Article originally written for and published in the Oakwood Village Magazine 2022 – full magazine online here: https://tinyurl.com/OakwoodVillageMag
Words by NIA Centre for the Arts
Who We Are
Nia Centre for the Arts is a charitable organization that is committed to supporting creative youth and professional artists by connecting them to mentorship and opportunities. “Nia” is a Swahili word that means purpose. When we began our journey back in 2009, we knew that our work would focus on serving those who have found their purpose in the arts.
Black creatives are often excluded from traditional art spaces because their stories do not fit into traditional Canadian narratives. We create spaces where youth can engage in Black culture in a way that is uplifting, without the burden of stereotypes. Since we began our work, we have seen time and time again that the support of mentors and a community of peers is an essential step in youth developing healthy identities.
Our programming model connects young people to artistic mentors, provides them with opportunities to meet like-minded peers, and opens the doors for them to develop their craft professionally. In the last decade, we’ve created a community of young people who have grown up with the Centre, honing their craft with us at each stage of their journey. Now, we’re taking on our most ambitious project yet.
Photo Caption: NIA Centre Mural (Photo Credit: Selina McCallum @shotbyselina)
Our founders recognized that there was a critical need to address the lack of spaces to nurture and promote Black artistic traditions. From the beginning, our vision was to create a physical space that could bring our community together and serve as a platform for artists to connect with new audiences. In 2015, we made a leap toward this milestone, when we secured space at 524 Oakwood Ave. We are now renovating this building into Canada’s first professional multidisciplinary Black arts centre. Measuring in at 14,000 sq ft, The Centre will soon be a space for artists and the community to connect to each other through art.
As a Black organization, it means a lot to us to be able to open our doors in a historically Caribbean neighborhood. The 524 Oakwood building has lived many lives. In the 1930s, the address belonged to the independent, family- owned Grant Theatre. Later, in the 1960s, the building became Isabella’s Ballroom, a reggae and calypso nightclub that community members often come into The Centre to reminisce about. In its most recent history, the building served as a Toronto Public Health site until 2013.
Toronto is changing rapidly, and we continue to see that Black communities are left underserved as the city reinvents itself. We believe that we need to support and protect the artists who are going to make sure that Black Canadians end up in our history books, in art galleries, and in our museums. We look forward to making a positive contribution to the neighborhood by bringing the artists who tell our stories right into the heart of Oakwood Village.
Photo Caption: The Centre under construction in 2021. (Photo Credit: Nia Centre for the Arts).
In October 2020, we launched a full reconstruction of the building. Each floor of the building will provide opportunities for artists and youth to thrive. The Centre offers performance spaces, gallery space, an artist studio, coworking spaces, a digital media lab and a youth hub. As we continue to build in the community, , we look forward to creating a legacy, through the arts.
In the meantime, while our space is under construction, we bring art outside
Photo Caption: Curtia Wright (@curtia) painting at 529 Oakwood Ave (Photo Credit: Selina McCallum).
When we opened our doors, we knew we wanted to involve youth in creating art for the neighborhood. Last summer, (in collaboration with STEPS Public Art, Loma Agency, and the Oakwood Village BIA) we brought muralist Curtia Wright into Oakwood Village to paint a vibrant mural. Her colourful addition titled ‘Celebrating Black Queer Lives’
Curtia’s mural is an example of the holistic programming model that Nia Centre offers. That same summer, Curtia taught three young people how to build their own mural – using the Nia Centre as their backdrop. It can be hard to get the confidence and skills to create a mural, and this was a great opportunity for them to work under Curtia’s guidance. The young artists practiced their skills, laughed with each other, and created works we are proud to share with the neighborhood.
As we have expanded, it has become more important to us to make sure we remain connected to youth and artists in Oakwood Village. Our doors are open for creative minds in the neighborhood to make use of our space and our services. Eglinton-West is undergoing a major transition, and we know that too often our stories are forgotten. As a community organization with deep roots in the neighborhood, Nia Centre is committed to making sure that the histories and stories of Afro-diasporic people in Oakwood Village are preserved. We look forward to having you all in the space when we open our doors in the Fall.
Support Us by Showing Up
We know that Black artists are still creating at the margins. Despite the fact that Black creatives have put Toronto on the map, the traditional art world often does not want to hear their stories, and spaces remain financially inaccessible.
That reality changes when people show up to support. At Nia Centre, we break down the barriers that make it difficult to find Black artists and engage with the talent that is right on the surface in our community. We look forward to seeing everyone in Oakwood Village come through our doors to share in the celebration of the artists who define this city.
As we get closer to our opening, stay connected with us for updates on social media @niacentre and through our website www.niacentre.org
We rely on donations to be able to support Black artists. Donations to Nia Centre for the Arts can be made through www.niacentre.org/donate