C Magazine


Issue 128

Anxious Territory: The Politics of Neutral Citizenship in Canadian Art Criticism
by Yaniya Lee

Just a few days after Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s 2008 apology to survivors of residential schools, Anishinaabe artist Rebecca Belmore used an image of British Queen Victoria to create an Indigenous queen in her likeness.1 Over the course of an hour, to the blaring sound of “God Save the Queen,” Belmore ripped and crumpled and smoothed newspaper dipped in honey into the shape of a large, bouffant dress around the seated body of her collaborator, Daina Warren. When Belmore was finished, the music still deafening, her queen sat poised with a drumstick scepter in one hand, a small dreamcatcher in the other, and a crown of feathers on her head. The newspaper sash across the Indigenous Queen’s body bore rows and rows of unidentifiable faces, quite possibly the missing and murdered Indigenous women of the Highway of Tears. The acrimonious tone of the piece is unsurprising considering the ongoing colonial and racial violence of the white settler state of Canada. The history textbooks in grade school classrooms across the country tell stories that conceal colonialism’s processes of self-invention, a history marked by white supremacy’s erasure and rewriting. Our national identity is built on the shifting ground of divergent experiences with, and perspectives on, this ongoing history.

Rather than something fixed, what it means to be a Canadian citizen is slippery and elusive. Many Canadian artists’ projects draw from within those alternate stories. Kent Monkman, for instance, has become widely recognized for his two-spirited interventions into traditional colonial representations of Canada. Recently, the exhibition Invisible Empires (2013) by Deanna Bowen at the Art Gallery of York University brought forth the Ku Klux Klan’s presence north of the border. The fact that the activities of the white supremacist group, first registered in Toronto in 1925 and operating nation-wide until the 1930s, remain widely unknown hints at many other obscured aspects of Canadian history. In a settler colonial society, history is not only temporal, but also spatial and racial. Canadian art works and criticism reveal the ways citizenship is maintained by a stubborn, anxious image of national identity, and resisted by artists for whom the official story just isn’t enough.

“National identity,” writes theorist Sunera Thobani,“ like the geographical borders of the nation and its regime of citizenship rights, remain contested terrain, for outsiders as well as insiders.”2 In Canada, citizenship implies belonging and grants access to an exclusive set of rights and privileges. The settler state’s rituals, customs, beliefs and laws redraw boundaries of inclusions and exclusions to naturalize a sense of belonging for some while keeping it out of reach for others. In reality, though citizenship is enshrined in law, our experience of national identity is limited to how we see each other, and the ways, as individuals, we come to relate to one another. According to Thobani, Canadian laws create and maintain exalted citizens. They are the imagined bearers of national identity and their citizenship is based on a defining opposition to “others.” This “national subject is not only existentially but also institutionally and systematically defined in direct relation to the outsider. Such exaltations function as a form of ontological and existential capital that can be claimed by national subjects in their relations with the Indian, the immigrant, and the refugee.” [3] This tension between the exalted subject and the “other” surfaces and comes to matter in how we look at, and write about each other’s work. Art critics occupy an irreconcilable position: they must project neutrality even while their opinions are unavoidably subjective. I would like to draw attention to that neutrality, and how it buttresses the position of the exalted subject.

Manitoban artist Divya Mehra intentionally plays with language and stereotypes to throw into relief the discomfort sometimes experienced by exalted Canadians vis-à-vis immigrants and people of colour. In 2012, the Bank of Canada decided that a female scientist’s image looked too Asian to be printed on the new hundred-dollar bill. Mehra’s 2014 solo exhibition at Georgia Scherman Projects in Toronto, Pouring Water on a Drowning Man, addressed the incident. “That violent gesture,” Mehra explained in an interview, “which I’m sure people don’t want us to see as violent, that erasure of the ‘ethnic looking’ woman, is the point of departure for Neutral Ethnicity.”4 Mehra covered a wall with yellow-brown hundred-dollar bill specimens. In front of the money wallpaper, she placed a headless, gold mannequin in a tracksuit printed with the same hundred-dollar-bill pattern. The rest of the works attempted to destabilize comfortable reading. The series of sizzurp silkscreen prints How to do things with words (Culture and Captivity) addressed visibility and presence from the perspective of the “other.” We don’t stand in line, borrowed shoes hurt your feet OR To India and back: Why we must not give up (2014) reads “HOW/ MANY/ MILES TO/EXCLUSION” in big block purple letters. You Made Me (2014) reads “I WILL WORK/HARD TO/MAKE YOU/FEEL COM-/FORTABLE.” Mehra’s language works are subtle provocations that expose the exalted subjects’ implicit racism in relation to non-white “others.”

Some critics had a hard time reviewing Pouring Water on a Drowning Man. In responses by white critics in particular, there was a palpable, inarticulate anxiety. Theorist Christina Sharpe in her book Monstrous Intimacie (2010) describes the source of this anxiety in detail. Reviewing the critical reception of artist Kara Walker’s cut-outs and silhouettes of grotesque scenes from the antebellum south, Sharpe explains that “[r]ace, like slavery, is read as entirely about black people.”5 Some white viewers, she writes, actively deny any identification with work that is made by artists of colour: In other words, the majority of critics, readers, and reviewers, regardless of their diegetic reading of the work, locate its signifying effect almost exclusively on black people. Such myopia is unsurprising given that the history of slavery (and race) in the United States tends to be regarded as an issue of and for black people about black people and involves a persistent erasure of whiteness.6

Sharpe’s analysis is useful to understand the criticism of Mehra’s exhibition. In Canada, the persistent erasure of whiteness is a component of the exalted subject’s encounter with the “other.” When white critics face work that calls attention to their whiteness, it is the unconscious nature of that erasure of whiteness that causes anxiety.

In one review, Leah Sandals describes how Neutral Ethnicity put her on “a self-conscious edge by resisting easy interpretation.”7 She identifies the problematic the installation puts forward and then makes it the artist’s issue rather than society’s issue. Sandals describes how

bq.Mehra’s use of repetition in Neutral Ethnicity suggests the wide reproduction of stereotypes, and the work evokes a feeling of (legitimate) anger with the fact that Caucasian is perceived by many as being a “neutral” ethnicity in Canada, while all others are perceived as “not neutral.” Still, the title of the tracksuit work— Neutral Ethnicity (I guess the money should’ve changed him, I guess I should’ve forgot where I came from) also hints that personal dimensions, withheld from the viewer, are at hand.8

Sandals takes the liberty of inventing, condoning and finally excusing Mehra’s anger by making it mysterious and incomprehensible. In one sentence, the critic undermines the work by making the issues it raises “personal” rather than structural. Moreover, Sandals uses passive language to write about racial social dynamics. In this way she naturalizes the relation between whiteness and “neutrality.” White people are simply the accidental bearers of racial neutrality. The angry artist then becomes the only active person in the discussions of race, culture, and nationality raised by the exhibition. In conclusion, Sandals writes,

Mehra’s work reminds me that there are vast gaps of understanding and fairness that occur within and without different communities, and that these gaps can lead to much emotional upset and tension—not to mention memorable and far-reaching errors on the part of the Canadian government and other institutions.9

Again Sandals’ language is passive: no one is responsible or complicit and the artist – the angry, withholding female artist – is the only person emotionally “upset.” Sandals dances on the surface of the problem but does not delve in. She never engages with the work beyond her initial, “self-conscious edge.” The exalted critic’s uncomfortable attitude is complicit with the myth of national identity.

Sandals’ review is an example of how some citizens hold on to their exalted status as “neutral,” “Caucasian” Canadians in their ways of seeing and not seeing. The anxiety that troubled Sandals in approaching Mehra’s work is not uncommon. Murray Whyte’s review of Jérôme Havre’s work performed a similar erasure of whiteness, in this case intensified by worrisome anti-blackness. Fictions and Legends (2013–2014) was a dual exhibition Havre participated in with Heather Goodchild at the Textile Museum of Canada. Havre’s immersive installation showcased several of his unique textile sculptures, hybrid creatures whose skin is tightly sewn together from rough, multi-coloured fabrics. For this exhibition, Havre painted the walls and added ambient sounds of rain on a roof to evoke the caged space of a zoo. In his review, Whyte assigns a meager four and a half paragraphs out of 17 to Havre, yet finds space within his exuberant praise of Goodchild’s work to retell Havre’s biographical origins twice. Goodchild’s ancestry or race is never mentioned, presumably because she is white, and thus, for Whyte, neutral. Moreover, Whyte describes the setting of Havre’s “unrestrained” work as “an electrified jungle,” then describes Havre’s installation as “a screed against colonial superiority.”10 Whyte’s conclusion, for any who were in doubt, firmly places Havre, and his work, as outside and “other,” in binary opposition to polite, civilized Canadians:

Like Goodchild, Havre’s figures speak of mythologies, but here, from cultures distant from polite European canons; where she is restrained, using simplicity and elegance as a foil for the dark corners of our Eurocentric Christian mythology, Havre lets it all hang out, bundling up the worst western biases of faraway tribal cultures in a fetishized version of an exotic that condemns our above-it-all politesse.11

Reflecting on the review later, Havre described his bewilderment and disappointment at the reviewer being so fixedly unable to see beyond his own subjective perspective to judge the installation on its own terms. In an interview, Havre explains how Whyte

draws upon an image bank that belongs to a colonialist fantasy in order to illustrate his article. He develops an argument in which he fetishizes my works and an environment of ‘beasts, electrified jungle.’ He feverishly leads us with a syntax seeped in colonialist overtones in order to distill a condescending reading of my work and to oppose it to the notion of civilization.12

Though Havre is not Canadian, Whyte’s inability to consider the artist’s work outside stereotypes of race, indeed his forceful insistence on using Goodchild’s work as a foil for understanding it within those stereotypes, demonstrate his need for an “other” to reaffirm his own white, Canadian identity.

Meeting the exalted subject’s stubborn position, as illustrated in the attitudes of the aforementioned critics, black Canadians are time and again faced with surprise when they claim citizenship. Theorist Katherine McKittrick has explained how this surprise reinforces black non-belonging while reasserting the white (“neutral”) nature of Canada. Surprise is a process of subjectification for both the surprised person and the black Canadian. A white settler state is solidified every time it disavows the racial histories in its midst. Surprise places the black person outside of any space, and confirms the surprised person’s belonging to that very same space. “[A]bsence and elsewhere are, in fact, critical sites of nation, in that black subjects encountering and living the nation also expose its social, political, racial, and sexual limitations.” [13]

Canadian artists have made work that functions in direct opposition to this exalted surprise. Camille Turner’s sonic walk HUSH HARBOUR: Exploring a Black Canadian geography through a sound walk is an experiment in making fiction speak untold stories. Turner’s walk used sound as a way to challenge and rethink spatialization by reinscribing black history into the Canadian landscape. Black life in Canada in the 18th century was marked by
an act passed in 1793 that “enabled enslaved Americans to cross the Canadian border into freedom but ensured that those who were enslaved in Canada remained slaves for life until 1833.”14 Set within this interval, Turner’s piece tells the complicated love story of Peggy, an enslaved black Canadian who falls for a man who came to Canada to escape US slavery. In her 19-minute video sum of the parts: what can be named (2010), Deanna Bowen meticulously traces her own genealogy and in so doing uncovers an intergenerational history of black settlers in the Canadian west. Bowen’s family narrative, which she reads herself in black clothes on a black background with minimal visual manipulation, articulates the space occupied by black Canadians, both geographically and historically. These artists’ works reveal the limits of Canada’s self-invention as a white settler nation. They tell stories that defy Canadian surprise, and show the ways the colonial government, and its exalted citizens, desperately need to continually place race in relation to the nation.

McKittrick’s conceptualization of surprise exposes nationhood as an inscription onto geography. The racialized dispossession of colonial spatialization unfolds as a persistent negation that constructs the settler state and its idealized notion of citizenship. The doctrine of terra nullius, meaning “land belonging to no one,” was used by colonizers to justify taking over Indigenous territories. Though the lands were inhabited, the doctrine preemptively nullified Indigenous claims to sovereignty and allowed colonizers to reimagine them as uninhabited. Some of Kent Monkman’s paintings underscore this mis/apprehension. His epic, large-scale canvases reproduce a style of landscape painting that belonged to a discourse of Canada as a place of fierce, overwhelming and unpopulated nature. Into these settings, he reinserts Indigenous characters andreverses discursive colonial erasures. Monkman’s Trappers of Men (2006), for instance, is a 12’ × 7’ canvas that bears a striking resemblance to American-German painter Albert Bierstadt’s Among the Sierra Nevada Mountains, California (1868). In the foreground of his sublime landscape, Monkman places white and Indigenous men lounging, working, posing, making art and hanging out. Among them one can spot Jackson Pollock, Piet Mondrian, Edward S. Curtis and Monkman’s ravishing alter ego, Miss Chief Eagle Testickle. The artist’s intervention is in a dialogue with modernity on many registers. It challenges the violent moralizing and genocidal incursions of colonizers onto Indigenous lands and peoples by subverting the neat and tidy discourse of national identity that ensconces most Canadians.

The work of Indigenous artists and artists of the diaspora makes clear some of the ways in which Canadian identity is bound to a myth of neutrality. Citizenship becomes an unsettling concept when considered in light of its selective exaltations and the historical, spatial and critical denials required to keep it neutral. In a white settler society, “neutral,” of course, means white. The anxiety experienced by some Canadian critics when they come into contact with work by non-white artists stems from an inability to displace their assumptions of neutrality. Without taking into account their own whiteness, they cannot examine the intimate relation of their own, exalted point of view with the perspective of the perceived “others.” Artists like Mehra, Turner and Monkman disrupt neutrality, reclaim territory and call attention to the ongoing legacies of colonialism. By unearthing and retelling marginalized histories in their work, these artists’ practices resist the racialized dispossessions of citizenship.