• Few people I've come across have mastered the art of the side hustle like Toronto-based creative director and art curator, Ashley McKenzie-Barnes. In fact, she's been so successful at simultaneously managing her established corporate career within Toronto's vibrant advertising agency world and her numerous passion projects — spanning well-know community initiatives such as The Remix Project, Manifesto and Honey Jam — that it's hard to see where the side hustle starts and ends.

    "I'm literally split in half," as she told me. "I always say that I have a very unique bridge between that community work, that art and culture space and the corporate agencies."

    "I'm lucky to say that a lot of the times they've supported each other, and the cross-over has been great. It has amounted to both spaces [bringing in] bigger and better work, from an expanded point of view," as she further shared.

    One of those exciting projects on the horizon is the reason why I got in touch with her.

    Repping Scarborough

    McKenzie-Barnes has been selected as the curator for a city-produced exhibition of the all-night art festival, Nuit Blanche Toronto 2019, in Scarborough.

    Her exhibition, entitled Queens and Kings in Scarborough, which is described as a theatrical playground that challenges the constructs of systematic social marginalization, will gravitate around Scarborough Town Center.

    "If I'm going to do it anywhere it's going to be in Scarborough," McKenzie-Barnes said. Having grown up in Scarborough, she knows that it's a hotbed of culture that is unfortunately often overlooked.

    "We've had some superstar talent come out of there like OVO and XO; we've had Doc McKinney coming out of there who's the producer of The Weeknd, and some of The Weeknd's crew; and 40 of OVO. It's just like, you know, you don't really ever credit Scarborough as an art and culture space — even though it's huge."

    She kept referring to the theme of "bringing back history" through the Queens and Kings in Scarborough exhibit.

    "The biggest thing for me is how am I telling the story of high art; how am I telling the story of a contemporary art space."


    Telling a new story through art

    In illustrating her point, McKenzie-Barnes refers to renowned artist Kehinde Wiley — who has been known to portray black males, rappers and celebrities within historical settings of white European art and aesthetics. 

    "I went to an art high school when I was younger, and I remember studying art history. At the time, you don't really think too much of it. But as you get older, you realize [that] your textbooks [have] zero reference to any people of colour — as artists or any black art; or [even] other art [apart from] white European art. That's what I grew up studying.... Opera, the Renaissance, and the [top Italian and Spanish artists.]"

    "So I wanted to do [the Nuit Blanche exhibit] in a theatrical theme — where I [would be] referencing the people's court, the royal rotunda, the amphitheatre, ancient Greek and Western European art spaces; but doing it in a first and second generation influenced and inhabited space."

    "Doing it with high art which was solely focused on black, South Asian, Arab and native artists. So it completely flips everything. That's where the theme comes from."

    McKenzie-Barnes' goal for Nuit Blanche 2019 Scarborough is to bring on people who have some messages to share which place the patrons, the people of the community, at the center of the artistic experience. While the exhibit will feature Scarborough natives, the idea is to expand the conversation by featuring diverse artists from across the country and even the world.

    Among them will be Canadian indigenous artists like Kent Monkman and Jordan Bennett. She also looks forward to bringing in Jamaican artist Ebony G. Patterson — whom McKenzie-Barnes credits for doing incredible work right now in the contemporary art space.

    "Our West Indian community is thriving in Scarborough," as she points out. A large portion of the community is unaware that we have these highly influential contemporary artists.

    "[These artists are usually being] seen at OCAD downtown or in Art Toronto. These [are often] unattainable and unreachable places for the community. They don't go to these places."

    "So when you think of where Ebony G. Patterson has been placed in our city... there's a disconnect."

    "A lot of that was in the forethought when putting in my pitch to the city. That's why I came up with Queens and Kings in Scarborough."

    The power of representation

    McKenzie-Barnes is only too aware of the power of representation. As a young woman, she remembers being immensely inspired by seeing Sway Magazine, the African-Canadian-focused glossy magazine formerly published by Torstar, in the green boxes on the streets of the city. 

    As a graphic design student at the time, her goal was to work for the magazine.

    "That was the only space, as a young person, where I ever saw a reflection of myself. I saw this as something that I could look to. [It had] meaning to me as a young person of colour," as she recounted.

    She eventually reached her goal of working for the magazine.

    "Sway Magazine was that one publication where I got to bang out work that was a reflection of myself and where I saw myself fit."

    Breaking down creative doors

    "Outside of [Sway], every other job I got agency-wise — graphic design jobs, in-house design jobs — [had] very minimal reflections of myself within the work and within my peers. You kind of learn to navigate in it because "it is" a job. As a young black person, you cannot allow that to be a hindrance if this is your chosen field."

    Having gained nine years of experience in the corporate agency world, McKenzie-Barnes has gone on to work as a creative strategist and creative director on large international campaigns such as the Scotiabank Pride marketing initiative. She's currently the Director of Creative Operations at FleishmanHillard HighRoad.

    She acknowledges that it's been a challenge at times not to see herself reflected through her corporate career. In comparison to her work as an independent curator, her experiences in the agency world have been starkly divergent.

    "There's a significant difference in the people that I see. It's always been like that. I've never entered into an agency space where it's any different," said McKenzie-Barnes.

    "For me, it's been about the work.... I was very adamant about understanding that space doesn't have a lot of myself in it; so, therefore, I need to make space in it so that I'm breaking down that door."

    "As it stands, you may have to break down that door and be that person for somebody else if you're not seeing it yourself."

    This is why McKenzie-Barnes aims to make effective use of her position, both as an industry leader and educator, to help build bridges — which are currently sorely lacking — between young black creatives in the city and the corporate agency world.

    "I've been working with young designers of colour and I take them with me where I go. I work with them on a freelance level. I'm here to be that mentor for them. To let them know [they] do have people to look into as female creative directors — nevermind male — female black creative directors that are in this job — even though [they] don't necessarily see it."


  • "Were there is music, dance always is. It becomes part of the storytelling," said Toronto-based multidimensional performing artist Nicole Brooks, while speaking to about the long tradition of Caribbean and African dance. Brooks is the creator of Obeah Opera -- a musical retelling of the legendary Salem witch trials from the fascinating perspective of Caribbean slave women. It was recently featured as part of the Fall for Dance North festival, one of Canada's leading international dance showcases. Obeah Opera had also been on the international spotlight for its world premiere at PANAMANIA, held in Toronto back in 2015.

    Since its inception as a 10-minute show at Rock.Paper.Sistahz in b current's 2008-2009 seasons, Obeah Opera has grown significantly. "After the 2015 Pan-Am games, I was determined to have the show mounted again," said Brooks. "It was the first time that I was able to get the play to about two hours, and it's the closest to my vision; but it's still not my vision."

    Nicole Brooks

    Brooks' aim is to break the traditional mold of theatrical productions in Canada where it's often a challenge to obtain institutional or government support to remount the same work. She knew that while Toronto's mini olympics represented an awesome platform, Obeah Opera had not attained its full fruition. She merely had a blueprint to make this play Broadway-type and Broadway-bound.

    "People ask me all the time: What's your next work? My response is this work is not done. I'm going to continue pushing this work until it's finished.... I just feel really privileged that I've been afforded the opportunity to have this work evolve."

    The Fall for Dance North festival (which ran October 2–6, 2018), offered Brooks the opportunity to really focus of bringing out, and refining, the dance elements of Obeah Opera. It was also an expressed requirement from the festival's artistic director that the show be performed with live music in order to give the audience the full experience.

    Rather than an excerpt of the play, Fall for Dance North was a compilation. "We picked various materials and music from the play and looked at the different types of dances that we could put in -- with the emphasis on Caribbean traditional and African traditional," as Brooks noted.

    Brooks expressed how proud she was to showcase the work of choreographer Anthony 'Prime' Guerra on such a prominent stage. "I looked at this as a platform to introduce the work, to introduce myself, and to introduce Prime to a new world of dance and letting them experience something very different," she said.

    Anthony Prime Guerra

    "As the writer of the work and with music as my forte, having Anthony 'Prime' Guerra really concentrate on the dance, and have that become an integral part of the storytelling, is going to make the work catastrophically better."

    Through the process, they looked at different Caribbean islands and regions of the African continent for dance and movement inspiration.

    "All of our storytelling as Caribbean and I'll say emphatically African people tell stories through dance, music and drama. It's never separated. So there's a call for me towards that; and I'm really excited about the creative journey," said Brooks.

    After Fall for Dance North, her goal is now to "go into a very intense dramaturge session for about two to three months to develop the rest of the work." She has further plans for Obeah Opera spanning from next year, marking her tenth year on this work, to beyond. Some of the dance numbers developed for Fall for Dance North will be in the final iteration of the play.

    "Once I get the play where it needs to be, it will be its final version ready to tour. I have my eye set specifically on South Africa as a first stop," as Brooks stated. "The choreographer and I really pinpointed various sections, integral pieces, where we're going to develop the dance -- which is very exciting for me." 

    "We're bringing it; we're bringing the colour and we're bringing the melanin."

  • Oraltorio: A Theatrical Mixtape -- anObsidian Theatre production, presented in partnership withSoulpepper Theatre -- written and performed by multidisciplinarian spoken word artist Motion, and infused by enthralling musical soundscapes of DJ L’Oqenz, is currently running at theYoung Centre for the Performing Arts (50 Tank House Lane) until October 20, 2018.

    This is the story of two Toronto-bred young women, Motion as the B-Girl and L’Oqenz as the DJ, navigating through life and their womanhood in search of agency. Their quest is set through the background and history of the beats, music, rhymes and song lyrics that have come to shape their identity.

    Directed by Mumbi Tindyebwa Otu, Oraltorio is set in an Afrofuturistc aesthetic realm where the worlds of spoken word, emceeing and DJing coalesce. The visually stimulating theatrical universe created by André du Toit’s lighting, and grounded in the hip hop-inspired catacombs of Jackie Chau’s set, add unmistakable character to the show's auditory journey.

    "The show was born out of a lot of my own, as well as L’Oqenz's, experiences with music and growing up around music, around the evolution of hip hop, and being inspired by black women artists and musicians," as Motion recently explained to "As well as the role that music has played in the lives and history of people from the African diaspora. The collective experience of a people."

    Digging back into the roots

    Delving a bit deeper into the origins of Oraltorio, Motion recalls a collaboration show she worked on years ago for the Urban Music Awards, called Musik, where she charted the evolution of the connections between the griots of West Africa all the way to the emcees of hip hop culture.

    "That piece inspired me to continue writing a larger work that would blend soundscape with words and with theatre -- to look at the role that music and sound have played as tools of resistance against silencing in black women's lives," as Motion explained. "I would say that's definitely the genesis of Oraltorio."

    DJ L'Oqenz (back) and MOTION. Photo: Cesar Ghisilieri

    She soon joined forces with DJ L'Oquenz after this epiphany to work together on creating the soundscape and the music for it. "We really thought about the concept of a theatrical mixtape," she said. The idea was to dramatize a mixtape where the iconic sounds from the DJ culture they both grew up with would be overlayered with soundbites, sung or spoken, from different flavours and stories.

    "What we've grown to understand through this creative process is just the fluidity of how this work can live. It can live with one mic and a DJ; and it can live in its full production experience with the visuals and working with choreographers and movement specialists," said Motion. "There's so many different ways and formats through which we've been able to find the story and find how different audiences can experience it."

    As the concept grew from inception to its current form, various versions of Oraltorio saw the light of day over the years in places like b current's Rock.Paper.Sistahz Festival, readings at the Buddies in Bad Times Theatre's Rhubard Festival, the Piece of Mine Festival, and its first full production as part of Why Not Theatre's Riser Project -- which took place at the Theatre Centre in 2016.

    Also in 2016, Motion and L'Oquenz had the opportunity to travel to Ghana with the Northern Griots Network to showcase Oraltorio at the Chale Wote Street Art Festival, as well as the Nkabom Literary Festival.

    "Our Ghana experience was great because we actually found ourselves at the birthplace of so much of the musical inspiration that we touch upon in Oraltorio," as Motion shared. They performed to a large audience as part of the closing night of the Chale Wote Festival.

    "To be surrounded and immersed in so much artistic expression was really inspirational. It just deepened our connection to the rhythm of the piece; to the ancestry of Oraltorio. Showing that no matter where you go in the world where you find people of the African diaspora, there are audible ties that connect us [through] the way that we express ourselves. [Be it through] spirituality, though dance, through survival, through protesting disparity, through the quest for freedom."

    "What we also continue to connect to is the cross-generational strength through which, despite how often we are silenced, or our voices are dampened, we find ways to be heard. So Oraltorio is an ode to that resistance."


    Show info:

    Oraltorio: A Theatrical Mixtape

    Runs to October 20. $25-$35.
    Young Centre for the Performing Arts
    50 Tank House Lane, Toronto ON, M5A 3C4


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