The experience of Azza El Siddique’s sculpture on view as part of Greater Toronto Art 2021 (GTA21) at Toronto’s Museum of Contemporary Art is immediate and multisensory. Commissioned for GTA 21, Fade into the Sun (2021) is the third iteration of Begin in Smoke, End in Ashes: a cycle of installations El Siddique built from steel, irrigation tools, water, bukhoor (wood chips, sandalwood, myrrh, rose, and frankincense compressed as incense), sandaliya (sandalwood-infused oil), heat lamps, and slip cast and raw clay objects. 


The artist — a self-described queer, immigrant woman of color born in Khartoum, Sudan — thinks across ritual, mythology, entropy, loss, and ultimately loneliness as “a tariff we each have to pay.”[1] Cultural rituals around the processes of entropy and decay, especially Ancient Sudanese and Egyptian funeral practices, provide a consistent touchstone for her installation practice.

The artist based Fade into the Sun’s structure on the burial chamber of the Nubian pharaoh Taharqa, and as installed at MOCA, where it encases four of the museum’s massive concrete supports, it alludes to the more recent architectonics of minimalism and institutional critique. Here, a central I beam stands in a shallow, terraced pool of water fed by rivulets tracing down the beam’s rusty face in slow, rhythmic drip. A square of industrial grating in cautionary red surrounds the beam. Elevated over the pool of water visible beneath, it supports a series of raw clay and slip cast ceramics that reference both cultural and family heirlooms. While the red and black slip cast figures withstand the slow barrage from above, the dripping and dripping and dripping and dripping of water becomes the gentle hammer by which raw clay becomes disfigured, transfigured with holes, decays, and eventually dissolves in the murky pool below, leaving ghostly stains of white residue on the grate. The erosion speaks to the idea of entropy — a system’s gradual and inevitable dissolution from order to chaos — and the power of memory in the face of such loss. 


Cast ceramic vessels shaped like flowers sit on shelves along the framework’s perimeter. Each holds bukhoor or sandaliya, activated by the heat of ruby red lamps below. Wafting throughout the space, bukhoor and sandaliya allude to oils used to cleanse and anoint the body in Muslim burial traditions. To pass through Fade into the Sun is to participate in a meditation on grief both past and yet-to-be; the scents transmit the idea that “death is how we understand the world,” which anchors the conceptual core of El Siddique’s practice. [2]

Azza El Siddique, Fade into the Sun, 2021, installation view, MOCA Toronto. Courtesy the artist. Photo: Toni Hafkenscheid.
Azza El Siddique, Fade into the Sun, 2021, installation view, MOCA Toronto. Courtesy the artist. Photo: Toni Hafkenscheid.

On view concurrently at Towards Gallery was fire is love, water is sorrow — a distant fire: a two-person exhibition of Azza El Siddique’s signature forms alongside paintings by her elder brother, Teto Elsiddique, who died in 2017. This moment of curatorial serendipity (or institutional synergy) allowed me to experience two distinct formal manifestations of El Siddique’s work between two completely different, albeit neighboring, contexts. 


At Towards Gallery, the artist continues to investigate the capacity of a material lexicon of steel beams and bars to denote spaces both imagined and displaced. Instead of a pharaoh's tomb, however, the floor plan from Towards Gallery’s original location serves as the source for the footprint of Azza’s installation here. The resultant gallery within a gallery structure, which provides a scaffolding for Teto’s metal-encased paintings, reads as a cognate of grief and dislocation.

fire is love, water is sorrow — a distant fire instigates a conversation between Azza’s installation and Teto’s paintings that “resonate[s] with traces of a still-trembling past.” Teto’s paintings, which range from the intimately scaled to beyond life-size, are muted, pastel trompe l'oeil constructions that push and pull between surface and depth, pattern and abstraction, figure and ground, and transfigure topographical quirks into anthropomorphized deities. 


Squatting atop a mound before a treed background, the protagonist of Teto’s most gripping canvas, A dog without a master (2017), twists awkwardly to face us. The mound and figure emerge from a superposition of textures and layered cultural iconography while the trees play shadow to a sunset of blues, pinks, orange, and yellow in the manner of J.M.W. Turner on acid. On their own, Teto’s paintings tremble against their own colors and chattering textural constituents, but in conversation with Azza’s work, they begin to settle and sit still.

Throughout fire is love, water is sorrow — a distant fire, Teto’s paintings and Azza’s installation quietly converse with the audience, drawing us into the siblings’ call and response. By turns the work of each sibling faces, abuts, nestles, and supports the other. This tactile and material interplay levies the same intimacy as a hug or a whisper. It is as intimate a gesture as can exist between two siblings, and the viewer feels as though they’ve happened on a private conversation. 


The intimacy of the installation at Towards Gallery is also indebted to Azza’s own explorations made in direct response to Teto’s paintings. Azza mapped digital scans of Teto’s paintings onto steel sheets via laser cutter, translating and layering her brother’s forms within her own material lingua franca. The artist told me that this was an effort as much to connect with Teto’s work as objects with a legacy as it was to see what the transformation would look like. It allows Teto’s forms to morph on their own in a complex choreography of entropy, decay, and chance, opening up an arena for continued conversation between the siblings, even in absentia. The same set of scans and process drawings informs a small-screen slideshow of potential paintings the artist may have made were he alive today, a work Azza describes as a “rebirth” and that inches us closer toward a digital sublime.  Azza’s re-interpretations of Teto’s work offer traces of profound grief, a reference point, an evidence of existence, a resonance. The connection and loss transmuted through the siblings’ work at Towards Gallery speaks to the intensity of grief, the fallibility of memory, and a speculative grasp toward ecstatic energies of an unfinished future.

Azza El Siddique, Fade into the Sun, 2021, installation view, MOCA Toronto. Courtesy the artist. Photo: Toni Hafkenscheid.
Azza El Siddique and Teto Elsiddique, fire is love, water is sorrow — a distant fire, 2021, installation view, Towards Gallery. Courtesy of the artist.

Azza El Siddique’s work at Toronto’s Museum of Contemporary Art for GTA 21 and Towards Gallery for fire is love, water is sorrow — a distant fire provide firm articulants of cultural and individual grief, and opportunities to unpack our own heartache. Nearly two years into a global pandemic, it can still be hard to grapple with our own ownership of grief. Culturally we ignore or deny losses incurred, hardly stopping to recognize the trauma inflicted on us all. El Siddique’s work, as evidenced across these two exhibitions, reminds us of the vitality of art and its ability to connect us to intimacy and mourning, and to hold the weight of our inheritance, however it manifests. 


1  Azza El Siddique in conversation with the author, November 15, 2021.

2  Azza El Siddique in conversation with the author, November 15, 2021.

Azza El Siddique and Teto Elsiddique, fire is love, water is sorrow — a distant fire, 2021, installation view, Towards Gallery. Courtesy of the artist.


Dana Tyrrell is an artist, curator, and writer from Niagara Falls, New York. His writing has appeared in Two Coats of Paint, Cornelia Magazine, Buffalo Rising, and Peach Mag, among others.