Ilene Sova: Unknown Relative

Ilene Sova
Unknown Relative

Ancestry / Photo / Paper / Image / Visuals

A primary exhibition for the 2022 Scotiabank CONTACT Photography Festival

CURATOR: Carla Garnet

Exhibition Dates: Thursday, June 2 to Friday, August 5, 2022
Garden Party/Opening Reception: Saturday, June 18, from 2 to 5 pm
Garden Party/Publication Launch: Saturday, September 18, from 2 to 5 pm

UNKNOWN RELATIVE:  Ancestry / Photo / Paper / Image / Visuals by
Ilene Sova is presented by the JOHN B. AIRD GALLERY in partnership with the Scotiabank CONTACT Festival of Photography.

Toronto-based artist Ilene Sova draws upon personal memory, deep family research, and familial archives to create intricate photographic collages and video works that explore the complexities of mixed-race identity and themes of African diasporic histories.

Sova’s exhibition draws upon narrative memory and ancestral reverence, taking the viewer on a journey of family migration and connection, from the islands of the Caribbean to the immigrant neighbourhoods of Toronto.  

In the course of interrogating found family photographs, the artist knits histories and ideas and relational narratives together through the poetics of creation resulting in artworks informed by cutaway Victorian patterns, images of land, water, and plants, hiding some aspects of the story, and bringing some things forward.

Sova’s photo collages create moments where the viewer experiences what the artist experienced by only seeing parts of the story and not the whole. Throughout the work, wallpaper patterns grounded in time and place act alongside evocative symbols of the falsehood of a tropical paradise.

Unknown Relative exposes the inter-relatedness of things like exhibitions, archives of family photos, and coveted family stories as they move around the globe. In trying to locate her own narrative, the artist cannot help but locate the Caribbean as a crucible of her formation, a place of invention, and the site of import and export, resulting from transatlantic slavery and plantation society in which she (and by extension we), our past and present are imbricated.

Sova received outside funding to travel to Nassau Bahamas in the winter of 2022. On this trip, she filmed sites of family and colonial history to capture footage to bring back to the exhibition for display on flat screens in the installation. According to the artist, “my ‘power of place’ videos acts as a kind of “ground-truthing” to connect the colonial sites I captured to the concepts within my photo collages”.


Ilene Sova identifies as Mixed Race, with a white settler, Afro-Caribbean, and Black Seminole ancestry. She is also an artist who lives with the disability of Epilepsy. As such, she passionately identifies with the tenets of intersectional feminism and has dedicated her creative career to art and activism. Sova is also the founder of the Feminist Art Collective and Blank Canvases, an in-school creative arts programme for elementary school students. She holds an Honours BFA from the University of Ottawa in Painting and an MFA in Painting and Drawing from the University of Windsor. With extensive solo and group exhibitions in Canada and abroad, Sova’s work has most notably been shown at the Museum of Canadian Contemporary Art, the Department of Canadian Heritage, and Mutuo Centro de Arte in Barcelona. Sova’s artwork has been featured internationally in the Journal of Psychology and Counselling, the Nigerian Arts Journal, Tabula, and the Italian feminist journal, Woman’O’Clock.

In her academic career, Sova holds the position of Ada Slaight Chair of Contemporary Drawing and Painting in the Faculty of Art at Ontario College of Art and Design University. She has been invited to speak on diversity and equity in the arts curriculum at the Art Gallery of Ontario, Pratt University, and the Association of Independent Colleges of Art and Design conference in Los Angeles. A passionate public speaker, Sova was chosen to speak at the first TEDx Women event in Toronto, and Southern University New York where she gave a University Lecture on Art and Social Change. Additionally, Sova was invited to deliver the Arthur C. Danto Memorial Keynote Lecture at the 76th Annual Meeting of the American Society for Aesthetics (ASA). Sova’s exhibitions and advocacy in education have been featured on Global Television, CBC Radio, the Toronto Star, Canada AM, The Metro, National Post, Canadian Art, and MSN News.

To read Ilene Sova’s CV click here.
Presented in partnership with the Scotiabank Contact Photography Festival.

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