony of reflection and reclamation from a QPOC theatre maker,” nisha ahuja offers an in-depth reflective piece on her artistic journey as an ongoing path to decolonization, which makes space for others to heal and transform. Through detailed narratives of five of her performance projects, she discusses the complexities and nuances in using colonial tools (for instance the English language) in her practice, and the power relations that are so intricate within the QTBIPOC community itself. In the following piece, “Performance as its own Country,” Camille Turner and I converse over the influence of performance on performers themselves. Turner speaks elaborately on her long-term project Miss Canadiana and expands our understanding of identity through fantasy work. She reimagines performance as “a suitcase,” “a sandbox,” and “a country” – an alternative place where embodied power exists. If performance is a country, uncritical performance can make for a pretty unhealthy place to live in. Rahim Thawer, in “Defending Uncritical Art Has Consequences,” writes about his experiences in the aftermath of his well-known critique of a racist, culturally appropriative drag performance from the early 2000s. He highlights the risks that queers of colour who call out problematic tendencies of wider queer spaces and archives take, and the repercussions that many of us face when we do so.

In addition to discussing the context of art, this issue includes six original pieces of artistic work. Kama La Mackerel’s “Bois d’Ébène” is a video documentation of a live performance that highlights the intentionally hidden history of slavery in Québec, with an introduction written by the artist herself specifically for this issue. We invited Kama, who is no stranger to Toronto QTBIPOC scenes, to contribute to this issue because her discussion is highly relevant to Toronto as well. While Toronto has the biggest presence of Black people in Canada, anti-Black racism has a long history in Montreal, too. But it’s not just racism that travels – QTBIPOC do as well, and they exchange views and art through their travels. Kai Cheng Thom, who recently moved to Toronto from Montreal, composed three brand new poems for this special issue: my boyfriend plays white guy music, your body kept the score, and what the queer community should have told us. These poems, raw and poignant, all speak to the theme of love through her lived experience as a queer trans femme of colour. They vividly illustrate the struggles and dedication that is demanded in intimate relationship; the hurt and sufferings that we experience in order to keep going in community and social movements; the bravery we, as QTBIPOC folks, possess, in order to love others and ourselves. In the last poem, Kai Cheng shares thirty-three things that she wishes the queer community had told us earlier, and in turn gifts her heartfelt affirmations to all of us. As Kai Cheng demonstrates, “you are loved” must be repeated in this culture that denies lovability to queer and trans bodies, racialized bodies, and femmes and gender non-conforming bodies.

The Kapwa Collective, self-described as “a group of Filipinx-Canadian artists, critical thinkers, and healers who work towards bridging narratives between the Indigenous and the Diasporic, and the Filipinx and the Canadian,” 7 offer an excerpt of their zine on how to make plantable native seed paper as an offering to the Indigenous land that we are on. For Kapwa, playing together is a way of healing. The outcome of what Kapwa calls “playshops,” a simple piece of DIY recycled paper with native seeds implanted, is a poetic reminder of whose land diasporic people are writing history on, and a call to reflect on the colonial approach in Western knowledge production. Last but not least, “Spring’s Promise” by Shaunga Tagore is a lyrical, free-verse poem about a queer femme of colour’s personal story and complex relationship to community, which includes heartbreak, hope, longing, and the promise of cultivating friendship, intimacy and home.

Making a presence, standing on a stage, reading our poetry, putting ourselves out there, being vulnerable, are ways to resist the silencing, erasure, and exclusion of queer, trans, Black, Indigenous and people of colour from the “main stage” of the white-dominated, heteronormative contemporary art world and beyond. Whether one desires to be included in these mainstream spaces or not, QTBIPOC art and performance is itself an archiving practice that builds alternatives to the dominant narrative, rather than simply complementing it. There are few resources in the city that support the kinds of work that QTBIPOC artists do. Yet we continue to create and thrive, out of the necessity to speak, out of the desire to live. Is it a coincidence that the very people who lack resources and are forced to go out of their way to hustle for money and fight for space are also the ones who go out of their way to provide mentorship and peer support for community members who need it? We are held by each other’s brilliance and resilience, and we hold each other accountable. The authors featured in this issue offer their stories in the most vulnerable ways, and they make space for other queerdos who have never been allowed to take up space, who have always been asked to be small and invisible, to also show their brilliance and be applauded and affirmed.

This issue is not at all a comprehensive archive of QTBIPOC art and performance in Toronto. Indeed, we are working with several other artists to add to this online collection. In addition, the Marvellous Grounds collective is working on two forthcoming book collections that feature many more QTBIPOC authors, artists and performers. Beyond this project, there are so many people who are in the heart of the QTBIPOC community in Toronto that we want to acknowledge. 8 As we wrote in our chapter in Any Other Way (2017): “We are not the first [to write this history], nor are we the first to remember. And, in Miss Major’s words, we are ‘still fucking here.’” Without the countless others who came before us, and who are still out there making and living history, there would be nothing to record or archive.

Finally, I would like to give thanks to the support from the countless authors and artists who have done the groundwork for this issue. Without their trust and dedication, this collection would not exist.


  1. These ideas are discussed more in depth in “The Body as Archive and Site for Futurity” in my major paper Fantasies of Time and Space: Queer of Colour Performance as Transformative Strategy (2016).
  2. This special issue is part of a bigger archive that is shaped by and has given rise to several other publications, including issue 1 of the blog as well as the following: Jin Haritaworn’s Queer Lovers and Hateful Others (2015), Syrus Marcus Ware’s article “All Power to All People? Black LGBTTI2QQ Activism, Remembrance, and Archiving in Toronto” in TSQ: Transgender Studies Quarterly 4 (2), 170-180, and “Marvellous Grounds: QTBIPOC Counter-Archiving against Imperfect Erasures” in Any Other Way: How Toronto Got Queer (2017) by Jin Haritaworn, Ghaida Moussa, and Syrus Marcus Ware, with Alvis Choi, Amandeep Kaur Panag, and Rio Rodriguez. In addition to the growing collection on this blog, pieces written by QTBIPOC community members in Toronto are assembled in two forthcoming books edited by Jin Haritaworn, Ghaida Moussa, and Syrus Marcus Ware, Queering Urban Justice (working title, University of Toronto Press), and Marvellous Grounds (working title).
  3. This concept is inspired by Diana Taylor’s (2003) work on the archive and the repertoire. Taylor refers to the repertoire as non-textual cultural and historical practices, including performance arts as well as embodied events such as political rallies, rituals and funerals. While Taylor understands the repertoire as nonarchival, I argue in my major paper The Body as Archive and Site for Futurity (2016) that QTBIPOC bodies demonstrate co-existence of the archive and the repertoire in one common place. On one hand, QTBIPOC builds repertoires as they perform; on the other hand, performance becomes archival in the performer’s body, precisely through the disappearance of performance that is always ephemeral. The archives that QTBIPOC performers are building are therefore always transforming, as the body endlessly remembers new materials.
  4. See Jin Haritaworn, Ghaida Moussa, and Syrus Marcus Ware (forthcoming), Marvellous Grounds (working title).
  5. I would like to acknowledge that the key ideas on queer temporalities and QTBIPOC presence in the whitewashed archives that are discussed in this introduction, were formulated collaboratively with the whole Marvellous Grounds collective, through reading sessions and discussions led by Dr. Jin Haritaworn. These thoughts would not have existed on these pages and in my major paper without the collective’s knowledge and analysis, and Dr. Haritaworn’s mentorship.
  6. Here I reference Jacqui Alexander’s (2005) concept of the palimpsest, which Alexander defines as “a parchment that has been inscribed two or three times, the previous text having been imperfectly erased and remaining therefore still partly visible” (p. 190).
  8. A special shout out to LAL (Rosina Kazi and Nicolas Murray), who have been extremely supportive of the Marvellous Grounds project. LAL creates healing music of resistance and runs the radical art and community events space Unit 2, hosting phenomenal shows and parties.