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  • Writer's pictureChiara Greco

Building Connection in Toronto's Art Scene

A profile on Toronto-based artist Misbah Ahmed

photo credi: wix media

Chiara Greco, Nutgraf Press Creator


disclaimer: this article was written, submitted and graded for credit as part of course requirement

Huge windows, an atrium and exposed brick walls make Misbah Ahmed’s studio the perfect place for ideas to flow without judgement. Her studio sits in the heart of downtown Toronto, a place she has called home since the early 2000s. Ahmed shares the space with three other artists, but her corner of the room is littered with wooden canvases, stacked sketchbooks, half finished oil paintings from ideas sprung at midnight and easels of all different sizes. It’s a studio characterized by chaos, but Ahmed says it’s home to her creativity.

Born on September 3, 1994 in Pindi, Pakistan, Ahmed and her family moved to Toronto when she was just 6 years old. It’s her birthplace and upbringing that inspires much of the creativity that takes place in her downtown studio. “I was always a creative child and I loved to paint, but I was discouraged to go down the artist path because in Pakistan and in my family’s view it wasn’t a viable option,” says Ahmed.

Primarily a visual, ceramics and multidisciplinary artist, Ahmed’s work focuses on nostalgia, the duality of the human experience and connection. Her work often explores her multiple origins through different mediums and is characterized by warm tones, colours and textures.

As a child, Ahmed used art as an escape. The process of creating art was a cathartic outlet that allowed her to represent her sense of self in a physical medium. It was the one way she was able to feel connected to her emotions.

After moving through high school as a disciplined student, Ahmed ended up feeling lost, and didn’t know which path to follow. She loved art but was scared to choose it as a career. On a whim she applied to the Ontario College of Art and Design (OCAD) and in 2018 graduated with a bachelor of design and illustration. She now works as an instructor at the university. However, while in art school, the cathartic release she once got from putting her paintbrush onto a canvas quickly disappeared.

“I started disconnecting my emotions from my work in art school. [...] After graduating I had to establish the connection to myself with art again and it took a lot of work,” says Ahmed. This reconnection with herself took on the form of her thesis project, which she still considers a huge accomplishment.

“My thesis was about liminal spaces and how people of colour often exist in the margins of society and how they connect to places. The project was me trying to tap into familial identity but also talk about other people too,” says Ahmed. It was this project that led Ahmed to resolve her relationship with art.

Since graduating, Ahmed has done three solo exhibits and a handful of group exhibits. Her solo exhibits at Xpace Gallery, Trinity Square and The Loon are some of her proudest achievements. These were focused on Ahmed’s core goal as an artist. “I want to be able to tell the stories that don’t get represented, to take a little moment in life and make it big,” says Ahmed.

Much of her art focuses on the concept of connection and creating shared identity between people across cultural borders. In 2021, at the height of the pandemic Ahmed exhibited her project Belonging to Each Other with Xpace Gallery. The project was a mural painted on fabric depicting a desert landscape. At the time, the world was in lockdown and was void of the cultural connections that had always been shared. It was a moment of pause for everyone and a crucial moment for the power of art.

Melina Mehr, a Toronto-based art curator, saw Ahmed’s Belonging to Each Other mural for the first time in the dead of winter. Ahmed’s mural hung in a huge window by a bus stop on the corner of Lansdowne and Dundas at Xpace. “It was massive and all encompassing,” says Mehr, “I remember it was freezing outside but the mural had the feeling of warmth, it was like I was being wrapped in a blanket. It just hit me in a very nostalgic place. It brought me back to the Middle East where I grew up.”

Mehr says that even though she was bundled up and shivering in the Toronto snow, the mural made her feel safe. “Looking at it I wasn’t thinking about lockdowns or the pandemic, it gave me the chance to return to a more serene environment.” As buses traveled by her and masked strangers crossed the intersection Mehr was lost in the mural. “You get to feel private with the work but at the same time part of this larger ecosystem,” Mehr says. The piece did exactly what Ahmed hoped for, it created connection.

This piece is representative of the breadth of work Ahmed does. “When I’m creating pieces like the Xpace one, I’m recreating versions of myself,” says Ahmed. Her work is largely inspired by history and personal lived experience and her creative process follows this inspiration. “I always start by researching and reading and then I throw myself into the work,” she says.

Though Ahmed has won awards, received grants and exhibited her pieces she says she’s always looking forward to what's to come. This year she hopes to finish a new project, a series of textured paintings depicting Greek mythology and Pakistani history through a feminist lens. As I finish my interview with Ahmed, she’s on her way back to her studio, where she’s in the process of completing her next proudest moment.

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