Abby Ahmri 1

by Jane Litchfield 

These two young artists are out to change the way people look at the world around them. Both in their final year at University of Guelph’s Studio Art program, they create collaborative artwork together as Ahmri + Abby. They help people notice things they walk by every day, but never really see, like a perfectly square little hole in the wall, or bricks peeking through a crack in plaster. “If you take time to pay attention to your surroundings, you may find something beautiful,” Abby says.

Ahmri Vandeborne and Abby Nowakowski (image by Jane Litchfield)

Separately, they also explore how people interact with the world around them. Ahmri’s work as an interdisciplinary artist is based on the environment, the landscape, and the human impact on nature. She grew up in an environmentally conscious family and studied geography and environmental science along with her art studies to inform her practice. “I’m interested in why humans do what they do,” Ahmri says. For example, she is interested in the way some people look at climate change and say, ‘I can’t do anything about it,’ and the psychology behind that.

Abby’s work focuses on human emotions, how humans get through trauma, and how we as a society fail over and over. “It’s inherently human to fail,” Abby says. She sites the example of a person staying in a bad relationship even though they’re unhappy, because it’s comfortable. “There is also something beautiful in failure. It’s honest.”

When they met at U of G and decided to collaborate, Abby and Ahmri knew they wanted to do something different. “We didn’t just want to hang our works on the wall and say, ‘it’s a collaboration,’” Ahmri says. “We wanted to change the space,” Abby adds. “We like to emphasize aspects that are traditionally overlooked in a gallery, like the floor and corners.” For their installation “Double Take” at U of G’s Zavitz Gallery, they painted the floor blue. “Our supervisors had some concerns,” Ahmri admits. Then they made “invisible sculptures” – weblike forms out of fishing line – in the corners. “When you stood outside the room you saw an empty gallery with a blue floor.” Ahmri says. The artists asked people to remove their shoes when they came in. “It slows the viewer down,” Ahmri says.

The viewer is an active collaborator in Abby + Ahmri’s work. “Without the viewer, it wouldn’t be important,” Abby says. They were nervous about how people would react to their Zavitz installation, but then had fun watching responses. “People were excited and confused,” Abby says. “It was a pivotal moment. We knew we had to continue with this work.”

As young artists facing the transition from school to professional life, the duo say they have learned a lot from their relationship with Guelph Arts Council and 10C Shared Space, where GAC is housed. They first approached GAC and 10C looking for business advice and wondering what kind of space was available for collaborative artists. “We don’t talk about business much at school,” Abby says, “so we came to GAC for guidance.” Ahmri adds, “It exploded from there.”

“Reaching out was the best decision we ever made. People are eager to help people who are passionate.” Abby says. “Something we’ve learned is don’t be afraid to put yourself out there and to use the resources that are out there.”

Both women have participated in the Guelph Emerging Artist Mentorship Project, a partnership between GAC and U of G’s School of Fine Art and Music, which was developed to support artists’ transition into professional practice. “It told us what the career of an artist could look like,” Abby says. “It softens and demystifies the experience of working as an artist.” Ahmri adds: “We got tons of advice and forever support. It opened us to career opportunities. GAC has been amazing.”

Ahmri has participated in the mentorship program twice: Once, as an artist with visual artist Jessie Buchanan as her mentor, and once as a curator with Petra Nyendick, then of Silence Guelph, as her mentor. Abby was mentored by Guelph artists Kiel and Amanda Wilson-Ciocci, who collaborate as KIAM. “We invite them to all our shows.”

The mentorship project has now supported the careers of 32 emerging artists, curators and musicians, including students and graduates of U of G’s SOFAM as well as other Guelph artists, with support from 20 mentors and the RBC Emerging Artists Project.

Along with influencing the way we see the world, Abby and Ahmri both feel strongly about the power of art to heal. “For me, art has always been healing, it’s one of the reasons why I love it,” Ahmri says. “Both nature and art have meditative qualities. In our collaborative work we have moments during our installation where we take a second and sit on the floor and take it all in. That’s art as healing for us. People get so caught up in what they’re doing.”

“Give yourself the time you need to be still with your surroundings,” Abby says. Powerful advice on the power of art.

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