Left painting: Teto Elsiddique – neckrings, a breezy thing, 2017. Acrylic on canvas, 152.4 cm x 121.9 cm. Right painting: Azza El Siddique – neckrings, a breezy thing (Rust), 2023. Steel and iron oxide, 152.4 cm x 121.9 cm. Unveiled at RBC’s booth at Art Toronto 2023.
Art reviewers have described emerging Canadian artist Azza El Siddique as an alchemist who creates “organic environments .” Her multi-sensory installations have been likened to “laboratories, game sets and manufacturing plants ” and stepping into an “alien museum .”
El Siddique, who splits her time between Toronto and New Haven, Conn., invites viewers to move through room-sized immersive spaces to observe assemblages of objects that include steel, clay vessels, scented oils, water and 3D-printed sculptures.
Her practice explores mortality, entropy and systems of power. She draws from her Sudanese heritage, life growing up as an immigrant kid in Canada and the rites and artifacts of ancient Egypt and Nubia.
The experience is often ephemeral, conjuring questions about the hereafter: materials transform, dissolve, puff into smoke or decay into rust and lingering residues.
Inspired by her late brother’s work
One motif in El Siddique’s work is deeply personal, reflecting on the legacy of her older brother, Teto Elsiddique , a talented emerging artist who passed away in October 2017. (Azza spells her last name differently than Teto.)
Among objects presented in a 2022 solo exhibition at New York’s Helena Anrather gallery was a bronze replica of one of Teto’s baseball caps, 7 3/8, cast in a process that destroyed the original. Another piece, A dog without a master (Rust), etched the contours of one of Teto’s paintings onto steel that will corrode over time—what El Siddique calls a “rust painting.”
“Something that I admire about my brother and his practice—and what I also use to challenge myself—is how innovative he was and how he saw things. There is this deep engagement with materiality: taking simple objects and transforming them into doing something spectacular,” says El Siddique, speaking from her studio in New Haven.
“When I work through my own practice, I think about that. And I kind of hold myself to those standards,” she says.
Unlimited potentials in new technologies and materials
Born in Khartoum, Sudan, in 1984, El Siddique was four years old when her family immigrated to Canada, settling in Vancouver. She moved to Toronto as a student, intending to study fashion design at Toronto Metropolitan University, but changed course to enroll at OCAD University. There, she completed a Bachelor of Fine Arts in material art and design in 2014.
After a three-year artists’ residency at Toronto’s Harbourfront Centre, El Siddique was accepted into Yale School of Art, in New Haven, for post-graduate studies, where she completed a Master of Fine Arts in sculpture in 2019.
El Siddique takes a research-intensive approach to her art—as did her brother, she says—influenced by the relationship with their scientist father, who has a PhD in chemical engineering.
“Understanding the world is about looking at things, and [making] hypotheses, engaging with new materials or technologies and seeing potentials that can arise,” she says.
El Siddique presents objects in various states of being to highlight their impermanence. She’s devised heat activations to release aromas of Bukhoor incense , from studying ancient Sudanese perfumery. She has built custom irrigation systems to dissolve clay vessels under a slow drip of water . She’s scanned digital images and created 3D models to peer into molecular structures .
Brother’s and sister’s works find a home together
When Corrie Jackson, senior curator at RBC, saw El Siddique’s 2022 solo exhibition—and her rust painting, in particular—she recognized an inherent connection with the RBC Art Collection . Before his passing, Teto Elsiddique’s painting neckrings, a breezy thing had been acquired by RBC as part of a juried art competition for emerging Canadian artists. Would his sister create a new rust painting in response to it?
“It was a special moment when we thought we could introduce this acquisition from Azza and have it in conversation with Teto and his work, installed in an RBC space. What I do love about Azza’s piece, and what I found quite special, is that it has this kinetic energy,” says Jackson.
Jackson says the RBC Art Collection aims to contextualize the works of emerging artists alongside those who’ve been their mentors and teachers. El Siddique’s new piece, neckrings, a breezy thing (Rust), was unveiled at Art Toronto in October 2023 and will be shown in the RBC Community Gallery , in Toronto.
For the artist herself, the deep dive into her brother’s work is a cherished experience.
“I think it is super beautiful and poetic that these two pieces can go side by side: to hold the space with Teto felt really beautiful to me,” says El Siddique.
The rust painting is intended to transform and change over time, says Jane Hutchison, manager of the RBC Art Collection.
“There’s an alchemy that happens, so this artwork is going to continue to shift in how it presents itself. I love the fact that this work will be directly impacted by its environment,” says Hutchison.
Technology as a tool to continue her brother’s legacy
In recent months, El Siddique has explored the mechanics of artificial intelligence. She says she downloaded and set up her own custom large-language model AI—akin to a private ChatGPT. She is training it herself.
“You don’t have to know computer code anymore to do these things—that, to me, is the most exciting thing. Technology is such a prominent part of who we are these days. It’s just another tool that speaks to the things that I’m thinking about,” she says.
In her last semester at Yale, El Siddique trained an algorithm to generate “speculative paintings” in the likeness of Teto’s work, with the help of Yale’s Digital Humanities Lab .
“I’d show these to his friends and ask, ‘What do you think about this?’ And they were really surprised; they actually thought it was his work.”
“I guess it’s also kind of my refusal for him to be obsolete. It’s a way to carry on his legacy.”