Ilene Sova UNKNOWN RELATIVE: Ancestry / Photo / Paper / Image / Visuals
Toronto-based artist Ilene Sova draws upon personal memory, deep family research, and familial archives to create intricate photographic collages and video works that explore the complexities of mixed-race identity and themes of African diasporic histories.
UNKNOWN RELATIVE weaves together archival and contemporary imagery to bring visitors on a journey that begins in the Islands of the Bahamas from 1865 to the early 1940s, moves to New Brunswick during World War Two, and ends in Toronto during the 1950s and 1960s—a time when new immigrant neighbourhoods experienced both stark poverty and profound resilience. Sova’s project began with the discovery of a Victorian carte-de-visite that fell out of the back of a family photo album. The woman in the picture was of Afro-Caribbean descent; she wore a beautiful formal dress with her hair woven in traditional West African tight braids. She stared into the camera with confidence and a kind of arresting defiance. The only clue to the subject’s identity was the phrase “Unknown Relative,” carefully written in beautiful script on the back of the photograph.
This encounter with the past led the artist toward deep investigation, which included several trips to the Bahamas to examine official archives, view slave registries, visit gravesites, and meet with previously unknown relatives. With these trips came the discovery of many more compelling archival photographs, carefully laid out family trees, and stories going back to the 1700s. Complex anecdotes emerged of a wealthy plantation owner, a slave consort, and relatives whose mixed identities were shrouded in secrecy for generations. Recollections of shadism, claims of alternative ethnicities, white-passing, and name changes reflect the profound impact of colonization on the Caribbean islands and the people of the African Diaspora. With her works acting as ancestral portals into the past, the artist invites viewers to reflect on the power of familial narratives and consider the ways in which personal histories affect our present-day lives.
Sova’s discovery of her family’s hidden trove is informed by the Caribbean as a space of unique invention, and by historical documentation of racism, nationalism, and xenophobia implicit to the diasporic experience and colonial claims to Indigenous lands. In trying to locate her own narrative, the artist cannot help but locate the Caribbean as a crucible of her formation resulting from transatlantic slavery and plantation society.
In the course of interrogating her family photographs, the artist knits together histories, ideas, and relational narratives through artworks that incorporate Victorian patterns and images of land, water, and plants. These collaged elements serve to hide some aspects of these stories and bring others forward, echoing the artist’s experience of accessing only fragments of her ancestry. Throughout the work, wallpaper patterns grounded in time and place are situated alongside evocative symbols of a false tropical paradise. Sova employs the glamorous glitter, gold, and gem tones of Afrofuturist aesthetics throughout her imagery, infusing the pieces with drama and beauty. These juxtapositions evoke the narrative of an intersectional understanding of family history.
UNKNOWN RELATIVE delves into narrative memory and ancestral reverence to consider the complex realities of family migration and connection. From the islands of the Caribbean to the neighbourhoods of Toronto, Sova uncovers the stories of migrant families in all their forms, especially those once hidden, unspoken, and stored away in hopes of a “better future.”
Essay by Carla Garnet and Ilene Sova
Curated by Carla Garnet
Presented in partnership with John B. Aird Gallery
Ilene Sova is a Toronto-based mixed-media artist who identifies as a Mixed Race person, with white settler, Afro-Caribbean, and Black Seminole ancestry. Sova holds an MFA in Painting and Drawing from the University of Windsor. With extensive solo and group exhibitions in Canada and abroad, Sova’s work has most notably been shown at the Museum of Contemporary Canadian Art, the Department of Canadian Heritage, and Mutuo Centro de Arte in Barcelona. Sova sits on the boards of Cultural Pluralism in the Arts Ontario and is the Ada Slaight Chair of Drawing and Painting at OCAD University.