Denyse Thomasos: Just Beyond is on view at the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) from now until February 20. The exhibition asserts the relevance and beauty of the work by Trinidadian-Canadian artist Denyse Thomasos, who was an alum of the University of Toronto and died in 2012. 

Her large body of work, which uses traditional architectural lines over colourful expressionist bursts, focuses on the prison-industrial complex, the transatlantic slave trade, and the importance of activism. To learn more about the development of Thomasos’s work over the years and her experience during her study at U of T, The Varsity visited the exhibition and interviewed Thomasos’ painting professor at UTM, John Armstrong, who is currently teaching in the art and art history programs. 

Thomasos as student

In an interview with The Varsity, Armstrong said that he first met Thomasos when she was a first-year student in 1983. He taught her in the Painting I and II courses and worked with her over the summer of 1986 to create “Till the River,” a large-scale mural in the entrance lobby of the North Building at Erindale College, now called UTM.

Armstrong described Thomasos as an outgoing person with a great sense of humour who was ambitious and focused on being an artist. “[She would] joke with people and tease them,” Armstrong said with a smile on his face. “She was a lot of fun to have around.” 

Thomasos was supportive of other students in her cohort, some of whom remained her lifelong friends, including Michelle Gay, now a practicing artist in Toronto. Armstrong noted that Thomasos was outspoken and at times contestatory during critiques. “She was dogged in her pursuit of her point of view,” said Armstrong. “If she was getting frustrated, [or] she wasn’t making enough progress, sometimes she would stand on a stool to make her argument during critiques.”

According to Armstrong, Thomasos was interested in figurative painting and the art history of the nineteenth century French Romanticism period when she was a student. She was inspired by the work of Théodore Géricault, which she saw during a study abroad trip to New York with other students and faculty in the program. She was also inspired by the large scale of work by and painterly approach of the artist Eric Fischl, whose work she came across during a field trip to the AGO with Armstrong’s class in the fall of 1985.

“The most pressing issue for Thomasos as a student, which continued throughout her life, was grappling with racism and anti-racism, especially the transportation of slaves across the Atlantic,” said Armstrong. 

During her student life at UTM, Thomasos was part of the African and Caribbean Student Association, where she took part in the campus anti-apartheid movement. She participated in a demonstration at UTSG, entering the council chamber in Simcoe Hall and standing on the tables, pressing the Senate to divest from South Africa. This experience became the subject of her future works, which centred on her personal and political conflicts surrounding the transatlantic slave trade.

Thomasos was in the second class that Armstrong ever taught in 41 years of teaching at UTM. He remained close friends with Thomasos throughout her life, eventually giving a eulogy at her funeral in 2012 at the request of her family. 

The process

The work displayed in the exhibition moves through the timeline of Thomasos’ life’s work to emphasize that each painting is a part of a larger artistic process, a process through which Thomasos finds political interest and falls deeply in love with painting. 

Walking into the exhibition, you come face-to-face with her piece “Babylon” (2005). Its sheer size and wealth of colours is overwhelming. It includes many little buildings, which look like classic architectural sketches, with graffiti-like paint tracing their outlines. It is a culmination of all Thomasos worked toward in her artistic career, but, upon entering the exhibition, you don’t know it yet. 

From there, curators Renèe van der Avoird, Sally Frater, Michelle Jacques, and Remai Modern never let the viewer forget Thomasos’ lifetime of artistic development and work by weaving you through the various stages of her career. 

Thomasos’ passion for architecture grew from her childhood in Trinidad and her travels to her ancestral homes of West Africa and East Asia, where she saw many different styles of homes and domestic structures. She began to focus on what the many lines of architectural drawings symbolized the metaphorical barriers they created. 

In her work, Thomasos creates prisons and cityscapes, all of which emerge through precise, methodical lines throughout the exhibition. Guest Curator Sally Freighter points out that, to Thomasos, the line was a way to express different styles of architecture. The line seems innocuous, but it is the building block used to create the spaces that oppress people — it is a path to controlling people, and therefore, she could manipulate it to create oppressive worlds. 

As a child, Thomasos was shy and reserved until she discovered painting. Then she began demanding paints and art lessons. Her work is not just about activism, but a meaningful connection to art itself. The exhibition displays her early sketches, which are bursting with excitement about the pieces they could become. 

By the time you get to her work from the 1990s, Thomasos has combined her artistic interest with a deep political consciousness that leads to a more abstract style. The structures of slave ships informed her work, and she aimed to capture their shape with haunting accuracy for works like “Dos Amigos” (1993). 

Leaving this particular exhibition, the complicated lines and dimensions of “Babylon” (2005) finally make sense. Though at one point you might have been confused, now you see a city, a place of refuge for those turned away. Her love of painting and political fire is built up throughout the exhibition to create a complete image of what it means to be a true artist. 

As fellow students at U of T, we are deeply inspired by Thomasos’ achievements. Her work at the AGO has encouraged us to strive for excellence as we continue to develop our artistic careers. Denyse Thomasos: Just Beyond is on view until February 20, which students under 25 are able to attend for free through the AGO. We encourage you to visit the exhibition to learn more about the life and work of our alumni artist.