For more than two years, Toronto-based emerging artist Sofia Mesa has been involved with the Allan Gardens Food and Clothing Share. Mesa’s engagement with this grassroots initiative to support the downtown east-end, low-income, and street community is the impetus behind the commissioned site-specific project, Guardians. Positioned on the exterior and interior of the Gardens’ Conservatory, her ethereal photographic images celebrate the site as a vital meeting place for diverse groups of people, and commemorate individuals from the community.
The cyanotype is a camera-less process that, in addition to photo-sensitive chemicals, requires sun and water to expose and fix the image, echoing the elements necessary for plant life to thrive. The project’s outdoor component, positioned on the building’s façade windows, derives from a cyanotype Mesa made with active community members at Allan Gardens in 2017, in which individuals imprinted their body shapes onto fabric. The piece provides physical proof of these people that support community solidarity, as well as those often deemed invisible by society. This source image has been digitally reconfigured and printed on semi-opaque vinyl, creating a stained-glass effect as light passes through, emphasizing its memorializing aspect.
For the project’s indoor component, new cyanotypes on fabric are presented throughout the Conservatory’s Palm House. Large banners with dream-like depictions of two anonymous males who reside in the park—part of a larger group who keep watch over the site, both physically and spiritually—appear like unofficial custodians overlooking the land. Additional, smaller cyanotype banners depict plants specific to the Anishinaabe medicine wheel: tobacco, sweet grass, sage, and cedar are positioned in correspondence to the four compass points and include the names of community friends and family who have recently passed away. The work pays tribute to the First Peoples of the traditional territory upon which the Gardens sits—the Mississaugas of the New Credit First Nation, the Haudenosaunee, the Anishinaabe, and the Wendat—and recognizes the land as a source of healing and stewardship. Acknowledging the shifting socio-economic landscape of the site and the people that use it, both past and present, Mesa’s project emphasizes the need to be part of a community, without prejudice or hesitation.