One Thing: 13 Conversations About Art and Cultural Race Politics
by Geneviève Wallen
This summer, I spent time with the collection of interviews comprising 13 Conversations About Art and Cultural Race Politics (2002). Introduced to me by my predecessors, this publication was described as an exercise in archiving, historicizing, revising and reframing Canada’s artistic landscape from the 1980s to the early 2000s. Published by Artexte Editions, and edited by Richard Fung and Monika Kin Gagnon, this anthology focuses on how racialized artists, critics and curators mobilized against the homogeneity of the artistic fabric at that time. Fung and Gagnon’s 11 contributors—Cameron Bailey, Dana Claxton, Karma Clarke-Davis, Andrea Fatona, Sharon Fernandez, Gaylene Gould, Richard William Hill, Ken Lum, Scott Toguri McFarlane, Alanis Obomsawin and Kerri Sakamoto—were invited to contemplate issues related to cultural production, access, education, globalization, race politics, post-racial ideologies and neoliberalism. From interruptions within institutions—such as Hill’s curatorial and community work at the AGO, or Fernandez’s role as the equity coordinator at the Canada Council for the Arts—to collective enterprises like FUSE magazine or The Pomelo Project, many policy moments, alternative platforms and projects conducive to intercommunal dialogues live herein. Contextualized and compartmentalized in six chapters (“Framings,” “Art or/+Politics,” “Into the Institution,” “Imaginative Geographies,” “(CAN) Asian Trajectories” and “Speculations”), the book traces a history that shaped the cultural climate not only at the beginning of the new millennium but also, as it turns out, the one in which I’m operating today.
Interestingly, 13 Conversations is sort of a sequel, or sister, publication to Other Conundrums: Race, Culture, and Canadian Art (2000)—also edited by Gagnon—a collection of essays that delves more specifically into significant developments in Canadian artistic politics during the 1980s and 1990s, including accounts of the critical role of Minquon Panchayat and their anti-racist interventions and mobilizations, the collapse of the first artist-run centre coalition (the Association of National Non-Profit Artists Centres), as well as the creation of the Advisory Committee to the Canada Council for Racial Equality in the Arts. Gagnon writes in the introduction to 13 Conversations that after Other Conundrums, she was “suffering from a solitude of thought related to the very issues of race and culture [that her] book had engaged,” going on to say that “the present moment… is vexed by a strange brew of nostalgia, burn-out and a sense that we have somehow ‘moved on,’” 13 Conversations was instigated to continue generating more conversational pathways.
The book is premised on three questions posed by Gagnon: “How have cultural race politics arrived at the present moment, itself characterized by uneasy solitudes of thought? What might enable a more complex mapping of relations between this recent past and the dispersed present? And what might an analysis of this period enable for the future?” Each time I return to the interviews, I’m left with yet more questions about the ghosts that are still haunting and taunting us almost two decades later.
In the opening chapter, there is a fascinating and extensive meditation between Fung and Gagnon on their ambivalence about the term “identity politics.” On the one hand, it is a fixed, flattening label for a strain of cultural production, but, on the other hand, it is an ever-shifting term that keeps anti-racism efforts and various racial and ethnic realities connected to the history of race politics that fuelled the civil rights movements and First Nations’ claims for self-governance and land sovereignty in the 1960s and 1970s. The editors offer the term “cultural race politics” as a way to pull different perspectives on the stakes, limitations, fatigue, malaise, horizons, institutionalization and commodification of BIPOC visual languages. Setting the tone for the ensuing conversations, these linguistic gymnastics are attentive to how value, legitimacy, success and institutional support function as a digestive system for creative works made by under-represented communities, and provide insight about the aesthetics of cultural difference and various articulations of “otherness” as seen in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
My understanding is that the past’s exhaustion with “identity politics” in Canada’s early claims of multiculturalism was a gateway for the current climate and its conversations about the currency of trauma-based works. Limitations encountered in identity-based works evolved with the introduction of intersectional debates and a push for dialogues highlighting the complexity of personhood, which disrupted liberal ideals of a coherent public sphere. Platforms were created for stories involving trauma to unfold, which, in a short amount of time, created an institutional hunger for trauma-based work. The suffering of Black and Brown bodies thus became an agent in securing funding, now pigeonholing and paralyzing the creative energies of racialized practitioners. Vivek Shraya’s Trauma Clown (2019) photographic series, made in collaboration with Zachary Ayotte, is a great entry point from which to delve into this timely malaise. Shraya wrote about the project earlier this year in NOW magazine, the headline for which reads: “How did the suffering of marginalized artists become so marketable?” Dressed in peach regalia and wearing clown makeup, she draws from dramatic traditions to trace the evolution of her career in the arts, bringing forward a correlation between recent successes and her choice to share traumatic experiences of racism, homophobia and transphobia. From her early debut as the Lovesick Clown, who didn’t receive much attention, to the Trauma Clown who is showered with praise and flowers (and who ultimately becomes Your Clown), Shraya highlights how works that were originally grounded in self- and collective care and healing are now considered as marketable for their entertainment value.
Another musing that feels especially salient, found across a few interviews, is about the pitfalls of an all-encompassing plea for BIPOC equity and access. Fatona, a curator, researcher and professor, eloquently highlights how in fighting against marginalization, there is a risk that one’s particular “culture and histories re-inscribes hierarchies within the framework of coalition building.” I found this relevant to the increase in anti-oppression training and awareness workshops of late; while such spaces provide platforms for mindful organizing, it is vital to recognize that each community has different needs and challenges, and that white supremacist values can permeate our relationships in multifaceted ways. Fatona reminds the reader to look at the ways in which racial hierarchies have been constructed to rank our worth and determine whose voices get heard. More than ever, individuals identifying under the BIPOC banner need to be self-reflective and accountable about how the oppressed can also become oppressors. This is one of many precious nuggets in the book that, in illustrating past events, have helped me understand the cultural climate that shapes my practice today.
As a Black woman, I aspire to generate a sustainable curatorial practice that binds past, present and future. Lately, I’ve been musing a lot about longevity
as a manifestation of resistance. Longevity, to me, is holistic: it includes banishing the omnipresent burnout culture perpetuated in the arts and activism; creating a system in which one peaks in waves and at their own pace; cherishing reciprocal and intergenerational relationships; and, continuously introspecting of the past, treating memory as a knowledge. Today’s insistence on the importance of intergenerational dialogues reveals an urgency to examine, expose and act against the systems enabling institutional amnesia in the public sphere, which can negatively impact evolving politics of inclusion.
With this in mind, however, I would also speculate that the shared frustrations among “minoritized” cultural workers and artists, both in 13 Conversations and today, stem from a passed down duty to constantly keep pressure. It’s tiring, and it can grind movements into the ground. As universities, major public galleries, art festivals and biennials are co-opting and absorbing grassroots initiatives by hosting and facilitating difficult and complex conversations about ongoing colonial violence, territorial occupation, decolonial practices, Islamophobia and alternative futures, I can’t help but wonder how this moment will be packaged and conveyed to the next generation. Whose terms will this history be written on? After all, an acknowledgment of previous erasures does not guarantee that future erasures aren’t possible.