June 1 – October 15, 2021

Gods Among Us

Esmond Lee

Presented at Malvern Town Centre / Core Exhibition in the 2021 Scotiabank CONTACT Photography Festival

Esmond Lee's ongoing project Gods Among Us presents a history of Scarborough's diverse faith communities through representation of provisional architectural homes for places of worship. Often operating under the vernacular of industrial plazas and ubiquitous strip malls, these buildings provide important spaces for newcomers to socialize and to worship. In this installation, a curious architectural feature at Malvern Town Centre operates both as type of nave leading to the shopping centre, as well as the support structure for Lee's images of churches, temples, mosques, synagogues, and other places of worship. Lee’s photographic subject matter effectively points the way to the mall – another important space for newcomers to find and build community.

Whether located in the corner of an old plaza or standing tall at a major intersection, the spaces that Lee has documented are more than just buildings; they are second homes for communities to come together and share their culture. Lee, a second-generation Canadian and Scarborough resident, remembers going to church with his mother and feeling a sense of unity within this newfound community. To immigrants, these places nurture the sense of belonging in a new land, and can lead to spiritual, social, and economic connections.

Lee’s research, often taking the form of meandering walks to far-flung plazas and strip malls, has revealed that Scarborough is home to around 300 such improvised places of worship. Unlike central Toronto, where minority groups make up around 39% of the total population, the suburb of Scarborough is home to a vibrant immigrant community with an astounding 74% of the residents identifying as visible minorities. As the number of newcomers increases, and the countries of origin diversifies, so has the need for places of faith. With true immigrant resourcefulness, this sometimes means finding affordable, available space in unexpected, and even unlikely places – a mosque tucked next to a Pizza Nova, or a Pentecostal church in an industrial plaza. The diversity of these locations reflects the diversity of the communities that make up what Scarborough is today.

Lee's large-scale photographs are placed on a structure in front of Malvern Town Centre, a form bearing resemblance to the frame of a house, that also functions as a path toward the mall. Like places of worship, malls are a gathering place for people from all backgrounds, ages, and socioeconomic status. Lee has chosen to present his series depicting this broad range of places of worship found in Scarborough, in a place where all people congregate; a mall, a town centre. In viewing this work, visitors to the Malvern Town Centre are treated with the familiar views of the suburban landscape; Lee’s focus on places of worship invites viewers to reconsider these sites and the possibilities therein.

About the Artist

Esmond Lee is an artist, photographer, and practicing architect based in Scarborough. Lee explores long-term, intergenerational experiences of migration in peripheral, in-between spaces. He holds a Master of Architecture and draws from this background to examine identity, belonging, and nuanced cultural and political borders in the built environment. Lee’s work includes a continuous 250-foot long vinyl mesh installation for Nuit Blanche Scarborough 2019, developed during his time in the Doris McCarthy Artist-in-Residence program. Upcoming work includes a community photobook for the Toronto Public Library’s Artist-in-Residence program. His work on Toronto’s suburbs received recognition from the Burtynsky Grant and is part of CAMH’s permanent collection.