…Everything Remains Raw: Photographing Toronto’s Hip Hop Culture from Analogue to Digital

Craig Boyko, Michael Chambers, Stella Fakiyesi, Demuth Flake, Patrick Nichols, Sheinina Raj, Nabil Shash

Image increasingly rules the realm of shaping, sometimes becoming, often contaminating, knowledge. Provoking language or eclipsing it, an image can determine not only what we know and feel but also what we believe is worth knowing…

— Toni Morrison

…Everything Remains Raw draws on the work of Toronto-based photographers in the 1990s and early 2000s who have been essential to the growth of the city’s hip hop communities. Photographs by Craig Boyko, Michael Chambers, Stella Fakiyesi, Demuth Flake, Patrick Nichols, Sheinina Raj, and Nabil Shash portray the growth, vibrancy, creativity, and influence of a cultural scene that Toronto has fostered since the 1980s. Through their depictions of highly stylized trendsetters and dynamic performances, the featured photographers supported the rise of hip hop artists including Michie Mee and Maestro Fresh-Wes, as well as Juno award-winning groups such as the Dream Warriors and Ghetto Concept. The exhibition’s archival components uncover images that are unequivocally critical to fostering an expanded notion of Canadian art and culture. The photographs in …Everything Remains Raw are not only aesthetically dynamic and artistically poignant, but also portray images of Black life that deviate from notions that nefariously animate the racial imagination.

The works of Patrick Nichols, official photographer for the Dream Warriors, European tour, move between commercial and conceptual, as his images continually interweave hip hop artists into a variety of settings. His award-winning photography constitutes a massive archive dating back to 1981, from which this exhibition includes only a modest sampling. Nichols’ provocative and challenging images push up against rigid stereotypes and point to conspicuous ghostly absences.

Unlike Nichols’ well-lit portraits and studio work, the concert images by Demuth Flake employ a gritty, of-the-moment rawness. Basements, concerts halls, and small jams are environments that nourished Flake’s aesthetic—one that honoured artists in their ideal performative settings. Flake’s black-and-white images are only a small sample from his deep and unpublished archive of Canadian hip hop culture. Flake’s work stands in contrast to Michael Chambers’ studio-based portraiture of various Afrosonic talents outside the hip hop genre. This exhibition also rescues images from contact sheets and darkroom prints from both Sheinina Raj’s and Stella Fakiyesi’s impressive oeuvres, which reveal Raj’s darkroom development prowess and Fakiyesi’s important connection to, and support of, Black women in the music industry. Female photographers were rare in the days of analogue photography in hip hop, yet their work remains and emerges now in full light. Both Nabil Shash’s and Craig Boyko’s digital images from the mid-2000s provide a sense of continuity as the significant moments, individuals, and events they capture—such as the Toronto DMC championships—are central to the intergenerational evolution of Toronto’s hip hop communities.

…Everything Remains Raw is a prompt to excavate the archive, since many of its photographs are produced here for the first time from negatives or from the depths of data storage. This process could be considered insurrectionary or disruptive, as the unearthed images speak volumes about the status of archival practice in an age of terabytes and data piles. This focus on an archive that has been constructed outside the national or dominant narrative is not simply a rewriting of a society’s idea of itself, but a complete carnage of a classificatory system whose glaring gaps host entire communities.

Presenting this exhibition at the McMichael Canadian Art Collection—the gallery of record for the Group of Seven’s work, which guides Canada’s narrative of itself—holds particular significance. …Everything Remains Raw disrupts this narrative built on landscape paintings and inserts racialized and urbanized individuals—trendsetters and tastemakers in popular Canadian culture—and creates a sharp departure from “Art for a Nation” institutional traditions. The photographic brilliance of Chambers, Fakiyesi, Flake, Nichols, Raj, Boyko, and Shash, joined by new works from renowned graffiti writers Elicser, Eklipz, and EGR, ensures that the possibility of a Canadian hip hop archive is not only plausible, but highly visible, and vibrantly celebrated as Canadian culture.

Organized by and presented in partnership with the McMichael Canadian Art Collection

Curated by Dr. Mark V. Campbell, Founder Northside Hip Hop Archive