Talking Toronto’s Art with Mony Zakhour, Artist & Curator
I met Mony a little over a year ago during the final week of Smolik’s solo show SOFT at Cry Baby Gallery in Toronto’s Little Portugal. Here, he’s in charge of curating its mélange of exhibitions — each a far cry from the next — presenting local artists such as James Bada, Avleen Kaur, Shanna Van Maurik, Jalil Bokhari, and many more. Since the part-gallery-part-cocktail-bar’s late-2019 opening, I’ve been to a handful of its solo and group shows, with Mony humbly at the helm of them all. With each new show, it became increasingly difficult to put a label on the establishment’s identity — similar to Toronto’s art scene as a whole. All I knew was, he influences the way I — and many others — experience the talent our local artists have to offer in a fun and approachable way.
If you frequent Toronto’s west end, chances are you’ve seen his own artwork too: each a Mony-made maelstrom of colour and lines on hotspot exteriors like ella’s uncle, above Imanishi and surrounding AREA+001, and interiors like room 403 at the Gladstone, La Flaca, and The Libertine. It’s not hard to spot his organized chaos, constantly popping up in new corners of the city.
We sat down together to chat about art, life, Toronto, and a little pizza shop — Recardo’s Pizza — in a small town outside of Halifax.
A year ago, you mentioned Cry Baby Gallery’s newness made its identity a blank canvas, so to speak. How has it evolved since?
I feel like there still isn’t one. There hasn’t been a steady theme within what we do — and I think I want to keep it that way. It allows the art we show to be a bit more accessible to everybody. Once you have a fixed identity, you’re known for only that. I haven’t sat down to make the gallery a certain thing, and I like approaching it as a fun project — working with local artists. When I came on [as curator], there was an understanding that I would do whatever I want with the art space. I focus on making the gallery something we’re proud of, and [the owners] put their energy into the bar, so the two spaces elevate each other.
With no fixed theme, what’s your MO when scouting for artists?
My strategy is finding art that I think is important and has a resonating message. Art that I feel needs to be seen by our community.
In terms of the response from people walking through the door, has there been a standout successful show?
They’ve all had a great response. When we did Smolik’s show as our first big solo, it was incredible and introduced a ton of people to the space. It opened the day before we went back into a full lockdown last October, and everyone was on such a high because we had already been through months of the pandemic. The following show we did was James Bada’s 100 Heads, and that was a really fun and important show for me to do and be a part of. We were still under strict restrictions at the time, and yet, even under the regulations, we still managed to have a successful showing.
Being your first curatorial role, has there been a learning curve?
When I exhibit my own work, it’s only me that’s being affected by whether the art sells, or people show up. When I put them on for other artists, there’s more pressure because there are others involved, more moving parts, and more on the line.
The sales aspect is something I’ve learned a bit more about through this whole process. I learn something new with every show and I love working hands-on with the artists — it’s what I enjoy the most. Between Smolik and James Bada, I learned a ton, and then Avleen’s This Is Not A Happy Show was another one because it was a new experience for me to really tap into the right collectors. It was tough but it was a very important show for myself, for the artist, and for people to see.
Every single show has been a great experience and something I’m proud of.
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I learned a little bit about Mony’s life during our chat: he grew up in Nova Scotia, decided to pursue art in 2008, took a couple classes at NSCAD, moved to Japan for a year where he had his first solo show, and eventually made his way to Toronto where he’s been ever since. When you look at his body of work, there’s a shift from portraiture with abstract elements to his signature murals of unpredictable movement and shapes. I dug deeper to better understand how he views the importance of art in Toronto.
What comes to mind first when you think of the art around this city?
It’s a massive and insanely talented scene with a strong community that has definitely come together during the pandemic. I moved here 11 years ago and when I got here, I would see Elicser Elliott’s work and all these artists’ work that I’ve grown to admire. Elicser Elliott’s piece on Queen Street by Forno Cultura is relatively new. If you haven’t seen it, you must check it out.
The one that Francis Pratt did with Kizmet in the west end during summer 2020 of Ahmaud Arbery is another one — it’s incredibly powerful.
The laneways! A lot of the collaborations Murus is doing with artists like Emily May Rose, Christina Mazzulla, and others. These graffiti jams in the alleys are what I really love. In the dead of lockdown, my son and I would go for walks down different laneways to check out the jams that people were doing.
When asked about his hopes for our art scene in the next 10 years, John Tory recently listed: to have an iconic sculpture like Chicago’s Cloud Gate, more public art spread across the city, and more engagement for the hundreds of artists here. What’s on your wish list for the next decade?
Those are all good things! I think things are definitely moving in that direction — there have been a lot more city-funded projects. They want more art to beautify the neighbourhoods, they want more murals and creative approaches to public spaces. I think what needs to happen is the artists in Toronto need to be given these opportunities. There is so much talent right here and they should be working on these major projects.
How does your very first mural in Toronto compare to your most recent?
The first piece I did on a wall here was five or six years ago. It’s in an alleyway at an old restaurant called Three Hands that was run by a friend of mine, Torrie Wilson. There was a destroyed wall on its exterior and he gave me the go-ahead to do it. Actually it’s still there and hasn’t really been touched. The latest wall I did was touching up my piece inside The Libertine. With every piece, you learn. Over time, my work has grown more layers and lines that move into each other. I’ve tried to focus less on being calculated. The movement is unpredictable.
I see your work everywhere now. Do you feel like you’ve woven yourself into the city’s fabric?
It’s all right here [in west Toronto] though. I need to go further east. All of my work is between Lansdowne and Spadina. I need to get off this street. Give me a few years. Also…not being from Toronto…I wasn’t here in the early 2000’s to leave my mark or anything. I admire the community that’s here, so in terms of weaving myself into Toronto around them, there’s a lot more I need to do.
“Mony’s approach to fostering a sense of community amongst creatives and those interested in the arts comes across almost effortless. I think it’s the result of true selflessness — with him there’s no ego, just an infectious energy and forward motion that I think is evidence of someone who is just simply passionate about art.”
– Kleeshay, artist and past Cry Baby Gallery exhibitor
What does creating a sense of community for other local artists mean to you?
It means a lot to me. It’s part of, if not the, reason I got into curating. This became an opportunity for me during the pandemic, and again, I didn’t have a theme or identity in mind. I saw it as a chance to just reach out to artists right here in our community and have fun with it. We’re building something that’s for the community by the community. For anyone that’s building anything, in order to have longevity you need to listen to your community and give opportunities to those within it.
My family has a pizza shop — that we’ve had for 30-something years — and my parents are a major part of the community. I see my mom in the shop each and every day and everything I’ve learned from her is how I know to run an establishment. When you’re growing up, what do you remember? You remember the corner store, the coffee shop, the parts around you that you see often. If you’re not working to better the community, what’s the point?
I can confidently say you are shaping the way a lot of people experience art in Toronto — be it inside Cry Baby Gallery, Stackt, or on the street. How does that make you feel? Would 2008-unemployed-small-town-Mony have ever expected this?
Thank you, I appreciate that. But no, I don’t think I thought I’d be curating in a space like this ever. I think on some level I knew I’d be doing something with art, but not this. I’m of the mindset that if you constantly work at something, it has no place to go other than growing into what you want it to be. At the end of the day, we’re a bar with a gallery and we’re having a lot of fun. If we continue putting a spotlight on local art and artists, I think we can do something pretty special.
What can we expect with CBG in December?
We’re doing something with The Sad Collective from December 2 – 5. 10 artists were chosen to etch a piece on a mirror, which will then be auctioned off. The proceeds will be put towards SOFT, mico-grants of $1000 to those facing financial and systematic barriers when seeking clinical advice.
Following that, we have Paul Jackson doing a big solo show here. It’s highly anticipated and I’m so excited for it. We’ll also be exhibiting an NFT of his.
Well, that’s a wrap. Looking through the intermingled layers of Toronto’s art scene, it can be easy to lose sight of the individual voices powering its spirit. Mony is inadvertently helping connect the fibres, creating sense within the chaos and laying bare its mixed identity.
From my favourite puppies by Billy Franklin to the door I just had to have by Kleeshay, my home continues to be filled with the work of those I meet indirectly through Mony, and for that I’m pretty thankful. I definitely recommend checking out a show or two at CBG, or just strolling through the crevices of the city to find new murals, laneways, and the people behind them.
Photos by Keiron Cobban unless stated otherwise.