Four years of International Development Studies at the University of Toronto taught me several things, the most influential being, that the key to successful international development starts at the community level. And so, for the past 10+ years I have dedicated my days to supporting amazing nonprofits in program management, event production, workshop facilitation and communications. By night, I save the world. Okay, I don’t exactly “Save Thee World,” - I create work that evokes empathy, love, humour and compassion. Errrr, I take that back, I DO save the world! *Flip hair emoji*
In 2011, my first series, Mental Health: a mother's burden, was exhibited at The Gladstone Hotel. The series depicted an Habesha (someone of Ethiopian or Eritrean descent) family unaware that their wife/mother is depressed. Viewers stood in tears staring at the photo essay and almost immediately opened up a discussion on mental health and depression in my and other culturally adjacent communities in Toronto. A response to the need of my community, and myself, I am thankful that the Ontario Arts Council has funded the expansion of this series, of which is currently in progress.
In a past life, I was a Commercial Photographer and Creative Director. I worked with start-ups and government to develop brand strategies and marketing materials that told the story of their work. To see some of these works, check out my portfolio.
In 2016, my pitch for a new show about four virgins gallivanting through the dating scene as millennials and women of colour, lead me to receive an artist residency in Palomino, Colombia. There, I woke up to the sounds of the ocean, ate empanadas & platanos and wrote what would become my first baby, "virgins!". In 2017, I was accepted into the Regent Park Film Festival's screenwriting incubator and in January of 2018, with a cast and crew of 33, we filmed the beginnings of "virgins!". We screened our concept trailer to a sold out audience at “FOURTH BASE with virgins!” - our official launch party - and as one fan put it, "A show about four women of colour chilling and talking over food, it's the Sex and the City I've always wanted." Currently, the series is in development - wish us luck!
After exhibiting Mental Health: a mother's burden, a lot of young folks began reaching out to me for mental health counsel and support. They were desperate for mental health education, counselling and support from someone that looked like them and could relate to the culturally specific barriers African immigrant communities have to mental health care. In short, they were looking for help that weren’t white psychiatrists prescribing antidepressants and yoga. In October 2018, seven years after exhibiting Mental Health: a mother’s burden and countless hours providing one-on-one community support, I co-founded Art + Health, a mental health initiative for culturally-specific communities of colour.
Art + Health works with local health organizations and cultural associations to deliver our culturally aware mental health and wellness program entitled Kitchen Table Talks (KTT). An integral part of our program is the feast. We have guided discussions while eating at the “kitchen table” and in sharing a meal with one another, folks begin opening up to share more about themselves including their mental health. Our workshops were funded thanks to generous partnerships, volunteerism and community outreach. In 2019 (this year), Art + Health received 3-year funding from the Ontario Trillium Foundation to continue running KTT specifically for the Habesha community in Toronto.
Bringing it back! I am an intentional storyteller whose culturally-specific work, speaks volumes to the communities I create for. Whether it be: creating conceptual photo essays; advocating for mental health promotion; directing commercials for government campaigns; managing the brand and communications of a not-for-profit organization; or screenwriting an original series, I create as a means not an end, and always have a greater vision for where my work (be it storytelling or advocacy) can take me and my community.
Pssst! I am available for local and international projects as well as a chat over coffee.
Portraits of Aden Abebe by Natalia Dolan Photography