A Toronto artist invites us to bear witness

Witness, a new installation by Toronto-based photo-video-artist, Ella Cooper, is now on full display at FENTSTER, in the heart of the city’s downtown. 

Typically her work uses movement and performance-based techniques to explore identity and reclaim representations of Black bodies. While this is still explored in Witness, for the first time, Cooper is the subject of her own work. With the camera focused squarely on her face, there was nowhere to hide. 

The photos capture Cooper’s performance of her inner emotional state, drawing on techniques of Butoh—a Japanese dance practice that emerged in the late 50s and early 60s out of the need to express the social turmoil after the war. 

The technique strives to expose the joys and sorrows of life, aiming for a universal form of expression. 

She studied this new form during an artist residency in Berlin. Cooper wanted to capture the feelings of loss, isolation and displacement that were heightened  in a city that historically devastated the Jewish community.

In an interview with Niv, Cooper discusses the inspiration behind her work, and what surprises she encountered along the way. 

Witness at FENTSTER. (Photo by Morris Lum)

Can you take us through the process of creating Witness

At residency I didn’t have other people to work with so I decided to make myself central to the work and at that point I’d been doing a lot of nude photography, but nude from the sense of wanting to create powerful positive nudes of brown, Black women. Then I started to question, what does it mean to be naked but from an emotional standpoint. In our culture we’re always putting a certain face forward or a mask. So I was excited to work in the realm of what does it mean to be vulnerable in front of the camera? At the time I was being introduced to Butoh as a practice as a way to tap into these universal human emotions and universal human truths.

And what made you decide to take photos of yourself?  

I loved Berlin so much I wanted to move there, but simultaneously I felt displaced and isolated and had different feelings coming up. And so I used different performance modalities to kind of work through them. I thought what if I used these vintage photo booths as if, and I don’t have a Christian background, but like they’re like my confessionals, where you go in the darkness of the space so that you can allow yourself to be seen and to really have this private emotional space. It’s partially performed but I’m also revealing something while it’s being performed. 

What surprised you the most about yourself while doing this work? 

What surprised me was seeing myself in this way. You know, often if we go into a photo booth and we want to feel pretty, or goofy, or happy. I wanted to allow myself to perform and use different practices to show a different face and to not worry if this is beautiful. It felt right. I couldn’t put my finger on it, but I thought, “I like this” but I also feel awkward sharing it because the way we show ourselves to the outside world is a very different guise. There is one image where I’m actually crying but I’ve noticed that image really moves people. We actually call people in more when we show vulnerability. 

How does the work make you feel when you see it now? 

I wasn’t approaching the work as a Jew or a Black person or anything…it was just, I am those things. I was approaching the work from this really human place and that’s why it still speaks to me and feels relevant to me during this time because the emotions that are on display are coming from a universal truth of my multilayered experience as a human. But it also brings out the angst that is coming out from being in a pandemic, and the angst that comes out of the racism that exists in our community, and the social and racial unrest that is being brought to light right now. Allowing people to witness you and allowing yourself to be witnessed is a way of ultimate love. When I look at the work I see more things come up. There’s something about this work, for me, that keeps on evolving. 


This article is part of an ongoing Community Partnership series on FENTSTER. Niv regularly features the work of the gallery and its exhibiting artists, and FENTSTER promotes Niv to their network in-kind.


Feature image courtesy of FENTSTER. 

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