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Features / November 16, 2017

Remembering Teto Elsiddique

Friends and colleagues remember a talented artist who died suddenly this fall, just as his work was garnering increasing acclaim

Teto Elsiddique, a promising emerging artist, passed away on October 31. In his words, his work “wrestles with the index of past cultural identifiers that have transgressed borders, leaving echoes in our everyday language, gestures and material existence.” Working in video, sculpture and painting using pastiche and repetition, he composited detritus, image transfers, relief carving and cast moulds to connote abstract bodies and narratives that “situate a migratory black experience within different cultures, across different continents and different timelines,” he wrote in a recent artist statement. His work spoke to his experience of being born in England, raised in Sudan and Canada, and having often worked in the United States, occupying “a state of in-between, where [he couldn’t] fully identify or be identified,” he wrote.

Elsiddique won an honourable mention in this year’s RBC Painting Competition, and had recent solo shows in New York and Richmond. He earned his BFA at NSCAD in 2013, where he studied painting. He taught teen art classes through NSCAD’s extended studies program and led mural projects for groups of at-risk youth for the City of Halifax. He went on to pursue graduate studies at Yale, where he was awarded the Rema Hort Mann Foundation Emerging Artist Grant and the Ralph Meyer Prize; he graduated from there in 2016. Elsiddique taught at Virginia Commonwealth University, where many of his former students remember him for his challenging and frustrating, but fruitful, assignments.

The artist was set to move to Toronto in November 2017 and continue his practice there. Now, his students, colleagues and professors reflect on Teto’s legacy.


Teto invited me to his studio one early day in fall of 2014. A clothes iron rested on the cement floor, not completely touching the ground, with swirls of smoke emanating from underneath. Small kernels kept the iron afloat. Teto explained to me that he was trying to pop popcorn; he had already met with an electrical engineer he had contacted through Craigslist because he realized the iron had a safety mechanism that caps the temperature, and he needed the iron to get hotter. Sitting on his studio couch, it slowly dawned on me that what I was seeing, or rather witnessing, were the experiments of genius. Teto redefined what art is for me. He was using devices that pushed the boundaries of artmaking, creating unique processes that lead towards new dimensions of meaning. In writing this, the words of 13th-century theologian Meister Eckhart come to mind: “when the soul wants to experience something she throws out an image in front of her and then steps into it.” Teto’s sensibility derived from a place far away, from a life lived more than once. With roots in Sudan, England and Canada, and having lived in the United States, his migratory experience produced diversity in himself and in his art.

The ancient Egyptians used a single word for both writing and drawing: hieroglyph. Through a combination of disparate symbols, Teto’s works are contemporary forms of hieroglyphs. Both he and everything he touched transported us to a place unknown yet familiar. Watching Teto think, make and remake felt like the discovery of new cultures. Our conversations felt like emerging towards the surface of water, his words careful and loving, evocations plucked from a life deeply lived.Mauricio Cortes, Yale colleague 


Teto would often pull me aside as I was walked past his studio and ask me what I saw in his paintings. He was concerned with the way his work impacted those who saw it, and how meaning could be translated through images and symbols. After he finished this recent body of work, he spoke to me about the boot-as-watering-can motif and object that appears in multiple paintings. He told me that it was a boot that watered the plants with the sweat it accumulated from being walked in—like a self-contained ecosystem, turning effort into nourishment.

This made me think of another piece he did, where he took a kettle and taped an umbrella to the side. He would turn the kettle on, without the lid, so the water would begin to evaporate and collect as condensation on the umbrella, eventually raining back down onto the kettle. That notion of self-reliance reminds me of Teto, combining familiar and unremarkable objects or events into poems that can be experienced in real time. I often found myself a bewildered bystander, in awe of his unending pursuit to forge meaning by elevating the mundane into the mythical and back again.—Keiran Brennan Hinton, Yale colleague


I’m sad and heartbroken by the tragedy. I still can’t believe my best friend, Teto Elsiddique, passed away. Last time I saw him was last year in New Haven, when he dropped me off to the airport and I remember him telling me, “Always believe in yourself and have faith in your art!”

I first met Teto in winter of 2010, during my undergrad studies at NSCAD University’s wood shop at its Duke campus. He helped me make a stretcher bar with direct and specific instructions. I knew he had a special personality with a truly kind and honest heart.

Later in the years, after I graduated from NSCAD University, Teto and I shared a road trip from Halifax to New Haven for our interviews for graduate schools in the States. I remembered vividly our deep conversations about art, politics, and religion, and most importantly how he openly told me stories of his family and how much he loves his sister, Azza Elsiddique. That road trip was most memorable for me, and there are many other fond memories I had from when I reunited with him at Yale University in 2015.

I believed in Teto’s optimistic approach to his art, his big ambitions in life, and especially when he created bodies of artworks at Yale—that was one of his happiest memories he had in life. For me, he will always be with me. He was the most passionate of artists and the kindest friend I had. I admired his talent and spent productive studio time and joyous social time with him for many years. He’ll be missed deeply among us.

My thoughts and condolences to his sister, my dearest friend, Azza! Stay strong love. I’m here for you. All my love and more.Hangama Amiri, NSCAD colleague


Extremely sincere and just as curious, Teto approached his art and those around him with rigour and love. Creating his own constellation of myths, memories and magic, Teto weaved poetry into the political, and the personal into a connection with others.—Cindy Ji Hye Kim, Yale colleague


Teto Elsiddique changed me. He was a loving friend, a visionary in his own work and the work of others. We’d run up—and down—steps filled with excitement to try the next idea. You got the sense, here’s someone who doesn’t just believe in what art is, but what art could be. Here’s somebody who is restless, dedicated to the craft of colour, of image, of enchantment, of the real. Teto gave me a lucky coin; he’d say, “You’re not taking this seriously enough, this could change your life.”—Ian Funke McKay, NSCAD colleague


I’ve thought about this work, and its many iterations, a lot since first seeing it in the pit a few years agoTeto Elsiddique was one of the few people who could stay with the excitement of a fleeting idea and follow its irrational form—thoughtfully, sporadically, elegantly, haphazardly, beautifully. Respecting the meander, the material, the impetus. This is why his work always feels so vital to me. Truly one of the most generous artists/friends I’ve come across. I’m lucky to have known such a beautiful, caring person, and to have these memories to take with me. You were like a brother, to me and so many others. I love you, Teto.—Kyle Goldbach, Yale colleague


It is with an extremely heavy heart that I say that I lost a friend. Teto Elsiddique, a former professor, fellow artist and friend has left us. I am so profoundly distraught by this news.

My first semester at VCU, I was often seen complaining about him and his class. He and I never saw eye to eye academically, but we did artistically. And we did spiritually. Teto was the first professor at VCU I came out to, simply because he asked his students their pronouns during introductions. He was the first person I told of my situation, and he was the first to sympathize. I had only seen Teto cry twice. Once, when he was trying to normalize men crying. I was crying and upset that it made me look feminine. And the second, when he told his students how much they meant to him. We were supposed to get drinks together once I turned 21, just to talk about life and our own hardships with it.

I will never forget the tens of thousands of hands you had us draw. I will never forget the late nights of struggling to get your homework done. I will never forget the insane emails you would send us that were unexpectedly profound, funny, sad and inspiring. I will never forget how we decided to be silly, and on an assignment titled “Stupid,” we drew dozens of hands on a giant tarp, just in spite. I’ll never forget the way our minds were blown when we collectively realized the black hat you wore all year was actually a deep navy. I’ll never forget the deep, existential talk we had the night of the election. I’ll never forget you shouting, “Your figure should be shaded by now!” after only two seconds of gestures. I’ll never forget your laugh and how it would permeate the room, the hallway and the room next to it. I will never forget pulling a prank on you, selling t-shirts with your face and name on it to your students, and wearing them to your artist talk in the Arts Foundation department.

I’ll never forget you, Teto. Rest in peace, my friend. Please save a seat for me at the bar. I might be a bit older than we originally planned for our first drink, but I’ll meet you there someday.—Lee Biggs, VCU student


Teto Elsiddique was, first and foremost, a loyal friend to countless people. Teto recently taught a course on colour at Virginia Commonwealth University. I just finished teaching a colour course at Yale. What I wanted to do is try to connect as if to a roomful of friends, giving them as much as I could, exactly as Teto did.

As an artist, and as a person, the word that comes to mind is “intrepid.” In all my years of teaching, I have not seen anyone improve as much in two years as Teto did. Dear Teto, dear intrepid friend, I miss you and love you and when I finally awaken from this dream of life, I hope to meet you again.—Byron Kim, Yale professor


I first met Teto in an Advanced Painting class at NSCAD. He started the semester working on some repurposed panels—I remember them being shellacked with some sort of brown floral motif, which Teto chiselled away at for a couple of weeks. They were stubbornly drab. Then suddenly, when came into the studio one day, Teto had abandoned the panels and over the weekend had built a sort of wall-hung ramp, with side flanges (as I remember it), the whole thing painted with (repurposed, found) acrylic paint—nibs red, fluorescent orange dots, intense green. It was a weird and wonderful object. After that he was off, particularly after we watched Beatriz Milhazes talking about her transfer technique, and Teto made the transfer process his own (spray-painting onto plastic drop sheets and transferring the paint onto panels).

He bought most of his materials at the dollar store, or acquired stuff people had thrown out: a stretchy leopard-printed body suit that became part of a painting, pieces of styrofoam or strips of plastic that turned into sculpture-paintings. It was amazing, destabilizing, challenging work.

I didn’t get to see the work he made at Yale, and after, except in reproduction. But even in small reproductions seen on a laptop, the inventiveness and toughness and absolute idiosyncrasy of his work is there. I look forward to the day when I can see his work all together. I think it will be very eye-opening.

It’s hard to write about a loved person, in a situation like this, without distancing yourself from them. I don’t want to do that. Suffice it to say that Teto’s heart was as extraordinary as his art. He was, and is, loved.—Sara Hartland-Rowe, NSCAD professor


I first met Teto Elsiddique while he was working as student assistant to our departmental technician, Jeremy Vaughan. His bright eyes and broad smile are memorable; and that day I could see he had an enthusiasm for meeting people and for hard work. Soon after, Teto enrolled in my Introductory Painting course. He was a skilled and talented young painter and it was clear he was eager to engage with new explorations in contemporary painting. He was driven and pursued his art with admirable commitment throughout his education and his tragically short professional career.

All of us who worked with Teto followed his successes, and in return, he was a loyal communicator, keeping us abreast of his activities, his developing work at Yale, followed by a fellowship and teaching appointment at Virginia Commonwealth University. We shared lessons, talked about teaching practice, ideas and pedagogy. As a teacher, his assignments were thoughtful, demanding and introspective. His students benefited from his generosity, sincerity and care. Teto’s passing is a tremendous loss to those of us who loved him, those who worked with him and those in future generations who will not have him to look to as an inspiration and mentor.—Sheila Provazza, NSCAD professor


The terrible loss we face with Teto’s death is the loss of unfulfilled promise. The promise of interesting and exciting art, the promise of an engaged and intelligent colleague, the promise of a wise and generous mentor, all gone so unexpectedly. My experience with Teto revealed a person who was eager to take on new challenges and was dedicated, committed and hard-working. It was also of a person who was driven to be truthful but also kind and accepting.

For a time Teto lived in an apartment building that has a garage where I park my car. I would run into him coming in and out of the building and we would talk. He had been a student of mine a year or two earlier, so we started off talking like I was the professor and he was the student. Very soon though, Teto’s questions and attentiveness had me talking about myself in a way that turned us into colleagues. It was a gentle thing and all his doing —the promise of friendship.—Mathew Reichertz, NSCAD professor

Merray Gerges

Merray Gerges writes around art rather than about it. She studied art history at NSCAD and journalism at King’s in Halifax, where she co-founded and co-edited CRIT, a free biannual criticism publication. Her reporting and criticism have appeared in Canadian ArtC MagazineMOMUS, Hyperallergic and more, addressing issues ranging from the radical potential (and shortcomings) of intersectional feminist memes and art selfies, to art-world race politics. At Canadian Art, she was editorial resident in 2016, and assistant editor from 2017 to 2019. She's currently the editorial fellow at C Magazine.