refuge (SIREN)

feldman-kiss & Matheuszik with SPATIAL-ESK 2023

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refuge (SIREN)

refuge (SIREN) is an immersive web exhibition and digital dissemination project created as an extension of nichola feldman-kiss’s solo exhibition Scapegoat, presented at the McMaster Museum in the Winter of 2022. This exploratory site is an output of the artist’s prosocial practice-based research that explores the effects of globalized order and colonial paradigms on human life and Nature. Scapegoat and another recent exhibition project entitled Siren III take on new meanings as varied elements inspired by their visceral hybrid-media installations are designed into this compelling interactive landscape. Reflecting on themes from migratory culture and forced displacement to geopolitics and climate crisis, refuge (SIREN) is an excursion through oceanic passages, diasporic imaginaries and existential transitions. Submerged into the unsettling depths of descent and ascension, accompanying texts, audio works and images are remixed together in this virtual space and portal through tenacious journeys into new possible cartographies, honouring life’s urgent will to survive and thrive.

Pamela Edmonds Curator refuge (SIREN) 2023

words and voices

nichola feldman-kiss \ Scapegoat at McMaster Museum of Art 2022 Pamela Edmonds and Mona Filip Curators (installation photography by Toni Hafkenscheid Toronto)

Pamela Edmonds \ SCAPEGOAT at McMaster Museum of Art (MMA)

A pioneer in early digital art, feldman-kiss’s multisensory installations continue to explore the human body - including their own - as a site of confrontation, vulnerability and resistance. Between here and there began as a labour of research that the artist undertook following their 2011 return from Sudan, where they were embedded as a UN military observer in the generations-old east-African conflict as a part of the Canadian Forces Artists Program. In travelling to this site of active warfare, the artist sought to shock herself out of complacency through dislocation from so-called first-world privilege, however temporary. Born and raised in Ottawa, feldman-kiss aspired to a deeper, more visceral empathic connection with the experiences of their familial ancestors, with diasporic Afro-Euro-Sephardi-Jamaican heritage (connected to conquest, colonization and the trans-Atlantic slave trade) on their maternal side, and Lutheran-German-Ashkenazi-Polish heritage (in flight from anti-Semitic and anti-miscegenation policies) on their paternal side. The artist’s pivotal experience embedded in an African conflict zone awakened a preoccupation with world order and relative human value, provoking further durational work about how to make sense of one’s implication in colonial history. 

Audio read-out by a monotone computerized voice sets the tone for this disquieting installation which represents a twenty-five-year statistical database of death-toll records in conflict ridden regions across the world.¹ Evolving from their efforts to understand the cacophonous narratives issued by the global news industry, feldman-kiss employs the uncanny quality of a sound projection device to create a contained listening space, one that demands an attentive form of embodied listening. The relentless drone of human tolls suspends us in an uncanny space between horror and banality. This evocative work can be read as a meditation on public memorialization, drawing our attention to the connection between archive and trauma. It asks audiences to consider questions like: What are the regulatory norms through which different bodies are materialized? How are ethical relations bound by the consumption of global violence? How does anonymity and otherness impact the notion that some lives can be more easily disregarded if they are lived at a distance? 

between here and there / Human toll 2014 and The King’s two Bodies / Scales of Justice 2016 in nichola feldman-kiss \ Scapegoat at McMaster Museum of Art 2022 (installation photography by Toni Hafkenscheid Toronto)

the King’s two Bodies / Scales of Justice 2016
Performance mediation (Video projection)
Running time 10:11 minutes
Courtesy of the Artist © 2016 nichola feldman-kiss 

between here and there / Human toll 2014 
Synthetic speech recital (Isolated sound projection) 
Uppsala Conflict Data Program (UCDP) Battle-Related Deaths Dataset (accessed 2014 and 2016)
Running time 3:17:34 hours
Courtesy of the Artist © 2014, 2016 nichola feldman-kiss

I meditated on finitude, the foibles of imagination, demystification of truth and the scaling of justice in our globalizing world. I captured rich and exotic audio, video and photographic source material as I swept, sorted and sat in balance floating on my pan facing down death. By day 49 day it had become clear I had flown very close to the flame…In my journey’s dissociation, I encountered an inner cold colder than any Canadian winter as my body wept from every pore under the oppressions of 55˚C.

The opening quote is taken from feldman-kiss’ diaristic entries during what the artist describes as a durational performance over months in residence living and working in West Bengal, India in 2016 with a supplier’s vast inventory of human osteological specimens. Once destined to the international market of medical teaching aids, the artist’s immersion into these trade sources enabled their experiential understanding of the precarious cultural and socio-economic circumstances from which commercial specimens in the Canadian inventory may have been harvested (or originated). feldman-kiss’ gesture troubles the conflicting legal frameworks that govern these little-known global markets established with colonization.

The projected video of the King's Two Bodies \ Scales of Justice shows the artist balancing their body on a commercial pan and chain beam scale staged within an ambiguous pseudo-domestic setting. For the majority of the performance before the camera, they sit in a meditative posture in the face of their weight in shrouded human bone bundles. In this confrontation with taboo, feldman-kiss’s artistic action positions their own body/psyche within the artwork as a site of political resistance and complicates the aesthetics and interpretations of Western conceptualizations of self-representation.

an initial aversion to the plight of the sufferer. (Pietà) 2015-2022 / study for Scapegoat at McMaster Museum of Art (3D render by Adrienne Matheuszik Toronto) from left to right – Brian, DaShawn, Devente, Sydné, Kais, Joshua, Suragha, Kevon, Ra, Tarik, Waseem, Huntha, Ali, Vidhu, Shawn, Fady. Courtesy of the Artist © 2021 nichola feldman-kiss.

feldman-kiss’s Toronto studio was the site for staging this conceptual portrait series which continues their critical explorations of colonial power and its devastating effects. Exhibited for the first time in its entirety, this collection of illuminated tableau photographs refashions the iconography of the Pietà, a popular biblical subject in classical European art which depicts Mary holding and mourning the body of Christ after his sacrificial death. A range of young male subjects each cradle a set of pristine white bones, referencing Pietà's devotional themes of martyrdom and mourning. Arranged chromatically by skin tone against a backdrop of unifying brown, these men represent the demographic most directly impacted by systemic violence and discrimination. 

Dignified and defiant, individually named and collective, the young men are survivors of alienation, dislocation, racism, police brutality and surveillance in their urban Toronto communities. While some refute our gaze and others meet it, each figure is positioned in unison with equal reverence. The anonymity of the skeletal set is at the forefront of the artist’s critique. Though fully legitimized in Canada through institutionalized frameworks, its status as product raises ethical issues about complicity and moral consent, a tragic reminder of young lives needlessly lost within racial capitalism. Marking erasure and absence, the opposite corner of the gallery is left bare, a zone that resists simple articulation, its empty walls offering open space for re-imaginings. feldman-kiss proposes to make collective space to commune through public grief as a form of activism, and sanctuary for recuperative care and radical dependency.

an initial aversion to the plight of the sufferer. (Pietà) 2015-2022 / study for Scapegoat at McMaster Museum of Art (3D render by Adrienne Matheuszik) Sydné. Courtesy of the Artist © 2021 nichola feldman-kiss

feldman-kiss’s more recent work, Scapegoat (Sydné), presents a youthful feminine subject seen holding a baby goat in a pastoral landscape. Bracketing the images and placing them within the (Pietà) works, feldman-kiss unsettles the traditional narrative of the triptych’s form. Composed of three-dimensional objects, the installation also takes on a sculptural presence, impacting our physical sense of orientation. These haunting works reflect the artist’s understanding of the power that photography has on shaping public awareness of social conditions. While the kid goat stands as an ambiguous symbol of the sacred and the sacrificed, the model’s closed eyes and awkward pose destabilizes our gaze, suggesting a protest against the historical exploitation of the Black female figure within Western culture. Here, her African body can also be considered as the mother of civilization and a prime life force connecting all of human-kind. 

between here and there 2015 in nichola feldman-kiss \ Scapegoat at McMaster Museum of Art 2022 (installation photography by Toni Hafkenscheid Toronto)

between here and there \ 2015
Kinetic installation (simulated butterflies; plastics; cabling, programming; electronics)
Courtesy of the Artist © 2015, 2021 nichola feldman-kiss

This iteration of feldman-kiss’s between here and there series consists of a flock of mechanical butterflies alight on a cluster of electrical wiring components originating from the (Pietà)/Scapegoat backlit portraits. Beneath the illuminated images, a tangle of black cabling and power supplies are gathered on the gallery floor, the electronically powered butterflies gather, animating the darkened space with their subtle fluttering. The artist does not attempt to conceal or camouflage this power equipment as is customary with media installations, rather they accentuate its messy materiality, resisting the implied neutrality of the modernist white cube gallery. Kinetic art, which relies on motion for effect, introduces elements of time and space to the artwork. It also suggests the merging of nature, humanity and technology, pointing to the profound effects each has on the other in our contemporary world, in this age of the Anthropocene. 

Noteworthy, the butterfly stands as a potent metaphor for transformation, hope, and renewed life. In some cultures, it is a symbol of the soul of the deceased. The insect’s bodily movements, migrations and feeding methods also play a crucial role in increasing biodiversity on the planet. The manufactured ones shown here are a hybrid of a swallowtail and monarch, the latter facing endangerment and extinction due to climate change and deforestation caused by industry. feldman-kiss’s art asserts a decidedly posthumanist perspective, one which calls for a form of ethical accountability for all life, based on a strong sense of collectivity, relationality and community building. 

Hamilton 2022

  1. (Uppsala Conflict Data Program (UCDP) Battle-Related Deaths Dataset 2012 and 2016, Isolated sound projection), Accessed 2014 and 2016

from refuge (SIREN) 2023 [screen grab] ©feldman-kiss & Matheuszik and 2023

Pamela Edmonds is a visual and media arts curator whose research interests focus on contemporary Canadian art and the politics of representation. Originally from Montreal, Edmonds holds a BFA in Studio Art/Art History and an MA in Art History from Concordia University. She has been an advocate for inclusive curatorial practices and cultural equity throughout her career, which is evidenced by her work with numerous collectives and grassroots organizations including the inaugural Black Curators Forum held in Toronto in 2019. She worked most recently as the Senior Curator at McMaster mMuseum of Art, Hamilton and is the current Director and Curator of the Dalhousie Art Gallery in Halifax.

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from refuge (SIREN) \ feldman-kiss & Matheuszik with Spatial-esk / 2023 (behind the scenes screen grab)

Samuel Kapasa \ precipice and panacea

How silent is the disquieting cliff?

How silent is the disquieting cliff? Does the cliff make you shiver?

Why does it?

How happy are the memorable panacea?

Do panacea make you shiver? Why do they? Down, down into the darkness of the shoals.

Gently they go. A cock, a hoop. The outside, the deep.

One afternoon I said to myself, Why aren't Shoals more comforting? Pay attention to the flow. The flow is the most elusive crossing of all.

Pay attention to the flow. Flow. A source of aquatic serenade. A balancing, however hard it tries, will always be precarious.

A balance is insecure. A balance is touch and go.

Pay attention to the flow. A better balancing is shaky, however.

The nest of life. Waiting in whose heart the lost man forgot to go home and never catch up.

Tension keeps me from floating upwards.

Each heart beats. Each life lived. Each breath, each infant cry. Each mother rooted to the moment. Rooted to now calcified statements that bring me to a halt.

Each heart beats, each life lives, each breath, each infant cry. Each mother. 

Feeble light draws me on to see the heart of the matter. Pay attention to the flow. The underwater cathedral. The underwater cathedral. The cage that surrounds the calling lungs rips me from myself, draws me upwards. A melancholic hope echoes the carcass.

Pay attention to the flow.

The siren nosedived slowly.

Pay attention to the flow. The threshold becomes a portal.

The threshold became a portal. 

Pay attention to the flow. Ice changes and reforms to tell the same story, from another perspective.

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from refuge (SIREN) 2023 [screen grab] ©feldman-kiss & Matheuszik and 2023

Anita Girvan \ Dreaming with Siren III, Dreaming with Water

Duplicitous conveyor
Veiled beauty

Teeming water
Water, medium
Middle passage
Passing ships
Shipping news
Novel routes

Roots extracted
Tracks erased
Acts of violence
Defiance granted
Granting land
Landing blows
Blowing wind
Windrush hear me?

Meeting shores
Shoring knowledge
Knowing subjects
Subject harms
Armada coming
Comes dispossession
Possess and capture
Churning souls
Solitary confines
Finding rest
Restless journey

Needing comfort
Fortune’s fury
Read the map
Map to door
With no return
Turn to light
Light and sound
Sounding seabirds
Fugitive flight
Flying spirits
Spiriting sirens
Sirens singing
Grief and joy

Joyful musings
Muse be with you
Ululating beauty
Beautiful beings
Communal life
Living, moving
Moving waters
Watery Tears
Tearful reunions
United at last
Last rites
Rites and wake
Waking work

Working coastguard
Guarding borders
Drowning dreamers
Mermaids witness
Sound alarm
Arms extended
Deadening life
Living death
Ethereal agents
Gently fusing
Sinking down
Drowned, undrowned
Diving, dancing
Giving, taking 
Needy ghosts
Ghosting presence
Sensing skin
Skin-like surface

Facing tears
Teardrops falling
Fresh on salt
Salt uplifting
Lift and float
Float to clouds
Cloudlike yearning
Learn humility
Humbling glaciers
Glacial thunder
Undulating ice
Icy melting
Injured climate
Matter adrift

Drifting hubris
Breezy listening 
Beyond the chambers
Purchase tenuous
Nuanced relations
Shun legacies
Seas of taxonomies
Meaning deferred
Furtive glances
Glancing sideways
Ways of knowing
Life reclaiming

Claims un-done
Deconstructing story
Re-storying place
Place emerging
Merging flow
Flow and ebb
Ebb and flow
Floating, breathing

Breath and heartbeat
Beat and pause
Pausing, quicken
Kin, you here/hear?
Hearing stillness
Nesting beings
Beings cradled

Cradle and rock
Rock as shoreline
Line extended
Sharing witness

Swimming Sirens, 
Sirens sounding
Ringing whisper

“Give me your hand”
Handsome fin

from refuge (SIREN) 2023 [screen grab] ©feldman-kiss & Matheuszik and 2023

Inspired by the call and response resonant in the ocean, in ululating voices of transnational feminist communities and larger-than-human kin, and in feldman-kiss’ description of artistic practice, the above poetic reflection emerges upon waking after dreaming with Siren III. I am dreaming with Siren III through a recent weather event named the “cyclone bomb” in the Lekwungen and WSANEC land of the Pacific Northwest where I live. This weather event, like feldman-kiss’ installation itself, reminds us of the state and statelessness of water as a moving global being that connects ‘us all’ in a sometimes womb-like embrace and sometimes, in the grip of ravaging force: the ‘us all’ being a very much internally-differentiated Earthly community. In this conjuncture, 2 years into a global pandemic, as convoys of ‘freedom’ and of military occupy communities and countries, ‘we’ are struggling with and against flows to achieve common humanity. All the while, the symptoms and signs of climate change forcefully demonstrate the colonial conceit of centering humanity and the human as the universal subject of the story. Here where I am, the peaceful-seeming moniker of the Pacific betrays its complicity with the more viscerally-violent images of Atlantic, with its voyages, Titanic glaciers, storms, and (waning?) bullish American financial Empire. But the restful Pacific has also been a duplicitous conveyer of diseased blankets to original inhabitants, holder of vessels turned away for embodying the wrong colour of prospective Canadian, and witness to “enemy aliens” forcefully relocated to land-locked “camps.” And more recently, the Pacific and environs have experienced devastating floods on the heels of a “heat-dome” and massive wildfires. But the “Atlantic” and the “Pacific” and all colonially-mapped oceans contain myriad other names from time immemorial where local families recognize kin in ways that ground multi-species creation. This mighty water holds the potential to materialize other dream-spaces. In this flow, elements air-water-fire-earth, colonialism, racialized economies and taxonomized beings collide and merge, sometimes accommodating, but also refusing the disciplining containers of words, ships, species taxonomies, and constrained imaginaries. Siren remind us that incorporated in water are the memories and materialities of the ages.

What to do with this saturation? nichola feldman-kiss’s Siren III prompts us to think with the artist to channel the energy and enter the story from an uncanny underwater place. Here where unseen relations and histories exist, we can feel the un-mapping of cartographies to sense differently. In this current, the structure of the poetic call and response above is inspired by listening with the ocean. When spoken out loud, the poem is meant to evoke a wave pattern. While the notion of a seven-wave pattern is apparently a myth, oceanographers suggest that the myth emerges in observations of ‘normal’ patterns of wind-created surface waves hitting a relatively calm beach, where waves occur in groups of 12-16. As the waves modulate in amplitude, from small to large and then back down again, the middle wave of the cluster, the sixth or seventh wave, is the largest.¹ Feeling with this water-land rhythm, the verses above mimic these incremental waves, reaching a crescendo in verse VII which recalls a pivotal moment of the artist witnessing a SeaWatch video of an African migrant who was made to drown by a coast guard acting in defense of Europe’s borders. As a long-time swimmer, feldman-kiss feels this call to the sea and a call to respond to this recorded event of migrational flow and life disrupted. feldman-kiss responds in picking up the tool – the camera – that has long been their wayfinder and sense-maker.

As a mermaid/person² and photographer, and experienced cold-water scuba diver, feldman-kiss invites us into the challenge of immersion into water as both saturated with history and memory and as place of joyful play. The throbbing heart-beat, slowing and quickening in this piece insists that water is alive and that indeed there is a force of livingness in what we land-beings often gaze upon at only the surface level. Even as the beautiful ululations of the soundtrack evoke larger-than-human ecologies that defy human-centric stories, the water and voices can’t help but evoke human passages in Trans Atlantic spaces. In this voyage, we are awash with cultural stories of the artists’ family histories and also in the current with the important “wake-work” that Christina Sharpe moves through as metaphor and literal passages of grief and mourning. The long wake felt in what Saidiya Hartman calls the “afterlives of slavery.” 

Although there are too many resonances of this work to name here, I want to linger for a moment with two artists whose work is in (implicit) uncanny conversation with feldman-kiss. One is nia love – New York dancer, choreographer, scholar-activist whose film UNDERcurrents offers another filmic journey in the Atlantic. The other is Alexis Pauline Gumbs, whose poetic guide book UnDrowned, insists on thinking, being and acting in relation to coalitional more-than-human histories and futurities in and of the ocean.

nia love, like feldman-kiss took up diver training to be in relation with the water in their work. Both artists name the methodology of total “immersion” in water as a way to connect to memory and ecologies beyond a surface-level engagement. love’s film UNDERcurrents³, converses with the ocean as a material location of ancestors - whose faces are evoked in the beginning of the film - as well as an abstract mirror to the stars and cosmic futurities where ancestors and descendants may be dancing and singing in Afrofuturity. The opening scene which simultaneously evokes oceanic and celestial spaces begins with sounds of marine mammals and birds that are then joined by digitally-manipulated songs and voices of Black revival/survival. Unlike feldman-kiss piece where the human body exists behind the camera in the gaze sensing with the ocean, love’s body is in front of the camera performing drowning and surviving, or what she calls “divining with death.” At times love’s body drifts, viscerally evoking a lifeless, but still moving human body after water fills the lungs; and at other times her body dances and morphs, re-combining with other ocean mammals whose eyes are photographically captured in empathy-evoking ways. Like in feldman-kiss’s work, the viewer sometimes becomes disoriented by the effects of colour and/or pixilation. In feldman-kiss’s piece, we wonder: Are we seeing an iceberg, glacier, or a mountain and then going upward to the sun or are we plummeting deeper into the ocean? In love’s, we wonder: Are we seeing a flying creature or a swimming creature in the dancer’s choreographed movements and the other beings whose images are captured? The skeleton in love’s film also recalls the occupation with bones and how they travel in feldman-kiss other work, Scapegoat. And the coinciding of both artists pieces with Alexis Pauline Gumbs work UnDrowned is uncanny, revealing an inspirited oceanic and cosmic agency and energy that exceeds each artist as sentient vessel or conduit.

In UnDrowned: Black Feminist Lessons from Marine Mammals, Alexa Pauline Gumbs evokes the lives of those in the middle passage who drowned, but puts these in conversation with those who continued on the ships and those, human and non-human who continue to breathe in the present and future as:

…The context of undrowning. Breathing in unbreathable circumstances is what we do every day in the chokehold of racial gendered ableist capitalism. We are still undrowning. And by we, I don’t only mean people like myself whose ancestors specifically survived the middle passage, because the scale of our breathing is planetary, at the very least.

This planetary scale is similarly at stake for feldman-kiss who has been hailed as a kind of undrowned witness to contemporary migrant peoples’ drowning and has also heard the siren-song of climate emergency among other crises. Indeed feldman-kiss – as a cyborg, by virtue of the apparatus that enables underwater breathing – is very literally in that undrowned suspension.

Gumbs calls upon marine mammals as guides in the acts and processes of undrowning as these mammals are like us and not at the same time, and they are expert at “not drowning.” This vibrant connection to these guides reminds of the gaze of the eyes of the mammal in nia love’s film. The continuing call and response then returns us to the mythical creature of the siren or feldman-kiss’s mermaid who exists in a suspended state between marine and land mammal.

Siren III is a call to be in humble relation with the all the violent memories that the oceans hold, but also the comforting ones. Hear the seagulls, see the sun, breathe again. The surround sound of global Indigenous women ululating in Siren III offers not only warning but also welcome. Here, the paradoxes, beauties and tensions of the larger-than-human condition are in flow: jellyfish; strange intensity of light and sound; heartbeat racing then slowing; thunderous glacial rapid movement juxtaposed with a bubble of air; undulating icebergs mirroring shifting sand; moments of pixelating, manipulation, glaciers become animated; scaffolding, breaking, snow, sunshine.

feldman-kiss’ sometimes dizzying invitation is to develop new ways of seeing, sensing, being in relation to memory, and elements and kin who are not the usual suspects. Her work insists on “empathy over identity” in ways that once again hearken to Alexis Pauline Gumbs:

My hope, my grand poetic intervention here is to move from identification, also known as that process through which we say what is what, like which dolphin is that over there and what are its properties, to identification, that process through which we expand our empathy and the boundaries of who we are become more fluid, because we identify with the experience of someone different, maybe someone of a whole different so-called species.

Gumbs also acknowledges the fraughtness of this move in terms of the risks of projecting one’s own desires upon human and non-human others. This well-worn path of projection leads to the usual colonial extractive process; but it seems the ambiguities and humilities she is calling upon us to embody in order to be in different planetary relations are embodied in feldman-kiss’ photographic project of embodied immersion. 

Disorienting. Restorative. Reorienting to different flows. The voice of the sirens and the artist provide solace to those who must navigate through the weighty times and places we find ourselves in. 

Victoria, 2022

  1. (Veron, cited in MacKinnon, Eli. 2011 “Do Ocean Waves Really Travel in Sets of 7?” Live Science
  2. feldman-kiss suggests that since a young-age mermaid is their alter-ego.
  3. UNDERcurrents by nia love. Film with introduction and conversation for the 20th Anniversary of Dionne Brand’s “A Map to the Door of No Return.” Streamed live on Nov 2, 2021.
  4.  In the artist’s talk following the screening of the film in the above-linked series celebrating Dionne Brand’s “Map”
  5. Gumbs, A. P. 2021. Undrowned: Black Feminist Lessons from Marine Mammals. AK Press.
  6. Gumbs, p 4.
  7. Gumbs, p 5.
  8. Cited from artist talk, “In conversation: nichola feldman-kiss with Pamela Edmonds and Mona Filip. Streamed live on February 24, 2022, McMaster Museum of Art,

from refuge (SIREN) 2023 [screen grab] ©feldman-kiss & Matheuszik and 2023

Anita Girvan is a researcher, teacher and creator whose interests include: cultural politics of climate change; ecological metaphors; climate justice; water relations; and Black feminist/coalitional ecological thought. An assistant professor of English and Cultural Studies at the University of British Columbia, she is particularly interested in learning from and moving through this particular potential 'decolonial' moment as a way of re-connecting with fraught histories and re-imagining alternative life-enriching and inclusive futures.

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from refuge (SIREN) 2023 [screen grab] ©feldman-kiss & Matheuszik and 2023

Luther Konadu \ Consider the Censured (Fragments)

Scapegoat: a word, with meaning that carries within it, the colossal weight of misfortune. It is an impossible weight that buckles and immobilizes the unfortunate carrier. Sedimented inside that misfortune is an engrossing defeat and helplessness. You become an island. You are on shaky ground. The weather above is grating and the surrounding waters threaten to consume the island you’ve been made to become. A corrosive light has exposed and cornered you. Now, you are without any defence. For each person who carries this unbearable weight, there is another out there relieved of that very weight. Or at least they live in the illusion of this same knowledge: a knowledge that obscures those seen as undoubtedly good or those deserving of punishment (often unmerited) and all its precipitous attachments.

Pictured are young shirtless men, all wearing identically belt-buckled black pants, they all appear to be roughly within the same age range, each cradling a heap of what looks like human bones. Frontally and centrally positioned within each frame and lit evenly, they all stand against a luminous umber studio backdrop that leaves them cut off from any specific context, and as such, emphasizes our focus on their imaged presence. This non-place of the studio backdrop displaces the men away from a world that already displaces them as a problem; ineligible for compassion.

Looking at the photo installation, within their silences, I’m moved to wonder for more biographical and historical detail. Who are these individuals? Are they still alive since this photoshoot? What degree of precarity holds their survival in place? What is their sense of safety? A search for narrative comes up because the images leave no closure. At the time of the photo shoot, they were survivors, they lived to tell a testimony.

Viewing the imaged men from the intimate scale of my personal computer, they affect a kind of penetrating vulnerability that confronts my viewing gaze, for some of them at least. The men in the photographs flicker between seeming and being—at least this is what my perception permits.

A question that has nudged me is the representation and presentation of victims through the surfaces of photographs, and what in effect, this does in the world: How to (re)present the victim, their experience and their stories without it being lost in sanctimony? Without dramatizing, embellishing, or proselytizing, or inadvertently eliciting from the viewer a pathologizing gaze masked as sympathy?

Photography’s uniquely direct, and lucid depictive quality narrows our focus on what is shown and in turn, forecloses other possibilities outside that frame. For this reason, that very characteristic of photographs also encourages a kind of forgetting, and with this line of thought the questions continue: How do images feed into the imagination of who we speak of when discussions of state violence are brought up? Why is this imagination prevalent? By generating and disseminating the same kinds of images, what bodies are inadvertently erased? 

It is said that the unseen sufferer suffering in silence suffers the most.

nichola feldman-kiss \ Scapegoat at McMaster Museum of Art 2022 (installation photography by Toni Hafkenscheid Toronto), from left to right – Brian, DaShawn, Devente, Sydné, Kais, Joshua, Suragha, Kevon, Ra, Tarik, Waseem, Huntha, Ali, Vidhu, Shawn, Fady

For a while, I was feeling dread returning to a series of photo-based typological group portraits I first saw only in part. I can’t quite pin down where that dread came from or why it was there, but there it was, nonetheless. I lived with my great-grandmother until I was about eight years old when she passed. After she left us, I remember being unable to go into her bedroom where she was confined by the ailment that took her away. Walking in front of the closed door wasn’t any easier. There was some unknowable force - psychological or otherwise - that halted me. If I had to pass by it, I would have to psych myself up before sprinting past it. It was as though the room held a power that could also consume me just by simply brushing by it. Whatever it was felt vivid. It is not quite the same, but this memory visited me as similar, albeit with a lower level of dread that saw me postponing my assignment at hand: the work of interpretation and response to that same collection of photographs. Even though they left me with a range of impressions, there was a palpable somber density that loomed amongst the artist nichola feldman-kiss’s group portrait series titled, Scapegoat.

Over the centuries and into the present, the scapegoat has been shapeshifted by culture, of collective ideology, the production of pernicious ignorance, the fabric of shared systems of belief, irrevocable prejudicial harm. In the most extreme, it is genocide. Jews by Nazis; Muslims by Western hegemons; Africa and Africans by the centuries old dictates by racist power structures. A few years ago, naively seeking to be helpful, socially responsible, I endeavored to donate blood. Among other screening questions I was asked “Where are you from?” had I recently traveled to the African continent? To which I said yes - and became disqualified from service. Scapegoating around COVID-19 saw North American Asian communities targeted by hate crimes in retaliation for “the Chinese virus.” Here at home in Canada, we market a reputation of multiculturalism, social equity and international benevolence to absolve ourselves of responsibility for the social ills that plagues us – engendered by our own conditions of Colonialism and institutional practices of domination and supremacy, i.e., “racism is an American issue.” The political rhetoric of denial is but one strategy in the production of undeniability and truth. That which is already brushed under a beatific rug, becomes further neglected, less visible, more institutionalized racial caste systems, inequity, marginalization, impoverishment, injustice, gaps in social infrastructure, negative public health and over-policing.

Following a compounding conflation of personal and external events, in 2015, feldman-kiss began this Scapegoat project by posting an online casting call seeking local Torontonian men between 18 to 25 years of age who identified with the colour "brown." The artist realized the project with all of those who self-selected for the performance. The figures who are pictured in the artwork can effectively be associated with variable linkages to the Global South, a problematic catch-all term that reduces wide-ranging cultures and economic, social, and political conditions into a single category. A category the World Bank views as countries with the lowest economic growth, which includes the aforementioned regions. A history that is often overlooked within geopolitical discourses between the Global North and South is the enduring exploitative legacy brought on by colonial abuse, land appropriation, resource extraction, and post-war economic expansion that is in part a result of this very north/south disparity. Another consideration that continues to be understated is the stateless Indigenous populations that make up facets of the Global North and whose subjugation gets obscured on the world’s stage by the dominion of the “upper-caste” settlers. This is a framework Indigenous political activist George Manuel conceptualized as the ‘fourth world’ in his eponymous book with journalist Michael Posluns. The term is a response to the ‘third world’, the previously common phrase used to reference the economic stratification of the Global South. One could, in many ways, consider Scapegoat within the conception of the Global South indexed within the Global North. The under-regarded regions of the Global North are where significant inequalities in life expectancy, standard of living, access to dependable healthcare, clean water, access to social programs, and other crucial resources are out of reach for lives rendered negligible: often, lower-caste communities that become the bearer of blame for societal ills. Or in feldman-kiss’ project, the bearer of state-sacrificial antagonism. Although these antipathies are often thought of in abstract and systemic terms, there are real individuals who get caught in the middle. Their intricate lives are far more deeply personal than what the social sciences or statistics can account for. 

Photographic images can at best be a resemblance and transference of the actual; it is never the actual. And, I don’t fully believe the veracity of the performance documented in the Scapegoat series as necessarily limited by the orderly polished staginess. It does, however, create contention with the context for the photographs themselves and what the photographs serve to be doing as they live contextless in the public. Inside the subjects’ appearances, I do sense an ambiance of what I read as an unknowable hauntedness, a signifying melancholic weight running underneath—as if layers of feeling are withheld, clenched…a deferred rage. Perhaps these are feelings that index the very real precarity of the survival of bodies that have to constantly shrink into obedience to a hostile state, and contort into their peripheral status in a Western frame. I at once find empathy in this headspace and I’m on their side, beyond the images themselves. But I also can’t fully empathize because I’m outside of that position they are in, and I’m fortunate for this. This is part of where my dread takes hold. 

In the span of months of viewing and thinking about feldman-kiss’s Scapegoat images, I wrestle with my thoughts and struggle with the possibility of images to limit our thinking or merely ossify what we already know and in doing so, close off any thinking beyond itself. I come from a labour-class family; my dad was a tailor for most of his life and he came to Canada to expand what he could do. Aside from the several odd jobs—including a stint as a stage actress before she had me—when she emigrated to Canada and then back to Ghana, my mother helped her mother run what is called ‘provision store’ in Ghana which is a shop that sells everyday household essentials. I, on the other hand, find myself operating in the arts, a historically middle-class albeit marginal occupation riddled with never-ending precarity, predatory stakeholders, tastemakers, and art market cool kids. 

Although the majority of its audiences (and target market i.e. collectors, patrons, etc.) rank in the mid-to-upper ruling class, it is an industry any sensible working-class family understandably frowns upon when their children decide to step inside it. But here I am nonetheless, thirty- something year old, freelancing, and affecting the posture of a professional art writer. At present, and throughout my life thus far, I have been fortunate to live in both the US and Canada as a racialized individual without directly being gravely afflicted with the poisonous depth of state-influenced injustices and unaccountability that lives like mine (as far as caste goes) continue to come up directly against. And, of course, this can at any point change for me. I live my life knowing this, and in the ambient knowledge that I can’t completely relax into the comfort of my fortune. As such, my relationship to feldman-kiss’s work and what it tends to assert is a conflicted one. It attempts to speak to lives that include mine, bodies that Isabel Wilkenson describes in Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents (2020), as the vulnerable and the marginalized “subordinate’ or “lower” caste, often devalued by the state in explicit and less visible ways. But in doing so, the state obscures those who are worst off within this umbrella of representation which in turn, deepens their oppression. I think this incongruity is what makes the category of the scapegoat less rigidly defined. Our experiences inside most categories we get lumped in are complex and multifarious, hence the failure of any category’s inherent mission.

I am also aware that we continue to live in a social regime, here in Canada and beyond, overrun by cis-gendered male dominance. And, by extension, a state that lays out social and legal codes indelibly inflected by the fathomless complexities of patriarchy. In this way, I find it rather difficult to view images of men positioned as hapless victims without a critical counter-argument. Again, I do not intend to understate the consequential gravity imparted on these bodies and the psyche of the scapegoat. I do, however, think about how these proliferated statistics and spectacles of violence marginalize the concerns of those whose generally accepted data sets cannot catch. “It is common in discussions surrounding anti-Black racism to focus on the Black male body as the state’s primary target,” Robin Maynard writes in Policing Black Lives (2017). “Most literature and research focus on the means young, black heterosexual males have been demonized by popular culture and criminal justice system”, Maynard continues. “This has frequently allowed state violence against black individuals who are not young black men to go unseen and unchallenged.” What Maynard describes here is fine-tuned towards Black lives and it can’t, as an example, be necessarily adequate as an application for the gradient of complexions that are imaged in feldman-kiss’s collection. 

In addition to Black men, Black women are also often disproportionately policed, yet reports of systemic violence against them is marginalized. When it comes to getting assistance from the same police, they are neglected or receive their protestations as baseless, or provided little to no investigation, and follow-ups are rarely made. This fate aligns closely with that of Indigenous women in Canada. The embrace of carceral solutions, which by extension, is the wielding of coercive state power, fails to untangle the social realities that undergird most offenses caused by Indigenous women, low-caste women, low-income women, migrant women, and other gender minorities who are also disproportionately policed and over-represented in every phase of the criminal justice system. Commonly, these so-called offenses are committed out of survival, survival under a racist and sexist criminal and legal system. A system that, in its best interest, disregards the destructive reverberations of colonial forces in the present and the ongoing socio-economic deprivation including substandard levels of housing, education, health care, clean water, healthy food, sanitation, and increasing unemployment that commingle, and compound to drive especially Indigenous women of these lands to desperate circumstances in order to stay alive, protect themselves, and those in their care. And because of these variable oversights that are often broadly abstracted as systemic, or structural, the linkages between how these systems came to be and the lives caught in between continue to remain intangible and go unaccounted for. 

In between thinking and taking notes for this essay, I’d relisten to the record When Smoke Rises by the Toronto poet, songwriter, and folk singer Mustafa which was released to widespread acclaim in 2021. I often don’t listen to music with vocals while reading and writing, let alone music with lyrics I’m familiar with but I’d cling on it, sing along, get willfully side-tracked, and put off my task at hand for a bit longer. “The album is just under thirty minutes, after all”, I’d justify to myself. “Stay Alive, Stay Alive, Stay Alive,” in an angelic falsetto, Mustafa pleads earnestly as if on the brink of tears to an unnamed protagonist. It is a line from a track with the same name and one of his first formal releases as a musician. Mustafa, 25, grew up with his Sudanese family in Regent Park, Toronto’s largest community of social housing projects for low-income families, migrants, refugees, and Indigenous peoples. It is a community that has long been treated with neglect by the state, which is a contributing factor to the violence, gentrification, and social ills it faced over the decades. Mustafa’s music and poetry have always put his neighborhood and community into focus, trying to bring positivity into the desert of negativity. When he implores to stay alive, it's elegiac. Staying alive is the barest minimum for some as they navigate through the day and for others, it is just out of reach. When Mustafa utters those words, I can’t help but feel the agonizing strain of loss in his life, and for those around him; for lives that continue to succumb to the hostile systemic barriers that come along with being from communities such as his. Some of these lives could very well be one of the subjects of feldman-kiss’ Scapegoat photographs. 

The title of Mustafa’s album, When Smoke Rises, is the musician’s memorial tribute to Smoke Dawg, a rapper and close friend to Mustafa who lost his life to gun violence in 2018 at the age of 21. Mustafa’s mature and intertextual diction as a poet and through his music, specifically in his delivery, circumvents accepted blanket views of Black creativity—especially those from communities afflicted with constant pain and loss. Gun violence is a common cause of death in communities like Mustafa’s and surmising from the context of feldman-kiss’s subjects, a familiar source of misery. The fatalities caused by the circulation of firearms continue to be sidelined by federal legislators and public safety ministers. It remains a less than imperative issue, especially seeing as this country, Canada is geographically situated and is in close comparison to a country where gun violence is rampant and widely visible outside of state neglected communities. Because of this country’s close proximity to the United States—a place where firearms are astonishingly easy to access—along with the nearly 9000-kilometers border they share (the largest undefended border in the world), illegal firearms continue to funnel upward rather effortlessly by cross-border trafficking through rail cars, shipping containers, drone, helicopters, or simply driving up through the border. Although there are laws that guide gun possession and continued background checks for those who own them, transference of ownership through straw purchases is very much perilously possible and a sure means of how guns can move from person to person until lives are lost. 

The existence of guns themselves, in communities, especially in lower-income and under-resourced communities that causes street-level and gang-related violence like the one that took Smoke Dawg’s life - might not necessarily be the singular root of the violence it imparts. Rather, it is because of a wider, more complex configuration of factors that establishes parameters around social and economic opportunities for communities like that of Mustafa’s Regent Park neighbourhood. Gun-related fatalities, a common outcome of gang-associated activities, have been well-documented as a reflection of the social and economic inequalities that persist in marginalized communities across North America, although continually overlooked by government policymakers. Given the inherent stress and burden imposed on disadvantaged communities with meager material resources for tenable safety, adequate housing, accessible education that leads to viable employment, upward mobility, and economic survival, everything becomes a constant fight just to stay afloat. It is a fight for resources that are already scarce and a fight of whoever is the fittest, creating compromising behaviours that arise from high anxiety and desperation. Life in this way is a perpetual test of endurance - “Stay Alive, Stay Alive, Stay Alive…” 

Winnipeg, 2022

Consider the Censured (Fragments) is adapted from a forthcoming essay in the journal Public Parking.

  • Wilkerson, Isabel. Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents. New York, NY: Random House, 2020.
  • Maynard, Robyn, Policing Black Lives: state violence in Canada from slavery to the present. Winnipeg: Fernwood Publishing, 2017.
  • Manuel, George, and Michael Posluns, The Fourth World: An Indian Reality. Don Mills, Ont.: Macmillan Canada, 1974.

from refuge (SIREN) 2023 [screen grab] ©feldman-kiss & Matheuszik and 2023

Luther Konadu is an emerging visual artist, writer, and the editor for the contemporary online art publication, Public Parking which focuses on critical thought and tangential conversations. Based in Winnipeg, Konadu was born in Ontario to Ghanaian parents. He is a frequent contributor to Akimbo Blog, was a writer-in-residence at Gallery 44, and has written for Canadian Art. His studio practice primarily involves photographic portraiture but branches out to include sculptural and textual gestures. He recognizes the legacies associated to the medium of photography as an interpretive site for generating new conventions and expanding fixed narratives therein. He was the winner of a 2019 New Generation Photography Award, and has exhibited work at New York’s Aperture Foundation. His work has also appeared in the New Yorker, on, and in Border Crossings magazine.

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from refuge (SIREN) 2023 [screen grab] ©feldman-kiss & Matheuszik and 2023

nichola feldman-kiss creates across disciplines with emphasis on relational, lens and hybrid media technologies presented as social engagement, institution intervention and public installation. feldman-kiss’s process-rich research proposes identity as a fugitive concept while focusing on the body as a contested site of cultural production. The artist’s 25 year oeuvre is an ongoing critique of the Colonial paradigm. Their artworks and installations lay bare the entanglements of a global order that insist rights onto some while withholding the same entitlements from others, and ask us to reconsider difficult questions about what it means to be conscious social bodies within the contemporary moment. feldman-kiss art and technology innovations and institution interventions have been hosted by the National Research Council of Canada, the Ottawa Hospital Eye Institute, Canada's Department of National Defence, and the United Nations among others. feldman-kiss holds an MFA from California Institute of the Arts. They are is a first-generation Canadian of the Caribbean diaspora and a repatriated citizen of Germany and Jamaica live working between Toronto (Tkaronto) and rural Newfoundland (Ktaqmkuk).

from refuge (SIREN) 2023 [screen grab] ©feldman-kiss & Matheuszik and 2023

Adrienne Matheuszik is a mixed Jamaican & settler-canadian interdisciplinary artist in Toronto. Adrienne has had unsupervised access to the internet since she was nine years old. She uses computers to make art — video, physical computing, creative coding & 3D design — which usually result in interactive installations, augmented and virtual reality, short film and video. Adrienne’s work explores ideas of representation & identity online and IRL. She is interested in speculative futures and using sci-fi to examine the possibility of the post-colonial. 

from refuge (SIREN) 2023 [screen grab] ©feldman-kiss & Matheuszik and 2023

SPATIAL-ESK (aka) Samuel Kapasa is an award-winning artist, architect and web designer of Zambian heritage. His work often explores the subtle interface between art, technology and design. The theme of juxtaposition is also common to his work given his eclectic cultural experiences of living in between Canada, South Africa and the UK. He recently designed the virtual exhibition, the cut, the tear and the remix: contemporary collage and Black futures, for the McMaster Museum of Art which explores Afrofuturism and analogue and digital collage. His work has since been featured in Blueprint Design Magazine, UK where he was named “one to watch” in 2018, also in Burrasca Journal, Italy, Parksify, California and has had work exhibited at the ‘Future of Art’ exhibition at Tate Modern, London. Spatial-esk currently works out of his studio in Toronto. Website:

from refuge (SIREN) 2023 [screen grab] ©feldman-kiss & Matheuszik and 2023

feldman-kiss & Matheuszik is a Tkaronto (Toronto) based, bi-generational art and design collective established to create real world installation artworks through comprehensive digital design processes. We aim to create artworks that enable collective conversation concerning contemporary issues. Above and beyond the common themes within our respective practices, that bring attention to diaspora contemporaries and aspirational futures, our artistic glue is personal, ancestral, philosophical and methodological.

refuge (SIREN) is about urgency and repair. The artwork aims to link climate emergency with anthropogeny (the failure of perception that Nature is for humans, rather than the more reasoned, holistic and decolonial world view that humans are of Nature, part of Nature, belong to Nature and live within Nature.). refuge (SIREN) is the first work by feldman-kiss & Matheuszik, and created in collaboration with SPATIAL-ESK,


from refuge (SIREN) 2023 [screen grab] ©feldman-kiss & Matheuszik and 2023

refuge (SIREN) is a co-production of feldman-kiss & Matheuszik with Spatial-esk
Pamela Edmonds Curator McMaster Museum of Art 

refuge (SIREN) is adapted from original artworks by nichola feldman-kiss:
Siren lll 2022
the King's Two Bodies \ Scales of Justice 2016
between here and there \ Human toll 2012 
an initial aversion to the plight of the sufferer. (Pietà) 2015 - 2022 \ Scapegoat


Siren lll sound design:
Michelle Irving

Siren lll vocals:

Lodi Awad
Valerie Buhagiar
Blandine Kan
Memory Makuri
Ruth Mathiang
Leila Moslemi
Roula Said
Maryem Tollar

site specific research for the King's Two Bodies:
Vinesh Aron

between here and there \ Human toll 2012:
the Uppsala Conflict Data Program (UCDP) Battle-Related Deaths Dataset (accessed 2014 and 2016)

McMaster Museum of Art and nichola feldman-kiss gratefully acknowledge the support of the Ontario Arts Council for the production of this digital catalogue. is a project of feldman-kiss & Matheuszik generously funded by Canada Council for the Arts Digital Now 2022. Research, creation and production of SIREN, Scapegoat and the King’s two Bodies have been generously supported by the Canada Council for the Arts, Ontario Arts Council and Toronto Arts Council.

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