Maria Thereza Alves: Phantom Pain

Maria Thereza Alves’ sculpture – a series of steel shapes embedded in the ground in Riverdale Park – traces the former curving path of the Don River before it was straightened in the 1880s to speed the flow of its polluted waters as part of the City of Toronto’s Don Improvement Plan. Phantom Pain makes visible the complicated and often buried histories of Toronto’s watersheds, both natural and built. At the time of the Don Improvement Plan, the Don River was the hub of Toronto’s industry, but the straightening of the river backfired, leaving the river stagnant and even more prone to flooding. Alves’ homage to the original path of the Don River reintroduces a relationship to the river as it once existed in Toronto.

The Lower Don Straightening Plan

For this project Alves continues longstanding research on manipulated urban rivers and ecosystems. Phantom Pain looks at Toronto’s buried watershed system, and the ways in which the imposition of the European grid system has altered both the landscape and our relationship to water in the city.

Maria Thereza Alves, Phantom Pain, 2019. Installation in Riverdale Park West. Co-commissioned by Evergreen’s Don River Valley Art Program and the Toronto Biennial of Art. Photo: Toni Hafkenscheid. Courtesy Toronto Biennial of Art.

A key aspect of Alves’ project has been her conversations and walks with the community group, Lost Rivers, who have for decades been collectively mapping and walking the pathways of Toronto’s buried rivers. During the course of the exhibition Evergreen and Toronto Biennial of Art will host a series of public programs with Lost Rivers to further explore the area around the Don River, and the forgotten network of water that runs beneath downtown Toronto.

Phantom Pain is co-commissioned by Evergreen’s Don River Valley Park Art Program and the Toronto Biennial of Art. Co-presented by Evergreen with the City of Toronto and TRCA, the Don River Valley Park Art Program is a series of temporary, site-responsive public art projects sited along the Lower Don River, curated by Kari Cwynar.

Co-presented by Evergreen’s Don River Valley Park Art Program and the Toronto Biennial of Art. This exhibition ran from September 21-December 1, 2019.


Maria Thereza Alves (born in São Paulo; lives in Naples and Berlin) participated in Manifesta in Palermo, the 32nd São Paulo Biennale, the Sharjah Biennale, and Documenta13. She is the recipient of the Vera List Prize for Art and Politics 2016-2018. Alves co-founded the Partido Verde of São Paulo in Brazil. As a member of the International Indian Treaty Council, Alves made an official presentation of human rights abuses of the Indigenous population of Brazil at the U.N. Human Rights Commission in Geneva. She will participate in the upcoming Sydney Biennale.


Alves’ project was presented during the inaugural edition of the Toronto Biennial of Art – a major city-wide exhibition and the first of its kind for Toronto. The Toronto Biennial of Art took place in multiple venues across Toronto’s waterfront from September 21 to December 1, 2019. This edition of the Biennial was guided by the question, “what does it mean to be in relation?” Tracing this line of inquiry, the Biennial invites artists to examine the waterfront and its many histories, and interrogate our role in a multitude of ecosystems: ecological, social, capitalistic, colonial, among others.

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