Excerpt from . . . Everything Remains Raw
. . . Everything Remains Raw accompanied an exhibition at the McMichael Canadian Art Collection in 2018: a photographic excavation of Toronto's hip hop archive. Below is an excerpt from an essay by contributor Felicia Mings, who dives into the artwork of Toronto-based artist Elicser Elliott. After reading, we suggest listening to Elicser’s 2017 TED Talk, where he talks about many of the works mentioned in the article. As well, in the light of COVID-19, Elicser chose to honour front-line workers with a mural. He was one artist among many who chose to share messages of support this way. Read the article in The Toronto Observer for more about the mural. And for more about hip hop’s visual culture, find further essays and artwork in . . . Everything Remains Raw.
“The Art of Elicser: Reflections on the Visibility of Black and Brown Communities through Graffiti”
By Felicia Mings
Since the inception of hip hop culture, graffiti has been the visual manifestation of the movement. Graffiti, then, is a critical component to any exhibition concerned with the visual history of hip hop. Although modern-day graffiti is said to have begun in the late 1960s, it evolved greatly alongside rap music, which originated among black and Latinx youth in New York City in the early 1970s. Rap followed in the footsteps of American gospel, blues, jazz, and funk in its reliance on hybridizing musical styles, improvisation, and being rooted in the day-to-day experiences of marginalized working-class communities of colour. Like its sonic counterpart, graffiti began as an underground form of social and political expression that was often misunderstood and associated with illegality. Early graffiti writers staked their claim to New York City by spray-painting subway cars, underpasses, and buildings with “tags” — intricate, text-based designs that spell out a graffiti crew’s name or an individual’s pseudonym. Graffiti was commonly characterized as vandalism and quickly scrubbed off or whitewashed over. This is quite a contrast to today, when graffiti is commissioned to beautify buildings and often takes a less subversive tone. This is partly due to the wide circulation of Tony Silver’s 1983 film Style Wars, produced by Henry Chalfant, as well as Martha Cooper and Chalfant’s 1984 photography book Subway Art, which went a long way in helping to legitimize graffiti as an art form.
Like rap music, graffiti may function slightly differently than it did in its conception and may exist in new locations, but social and political inflections remain a part of its DNA. This inflection is indebted to the voices of black and brown working-class communities that founded hip hop. By virtue of the materials at work and the locales in which graffiti is displayed, graffiti art has the potential to bridge divides between seemingly separate fields such as fine art and popular culture, and can insert the presence of communities of colour in spaces where they have been forgotten or erased.
Toronto-based artist Jabari “Elicser” Elliot is one whose work exists in the interstices of graffiti and public art, the city and the natural landscape. To encounter a graffiti mural by Elicser is to stumble upon vivid spray paint colours rendered into culturally diverse, pudgy-faced, cartoonesque figures, enveloped in a landscape of tags abstracted into angular designs, stylized buildings and elongated swaths of colour. At human scale and larger his graffiti murals can be found along the streets of Toronto and around the world.
Elicser’s work contains the gritty and improvisational “of and for the common people” spirit of early hip hop music in both the images he presents and the materials he uses. His multicultural figures — adorned in hoodies, hijabs, backpacks, crowns, or suits — engage in casual actions, from shooting a camera to eating a sandwich, dancing or standing still. The figures’ attire and activities signal the diverse and eclectic Toronto community that Elicser is situated within. Furthermore, Elicser applies aerosol spray paint (a relatively inexpensive, quick-drying, industrially fabricated medium) to cement walls and brick, wood, oxidized steel, and other surfaces. Essentially he makes do with the materials he encounters as he borrows and blends from various sources. . . .
The eclectic figures and mix of materials in Elicser’s work can be read as a gesture towards remembering and reimagining the relationships of working-class communities of colour to natural and rural landscapes. This is significant because the most iconic visual representations of Canada are landscape paintings from roughly the 1920s to the mid-1930s that largely absented people and industry. Many artists, such as those in the Group of Seven, produced oil paintings of tundra, trees, rivers, mountains, lakes, and foliage, which gave way to a visual mythology of serene wilderness landscapes that was propagated by Canadian art institutions and came to typify nationalistic representations of Canada. The most widely recognized paintings by this group present a romantic view of the Canadian wilderness. This romantic view builds upon a European landscape-painting tradition of using imagery that evokes notions of unspoiled land to be conquered and new frontiers — which deeply contrasts with the reality of those lands at the time of their painting. Canada’s Indigenous communities were undoubtedly present in the areas of Northern Ontario where the Group of Seven painted. In addition, Ontario saw concentrations of enslaved African Americans, who escaped to Canada as early as 1763 and then through nineteenth century via the Underground Railroad, settle in places along the Canadian-American border, such as Amherstburg, Buxton, St. Catharines, London, Windsor, and Chatham. Therefore, in the most popular representations of Canada in landscape paintings, communities of colour who had a long connection to the land were pushed out of the canvas frame.
Representations of the natural landscape have too often rendered communities of colour invisible. Inversely, the story of the origin and culture of hip hop is one area that has propelled black people to hypervisibility in a way that has made them synonymous with notions of urbanity and the “inner city.” Elicser’s work breaks down this binary. His murals’ use of leaves, trees, and other aspects of nature enables his art to be in dialogue with the iconic landscape paintings of the Group of Seven that have had such a large presence at the McMichael. And yet, through his coupling of natural and synthetic materials, as well as representations of multicultural and multi-generational figures, his work embodies the spirit of hip hop. Therefore, in . . . Everything Remains Raw at the site of the McMichael Canadian Art Collection, Elicser’s work can be read as a potent gesture towards inserting, remembering, and reimagining absented communities’ relationship to, and place within, the visual representations and physical geographies of Canada.
Excerpted from “The Art of Elicser: Reflections on the Visibility of Black and Brown Communities through Graffiti” copyright © 2018 by Felicia Mings from . . . Everything Remains Raw: Photographing Toronto’s Hip Hop Culture from Analogue to Digital, edited by Mark V. Campbell.