Luminato Festival abruptly cancelled an exhibit by an Indigenous collective. Here’s the story behind the controversial decision

The Museum of Water started on a London street corner in 2013. An exhibit by British artist Amy Sharrocks, it was a tribute to water and a celebration of its significance. Sharrocks spent years collecting the specimens: vials of floodwater, containers of tears shed in grief and ecstasy, aromatic samples of sewer runoff, droplets that evoked the feeling of rocks rubbed smooth by rivers. The project became a meeting place, a space for reflection on the range of human experience.

Sharrocks toured the show to other cities: Glasgow, Rotterdam, Perth. Four or five years ago she began thinking about Ontario as a next stop. Bordered by a gorgeous lake, Toronto could combine large-scale performance with poignant dialogue on the role of water in humanity’s ways of life. It was also a natural place to foreground Indigenous voices well-acquainted with water and its histories.

Enter Luminato Festival. Luminato has a history of curating big work, much of it Instagram-friendly. You may recall the festival’s takeover of the Yonge-Dundas Square billboards earlier this summer, or the enormous disco ball of 2016. Luminato partnered with Sharrocks to form an Indigenous art collective based in Toronto. The work they created together was to be presented as the “Um of Water,” at Luminato in June 2022.

The “Um of Water” collective — comprised of Indigenous artists and curators Sara Roque, Leslie McCue and Elwood Jimmy — programmed a series of talks; a medicine walk; meditations along the Humber River; sunrise and sunset paddleboard sessions; a feast and much more. In a unique innovation, Ontario’s water would be an equal collaborator in every event — a paid, protected artist itself.

The “Um of Water” was to be a milestone, a reimagining of Sharrocks’s original idea and a beautiful collaboration in Toronto public art. Instead, an abrupt cancellation two days before the festival, with apologies from Luminato on social media, have rattled Toronto’s arts community.

“Luminato takes full responsibility for the mistakes which led to the cancellation of this project and we are deeply sorry,” a Twitter statement read, linking to an official statement from the festival. The decision, Luminato said, was mutual — “a result of discussions between the ‘Um of Water’ collective and the festival.” In its apology, it referenced “internalized colonial systems and perspectives,” acknowledging that the festival had “engaged with Indigenous artists in ways that negatively affect some members of the Indigenous arts community.”

The “Um of Water” artists responded with a press release of their own. Shocked by the cancellation, they charged the festival with a lack of accountability and criticized it for a culture of white supremacy. “This is not an isolated occurrence at Luminato, this is part of a repeating pattern of harmful behaviours against Indigenous communities,” their statement read. “These routinely extractive habits result in the accumulation of toxicity in bodies and shared spaces.”

Two months after cancellation, the collective calls what happened at Luminato “disrespectful and unethical.” The artists describe a difficult rehearsal process marred by poor communication, lack of support and disrespect. They allege that although their invoices have been paid, not all affiliated artists’ fees have been paid in full.

Museum of Water was shown at the Arches Behaviour Festival in Glasgow in 2015, at the beautiful Glasgow Botanic Gardens.

And in late July Sharrocks sent an email to Luminato with a request for financial transparency and a series of new demands. That was a week or so before the Guardian reported that Sharrocks was part of a trio of artists offered a six-figure settlement by the Tate museum, in London, over claims of discrimination, victimization and harassment after a cancelled show there. (While the Tate agreed to settle, it did not admit liability.)

In her email to Luminato, signed “Um of Water,” Sharrocks asked that the remainder of the $156,000 budget earmarked by Luminato for “Um of Water” be paid out to the artist collective — with an equitable amount paid to the water. The email also asked for a $9,000 hosting fee, and for funds to support the collective’s mental and physical well-being during their healing process.

How did an ambitious collaboration borne of hope and good intentions sour so irrevocably? And what happens next with an exhibit that has been eagerly anticipated for more than a year?

“Um of Water” had a soft launch last fall. The show was originally to premiere at Luminato 2021, but when COVID-19 forced programming online, the collective created a virtual platform inviting audiences to reconsider their relationships with water — how they might use it in day-to-day life, how they might give back to the water and protect it from pollution. The website was a teaser for the collective’s in-person 2022 programming, according to collective member Leslie McCue, an artist, performer and arts administrator from the Mississaugas of Curve Lake First Nation.

The first signs of friction emerged as the “Um of Water” pivoted back to an in-person model. McCue and her colleague Elwood Jimmy, an artist and arts manager with groups like Musagetes, recall that Luminato offered them a contract, but they were unwilling to sign it without significant amendments, including specific clauses protecting the safety of the Indigenous artists on the project. The collective had engaged several Indigenous artists and elders and wanted to ensure they were treated fairly.

“We felt the contract they initially proposed to us was all about accountability, responsibility and the safety of Luminato,” said Jimmy in an interview. “But it wasn’t reciprocal at all. So we countered with amendments to the contract as well as recommendations around safety of Indigenous people … But they asked us to draft that contract for them.”

In an email to the Star, a representative for Luminato said the “Um of Water” collective was provided with a “standard” contract, functionally identical to those provided to other festival contractors.

“And we said no,” said Jimmy. “That’s not our responsibility … If you’re the engager, that’s not our labour. We’re not doing that. In the end, Luminato decided, rather than do the labour of writing a contract that was equitable to both parties, they just told us to invoice them.”

The absence of a contract wasn’t the only issue. Festival personnel assigned to work with the collective over the course of the past year, according to Luminato, included artistic director Naomi Campbell and two producers: Sonia Sakamoto-Jog, a former executive director of the Reel Asian Film Festival and manager at the Art Gallery of Ontario, and Alison Wong, an artist and performer herself. Staff began meeting with the collective weekly, starting in November. Still, the “Um of Water” trio said lapses in communication made the creation process a frustrating one. According to McCue, they weren’t provided with an adequate production schedule, only the dates of the festival, which meant deadlines for marketing and publicity often came as a surprise. “Deadlines were shared with us consistently with a 24-hour turnaround,” said Jimmy in an interview.

In statements, Luminato has apologized for not giving enough resources or support to the project, but its account differs on some of the details; a representative said the festival provided “a written program schedule” based on the collective’s proposed program and that key deliverables were reviewed with the collective at the weekly working meetings.

Another point of contention for the artists was the programming’s marketing. Materials went public without approval from the collective, its members said. They took particular exception to an infographic that claimed “Um of Water” events were perfect for “artists, nature lovers or anyone who practices meditation.” The collective found this “a gross misrepresentation of the project.”

A representative from Luminato said in an email to the Star that marketing copy for the website and brochure was written collaboratively during weekly meetings, with the language adapted to reach different audiences. The disconnect may have come from the disparate aims of the two parties: the artists wanted to centre the work in its artistic and political aims, with Indigenous aesthetics and values at the heart of the show. For festivals, on the other hand, marketing is typically a tool to bring in more visitors. If there was consultation and collaboration, the artists firmly believe there wasn’t enough.

By the time marketing materials had gone live, the “Um of Water” collective had engaged a third-party Indigenous communicator, a mediator to liaise with the festival about marketing and, later, the festival’s apologies. The collective felt Luminato staff did not have a nuanced enough understanding of the project’s Indigenous framework. (The collective declined the Star’s requests for an interview with the communicator.)

In May, the collective met with senior leadership staff and raised their concerns about the lack of resources and the way festival producers were handling their project. Then, a week before the festival, things came to an impasse. By late May the artists had grown alarmed that Luminato had not yet rented key audio equipment they needed for an “Um of Water” boat tour near Woodbine Park. The exhibit was a sonic art piece on the boat, and included an Indigenous elder and a commissioned musician. The sets of headphones required had been placed on hold. However, on a site visit — which the collective believes should have happened much earlier — each set turned out to require a mixer or receiver. These, according to another Luminato staffer who stepped in to help, were now impossible to procure in the current rental climate. The collective was frustrated by the planning failure on the festival’s part. In emails shared by the collective, the staffer said the rental company had sold out and put a moratorium on new rentals; the collective said they found the staffer “unsupportive.”

During a contentious meeting, collective member Roque, a filmmaker and Indigenous Arts Officer with the Ontario Arts Council who was overseeing the sonic art piece, suggested calling the whole thing off — something the group told the Star later was “clearly” never a serious offer. “In exasperation and troubleshooting mode … she suggested that if those elements were not confirmed, we should consider cancelling it,” the group told the Star via email.

Luminato CEO Celia Smith was present at the meeting. “There was a lot of discussion about the state of the project, a lot of views expressed that it was not in good shape,” she recalled in an interview. “And the collective did not feel like it could proceed in the current way. We all discussed this … Could we take parts of it? If we really applied ourselves to part of it would that work? There was a discussion from everybody about triaging this to see what could happen.”

On June 7, just two days before the proposed opening of the “Um of Water” programming, Sakamoto-Jog went to Roque’s home with homemade custard tarts and a shocking update about the project: “Um of Water’s” programming would not be presented at the 2022 Luminato Festival.

Sakamoto-Jog had joined Luminato in January; she learned of the extent of the logistical problems with the “Um of Water” programming in late May. “I think that’s the first indication we had that, that some of the details that were necessary to really present this fully were not in place in the way that we’d hoped and that there was some dissatisfaction from the collective about the process,” she told the Star. “The project — it did not feel ready. I was responding to concerns that Sara had raised and what would be needed to present it properly … So I was trying to have a conversation with her about that, which we did.”

She followed up with the collective in an email. “Luminato will not be able to deliver the care and respect that the work deserves,” Sakamoto-Jog wrote to the collective. “I feel strongly that it will do more damage to all involved if we continue to persist, with the little time and human resources that we have available.”

Ultimately, given components of the project simply wouldn’t be ready in time, cancellation seemed the best option, Sakamoto-Jog told the Star. “The project was about a series of presentations … Pulling out some components and presenting them instead of others was not a fair or adequate presentation of the work as a whole,” she said.

Museum of Water was shown at the Arches Behaviour Festival in Glasgow in 2015.

But the collective was stunned. Just that morning, Luminato had confirmed a British Airways flight to Canada from the U.K. for Sharrocks. The previous day, Sakamoto-Jog had said in an email that while it was clear the festival had “communicated timelines poorly and caused undue stress” to the collective, the festival wanted “to continue to work with (the collective) to determine what we can accomplish in the time that we have that we can feel good about sharing.” That week, a new Indigenous production manager they had brought on had sourced the receivers needed for the boat tour. And the collective had finally received a contract from Luminato. “There’s a quote there,” McCue said in June. “‘We look forward to working with you and trust that you will find the experience with the festival to be exciting and enjoyable.’ Just three days later to let us go …”

The artists felt the project was still salvageable. “We were actually willing to take on a lot of the producer roles, the production management roles Luminato had not provided,” Jimmy said.

Prior to May, McCue added, “we were doing some of those producing roles as a collective. We created a production schedule, we created a to-do list, those things never existed.”

But now it was cancelled.

“It was just awful. It was a humiliating act by the festival,” said Sharrocks in an interview. She still came to Canada and met with the collective. “They are the most extraordinary artists I’ve ever worked with —brilliant, and generous and extraordinary thinkers,” she said. “I am so glad to know them. It’s been really an extraordinary time of thinking and care and investigation.” That didn’t change her opinion about Luminato and “how far they’d fallen short as a festival.”

It’s not the first time Luminato has faced controversy. In 2015, the festival hosted a panel on the ethics of programming “Exhibit B,” created by a white South African artist and featuring Black artists playing key moments in Black history, often in shackles and chains, to confront the tradition of 19th-century human zoos. The show had made waves after its debut at the prestigious Edinburgh Festival in Scotland, where even some of the performers were confused about the project’s aim. Luminato had considered mounting the exhibit, but after rumours circulated and detractors in Toronto criticized the idea, they decided against it. A roundtable about the play went forward instead.

According to Denise Bolduc, the “Um of Water” case also isn’t the first time Luminato has demonstrated a failure to adequately support and advocate for Indigenous artists. Bolduc, an Anishinaabe and French artist and producer who was involved with “Um of Water” early on, has worked with Luminato for five years and led several programs there, including the 2017 opening event “Tributaries,” a four-part series of performances. Luminato 2022 screened her film “Zaagidiwin,” which reflects on social responsibility and examines the relationship between humans and nature. But Bolduc chose not to attend in a demonstration of solidarity with the “Um of Water” collective.

Bolduc described her own contract work with Luminato as “consuming, intense and exhausting.” In a debrief after her work, she pointed out her difficult and disappointing experiences with the festival. She’s disappointed the “Um of Water” collective has been treated “so poorly.”

When sent Bolduc’s allegations, a representative for Luminato called Bolduc a “respected arts leader and curatorial associate,” before saying that Luminato “listens to the arts community’s valuable criticism so that (they) can do better.”

But Luminato’s apologies to the “Um of Water” collective have been their own point of conflict. Its public apology received negative feedback in comments on social media. The collective’s members later told the Star they had been sent Luminato’s apology but not given sufficient time to provide feedback before the apology went public. The festival then posted a second apology. That statement, in the collective’s opinion, still didn’t make it clear that the cancellation had been Luminato’s decision and not the artists’. The artists then met with Sakamoto-Jog on a Zoom call to discuss the second apology, but the meeting didn’t alleviate their concerns. Back home in Britain, Sharrocks was indignant. “If the manner of your apology is as offensive as the original offence, what’s the point?” she said with a sigh.

A later social media post from Luminato offered an FAQ about the “Um of Water,” detailing why it had been cancelled, whether the artists had been paid and the next steps for the festival in this matter.

Celia Smith told the Star she takes full responsibility for what happened. “Our job is to produce work and share artists’ creations with the world. So it is entirely on us to get this stuff out and produced,” she said. “We want to manifest people’s ideas. So that’s what we tried to do. And we weren’t able to do it.”

Matters continue to unfold. After Luminato cancelled “Um of Water” programming, it promised the artists’ fees would still be paid in full. The collective asked for those payments to be processed sooner than the original June 30 payment date offered by Luminato. The festival said in mid-July everyone had been paid, but in a July 29 email sent to Luminato and shared with the Star, the collective alleged an Indigenous caterer, engaged in parallel with the “Um of Water” team, still had not received adequate compensation. (The festival told the Star the caterer was paid the 25 per cent cancellation fee she had requested in her invoice.)

In the same email, Sharrocks requested payment of the remainder of the budget allocated to them for the 2022 festival — in total, about $156,000. (For context, in 2019, the festival ran on a budget of approximately $6.7 million.)

Torontonians interested in an exhibit that explores the stories of water from an Indigenous perspective can travel to New York to see Water Memories at the Met. Pictured is "Water Memory" by Cara Romero.

Another mystery surrounds payment to the water, via a mutually agreed-upon donation to, an environmental activism group that advocates for water protection within the Arctic Ocean drainage basin. The “Um of Water” collective’s stipulation of water as an equal partner meant, for the collective, that Luminato would make a donation to a water conservation charity equal to an artist fee. In the July 29 email, the collective inquired about the amount of Luminato’s donation. The festival confirmed to the Star it has made the $3,000 donation it originally promised the collective it would make.

Luminato Festival had also accepted $6,000 in financial support from Native Women in the Arts (NWIA), a not-for-profit organization based in Toronto, for the 2022 festival. “Luminato told us about the Indigenous programming happening across the festival, and they definitely spoke to us about the ‘Um of Water’ collective,” said the group’s artistic and managing director, Ariel Smith. “We were specifically supporting weekend programming at Woodbine Park. We were under the impression the funding would support Indigenous artists in that weekend of programming.”

In late June NWIA had not yet heard from Luminato, but it had spoken with the collective. “We’re a very small, grassroots organization,” said Ariel Smith. “We know them — I consider them my peers, my colleagues, my community members. We wanted to make sure they didn’t feel gaslit, or like they were alone in this. We also wanted them to understand that we supported them despite having given money to the festival.”

“We’re not happy to hear how they were treated,” she said.

What happens next for the “Um of Water” remains unclear. The collective wants to remount the project. Some Indigenous festivals have reached out with interest in presenting the work; the team will be exploring these options.

Luminato has expressed its hope the show will be mounted somewhere. “We are going to transform our methods in the future,” Celia Smith added. “We’re listening. And we’re paying attention to what happened.”

For now, Torontonians interested in an exhibit that explores the stories of water from an Indigenous perspective will have to travel to New York to see Water Memories, a completely unrelated exhibition at the The Metropolitan Museum of Art, featuring timely work by a number of Indigenous artists. It launched days after “Um of Water” was cancelled.

With files from Karen Fricker


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