The Past, The Present and The Same, Deanna Bowen interviewed by Amy Fung
by Amy Fung
It’s the morning of the James Comey hearings in America and hordes of people, young and old, are passively anticipating the change they have been so desperately seeking. Even though I’m living in the land we call Canada, I am by all free trade agreements a byproduct of American imperialist media. This will be important later when we think about Deanna Bowen’s representation of Blackness in Canada. Also keep this note in mind the next time white Canadians cry afoul, but are unwilling to make any changes themselves. I’m half listening to the Comey live stream on my phone and half trying to get out the door to meet Deanna for this “interview.” In all honesty, I don’t really know how to interview anybody anymore given that I have stopped looking for any answers. I preface all of this to Deanna in person over some broken rice and vermicelli bowls. I am giving her one last out by saying things like “gossipy” and “I write a lot about myself.”
Deanna agrees with an uh-huh laugh and we settle into some light catch-up. It’s effortless to go 10 months or longer in Toronto without actually seeing someone with whom you communicate on a semi-regular basis. Deanna has been here for over two decades, and has long earned the reputation of being a big, bad bitch. I don’t need to mention to her that this reputation carries an undertone of race and gender bias and everyone knows it, except for the one race and gender that really believes it. I update her that I’ve left my job and she said she heard, figured it was to do with the grant, and I say yes, and I say nope. We congratulate each other on our colloquially controversial New Chapter grants and we heartily shake on it over a mango salad as we-can’t-foo-king-bee-lieve-we-each-got-one.
Big news should be old hat by now to Deanna, though. For the past year, since being awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship, she has been working on a multitude of new projects that focus on her own family history as the central pivot point of her ongoing auto-ethnographic approach to art making, including a new commission for the Royal Ontario Museum, which is currently on view in the Family Camera exhibition; a solo exhibition of a new work, The Long Doorway, at Mercer Union in Toronto this fall; a long-awaited video work with her mother for the Flux Media Art Gallery in Victoria; a large-scale project at this year’s Nuit Blanche; a solo show at the Contemporary Art Gallery in Vancouver in 2018; and for 2019, she is editing a new anthology on radical racialized artists through the Media Arts Network of Ontario. The prestigious award, and its cash prize, has allowed for a cushion after the glow.
“I can finally stop looking to white people in the art world for permission or for help to do my work,” she declares with absolution. “The illusion of beneficial white people who will help you is a lie.”
I laugh because duh. “If they help you, they are helping themselves,” I retort.
“Even if there are hardcore bigots who just need to go, it’s the deadly silence of the masses who are upholding systematic oppression that kills me,” she slams without a thud.
I nod outwardly, but in my head I am flooded with instances of all the times my peers and acquaintances have let me down through their silence. The worst ones are those who later consume and regurgitate my words in order to release themselves from their own failures to speak up. Reflecting on the idea of permission, I share how I have only ever had a history of dealing with white editors, asking each one of them from the time I was 20 to the present age of 35 for continual permission to write and publish pieces in the print platforms that they, and only they, oversee.
“I create pieces with the knowledge that I am speaking to white people,” Deanna responds to a question unnecessary to ask. “The outcome of doing this has been to start at a point of constructing and layering and responding to perceived criticisms. I have only ever been working from a point of defense, to block before the shot.”
I pause for a moment to catch my breath. “That is deep trauma,” I offer. And I mean it.
“Yeah,” her voice falters. “It’s really hard.”
Never carrying a pretense that she would and should show in most gallery spaces, because they are still understood as white spaces for white people, she had no faith in the process, and still very little trust.
“There is a performance of allyship in the art world, a performance without a follow-through, and I just wish these motherfuckers would step up,” she scathes without burning anyone. “But once I spot the narcissists, I just avoid them. No drama.”
“No dra-ma,” I repeat, stretching out each vowel to make the words more true.
“There is so much drama, but it’s all bullshit. You may have noticed an aversion to critical thought here in Toronto?” she begins, or ends, with a thought that doesn’t even need to be said.
Yes, I may have noticed that.
From the outset of our conversation, Deanna offers an immense amount of details about her new body of work. She is at the current stage of casting a crew of nine for The Long Doorway, which will unfold over eight weeks of live rehearsals and conversations. This new work is based on the 1956 script of a CBC teleplay set in Toronto about a young Black lawyer assigned to defend a young, poor white man who nearly beats to death his best friend, a young, poor Black man. The layers of racial assumptions, the court system, homoeroticism, Deanna’s filial connection to one of the actors and the peripheral layers of casting only Black American actors to play Black Canadians are all factors to be unravelled.
Everything we discuss, from the media cycle of Black suffering to artist-run dysfunction, circles back into the momentum of her singular artistic vision that is rooted in her fiercely independent position as an auto-ethnographer. No one has written the history books she needs to read in order to better understand her life. So Deanna-Bowen-the-artist has taken on the task herself, again and again. Tracing her paternal family history’s migration from Nicodemus, Kansas – one of the first Black settlements established by former slaves, specifically her grandfather, a preacher – the arc of her new series is a homecoming of sorts to her formative years in Vancouver, where her family eventually settled. It’s been 24 years since her first solo exhibition, Home, was held at the then Helen Pitt Gallery with then-curator Dana Claxton.
“I left Vancouver midway through that show’s run,” she shares, a bit stunned, perhaps at how much time has passed.
Moving out at 17 and leaving Vancouver at 24 years old, Deanna also left behind all the art objects from that first show, which she can only recollect partially. Looking into the cobwebs of her mind, she recites that there was a large set of shears, a velvet purse, a fumigation can and a book object that Dana still has.
“She tells me once in a while how much she loves it, but she has yet to return it,” Deanna recalls with a fond annoyance.
The book object was filled with a vernacular written in country twang, a representation in her mind of how “my family talked about shit.” Specifically, as self-described in staccato intonation that she grew up a low-er-class-BLACK- DYKE-from-EAST-Van-from-a-SCRA-pee- SHAY-dee-FAM-a-lee, Home was the first in what would become the seed, the search, for all things unsaid in her own family lineage.
“From the beginning, I’ve been trying to work these people out, trying to unlearn every dysfunction from them, while researching around them to learn how we became what we became,” Deanna says as we sweep over 20 some years of her life and artistic practice.
In recent years, after having been estranged from her mother for over a decade, Deanna showed up with two friends, Scott McClaren and Chris Behnisch, who were her film crew for the day. She wasn’t a kid who brought a lot of friends around growing up, especially not white kids. So coming back with two white men who she is actively directing suddenly was a show. Her mother, who Deanna describes as a bit of a shut-in, puts on her best flirt for the men, and they all go for a drive to a handful of places Deanna had used to live. The rift between memories of growing up with one’s grandparents and the void left by an absentee single mother inevitably opens up. The amount of silence they lived in surrounding the generations of violence, substance abuse and death in the family slowly unwinds for the camera. The stories being offered up by the mother, and being captured and recorded by the daughter, were not stories the family was willing to talk about before. In one scene, her mother starts on about how many guns were in the house, and a good thing, too, to scare away the wolves. Also the white people, Deanna adds. The camera captures her mother’s shock that her own daughter would say something like that in front of these white people. Well, it’s true, some white folks had come around one of their 11 homes in Vancouver looking to beat up one of Deanna’s uncles, and Deanna’s uncle-in-law, a white man who had married into the family, took a rifle out to scare off the attackers, but if they had only known the gun was out of ammunition!
Deanna explains that there are lots of stories like that. Her mother thinks these stories are a hoot. She looks far away when she says this last sentence. I don’t say this aloud, but I think that if you’ve survived this long with these stories inside, it’s better to be funny than not.
What is the point of an interview when it’s not answers you seek only affirmation to share we are supposedly talking about an art world the traumas that live just beneath our skins the scope of our exchange extends into just about anything everything involving our experiences working with and for and under white baby boomers as majority stakeholders I am a grown ass woman and I’m still learning this yeah do you know how hard this is for me to not put layers into this new work makes me lose sleep at night I know just to put yourself raw out there is terrifying I know to not frame and filter it for white people who you know I know are going to attack you is scary they will misunderstand you and blame you but’s a political act to go at it that way you see to fuck the filter even if it scares the shit out of me the filter protects white people from themselves from white supremacy the filter also protects you from white supremacy oh damn the mythology of having to go through certain systems and spaces to climb the ladder that goes nowhere I hope that the generation after me has figured out the ruse surely they have started their own spaces and left the old guard to patrol their fiefdoms they are just patrolling their own baby fiefdoms now because what else is there to do when you don’t know any better nothing has changed people refuse to let go institutions are slow the people running those institutions are resistant to meaningful change they will never change nothing has changed you can quote me on that Nothing has fucking changed.