#KeepingThatEnergy with Storyteller Ayo Tsalithaba - Nia Centre for the Arts

#KeepingThatEnergy with Storyteller Ayo Tsalithaba

By Nia Centre, p
Posted on May 26, 2022

When the pandemic began in 2020, artists were some of the hardest hit people in our community. Faced with precarious employment, lack of resources and a sudden lack of opportunity: many saw their careers halted, abruptly. Despite this, we needed art more than ever. Everyday, local artists logged online and brought their talent to our new digital reality. 

We created #KeepThatEnergy as an ode to the artists who carried us through the pandemic. At the two year anniversary of this project, we caught up with director Ayo Tsalithaba to chat about their creative process and their vision for the future. 

Ayo directing a music video.

For those who don’t know, who is Ayo Tsalithaba? 

Professionally, I’m a visual artist, writer and researcher. I sometimes call myself a storyteller, because that’s what I truly feel a calling to and it allows me to say “I talk a lot” without explicitly saying that. 

What (or who) inspires you to create art? 

I’m most inspired by the difficult feelings I have that make it hard to want to communicate. A lot of the art that I’ve made recently (or at least in this new phase of my artistic career) is centered around a couple of those difficult fuzzy feelings. I’ve explored struggles with gender identity, frustrations around experiences of anti-Black racism, grief and loss in my work in a variety of ways. 

What kept you going throughout the pandemic?

Honestly, the beginning of the pandemic was a lot easier than this current phase we’re in. What kept me going at the beginning was hope. Unfortunately that didn’t last as long as I would have liked. As the pandemic itself is ongoing, hope has been difficult to hold on too. 

Right now, anger is the easiest feeling for me to access. I absolutely have love in my life, but I think anger has been extremely present for me precisely because there are so many people that I love and want to see survive this. Anger is also there because there are people that I will never see again - and that’s me just being real. I think I will just be angry about that forever, which isn’t ok but it’s my reality.

What was your creative process while making #KeepThatEnergy? 

It feels pretty far away now, but I got to work with the folks over at Pique who I always love to collaborate with. Something that was really important was connecting with artists in our community. Like, really connecting and thinking about what we would showcase them doing that made sense for them. Also constant communication - Imad (executive producer at Pique) and I were going back and forth quite a bit to make sure we were on the same page about things and coordinating the shoots. This was the first time that we were working virtually so that was a bit of a challenge, but it worked out well!

What did creating the video teach you about yourself and about your community of local artists?

It taught me just how important peer and lateral validation is. People really needed motivation and were feeling a bit lost at that point, so the response was really positive. I think it was nice to have that for myself as well, because it reminded me how important it was to lean on and carve out opportunities for community when you’re feeling off-balance.

Ayo behind the scene.

The Nia Centre is building Canada’s first, multidisciplinary Black Arts facility. As an artist, what does having a space like this, in Toronto, mean for you? 

It means a lot, because it is extremely important for any and every kind of artist to have access to arts facilities, programming, mentorship and both physical and community infrastructure. I was supported in my artistic endeavors as a kid, which is why I am the artist that I am today. I try to pay that forward in every way I can, so I’m really excited to be able to direct people to a Black Arts facility.

As an artist, what does a utopian Toronto look like for you? 

That’s a tough question, but I think a utopian Toronto looks very different from the Toronto we’re seeing right now that is unbelievably violent towards basically every marginalized community you can think of. I would love to see a Toronto without cops or at the very LEAST one where they are actually held accountable for their actions and not just funded more to commit atrocities. 

I’d love for Toronto to actually behave like the sanctuary city it supposedly is. I’d love not just a more accessible Toronto but one that doesn’t punish disabled people for wanting to exist in this city. I’d love a Toronto that is not violently anti-Black and anti-Indigenous. One where housing and food security are a given. Where people can move freely. A Toronto with cool public art, where people can occupy public space without being displaced and punished.

What words of wisdom would you give a young/emerging artist? 

Reach out to people and just ask if there are opportunities available for you to be involved in projects. You’d be surprised just how many roles are out there that you may not otherwise hear about. Also, put money aside for your taxes and keep track of the money you’re spending on your craft, keep all of your invoices for the year in one place. Create a spreadsheet where you’re tracking your earnings and expenses - it will really come in handy!

Are you working on anything right now? 

I just co-directed a Heritage Minute on Jackie Shane, so keep an eye out for that! And I’m trying to write a couple of shorts and film them sometime next year.

You can follow Ayo on Instagram and Twitter at @AyoTsalithaba. Visit their website here.


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