Communing with (Art) Ancestors
by Sky Goodden and Pamila Matharu
“The art and the culture of emergent groups who choose to find their affiliation through issues of race or gender or sexuality or AIDS, those groups and their art is labelled in the negative, belated sense, as some kind of medieval […] culture of complaint. And this easy attribution of victimage is deeply troubling to me because it isn’t aware of the new […] social sense of community as it emerges. It isn’t aware [of how] those kinds of communities are creating very particular notions of themselves.”
Homi K. Bhabha, speaking to Jamelie Hassan and Monika Kin Gagnon at the AGO, as part of a public program series titled Locating Communities, on May 4, 1995.
In the middle of a protracted period of depression, and suffering from a sense of decades-long neglect by her local art community, Pamila Matharu, the Toronto-based cultural producer, curator, artist and public educator, came across two discarded video tapes in an overstock recycling shop that set in motion a sharp turn in her fate. This was in 2006 or ’07, and the tapes were both dated October 1993—and apparently the property of the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO). Their labels advertised readings and panel discussions with a cache of cultural theorists and artists—most of whom Matharu had never heard of, but felt excited by their suggested race-related scope, and by their collective title: Identity in a Foreign Place. It would be 12 years before Matharu was able to see what these tapes contained—they were Hi8 videos requiring specialized technology to view—but also, Matharu needed a spur. Once she finally got it, though, she saw her own concerns and anxieties mirrored back to her. The tapes contained searing examinations of the very issues that were variously holding her back and pinning her down: performative allyship, cultural labour, burnout, neglect and ghettoization. These impatient conversations about “what needs to change?” had taken place more than 20 years earlier but, amazingly and dishearteningly, they were the very same ones Matharu was having now.
Identity in a Foreign Place was, as it turns out, auxiliary programming for an AGO exhibition titled Perspective ’93. Matharu began to do her research and discovered a review of that exhibition by then-leading critic John Bentley Mays, published in The Globe and Mail (“Flip Sides of the New Narcissism,” September 18, 1993). It was an irritable and dismissive review that pitted its two subject— Filipino-Canadian artist Lani Maestro and Canadian artist Micah Lexier—against each other, finding the first to be “whiny” in her exploration of trauma and cultural segregation (“for the past 25 years or so, schmoozy art teachers and critics have been flattering would-be artists with the lunatic idea that their routine heartbreaks, troubles and traumas of ‘identity formation’ are just so marvellously interesting”) and the second, Lexier, to be a “young Caravaggio.” Art historian and critic Clive Robertson would respond with a rebuking letter to the editor (September 21, 1993), skewering Mays for his bias and his outdated resistance to an apparent cultural expansion in the city’s streets and across its institutions’ programming. But the damage was done. Maestro never recovered from the effect of that early-career expulsion.
Taking all of this into consideration—alongside an article that Matharu came across in The New York Times’ “Overlooked” section, which publishes obituaries for significant women that the newspaper’s obituaries had previously ignored, featuring her “art shero” Amrita Sher-Gil, a pioneering Indian artist who had died in 1941 due to complications from a failed abortion—Matharu endeavoured to make an exhibition that encircled these multiple generations of women, herself included, who had suffered from trauma and neglect, and had formed various rings in the tree of a halting cultural evolution. One of These Things is Not Like the Other was exhibited at the historic artist-run centre A Space in the spring of 2019, and was curated by Vicky Moufawad-Paul. It traced the reality of marginalized women artists either burning out or stalling out, on a personal level or culturally, and seemed to demand real activation and discussion around the question of “what needs to change?” Matharu ensured that the exhibition held space for its responders (there was a salon for visitors to take care, read, collectivize and convene undocumented meetings). This, Matharu’s first solo show in Toronto after 25 years of teaching, volunteering and practice, was partly devoted to Sister Co-Resister, the collective she co-founded formerly known as Bonerkill, which focuses on feminist, collaborative artmaking, public pedagogy and trans-disciplinary exchange. One of These Things would go on to attract a huge turnout, and be reviewed in Hyperallergic and Artforum, among others.
Between August and October 2019, I had several conversations with Matharu on the impact of her research, her negotiation of trauma and its materialization in her work, and her recent “induction” into the mainstream art community in Toronto and beyond. Inevitably, we circled back to the ever-renewing question, “what needs to change?”
SKY GOODDEN: I’d like you to tell the story of the show. Can you tell me about the circumstances, including coming across a thrown out video?
PAMILA MATHARU: I made an exhibition that mined material that was discarded from an archive, material that looks at gaps and erasures and bumps in the road for women. I found these two Hi8 videotapes at a refuse place called ArtsJunktion, this place where the overages of AGO materials end up—postcards, bookmarks, catalogues. It’s open to the public. The tapes were labelled IDENTITY IN A FOREIGN PLACE, OCT. 1ST AND 2ND, 1993, and the names of the speakers are listed. I found these tapes around 2006–07.
SG: I didn’t realize you’d found the tapes that long ago!
PM: Oh yeah—but, dude, when has anyone asked me to have a show?! laughs I’ve been sitting on this archive, like, “One day I’ll have a show…” And then [I thought], “Shit, the one day isn’t coming.” It was a reality check, like “What am I doing?” I was almost cleaning out my spiritual house. It took getting ill to finally crack open this work.
SG: What’s the link there?
PM: I had those tapes for 12 years. [And then] I get ill. But [after a while] my doctor’s like, “It’s time to get to work— I want you to do a half-hour a day.” And I did, and it hurt—it hurt my head. But I built incremental time over those two years. I go away and my psychiatrist gives me an assignment to do. I was coming out of a deep depression, and I reluctantly get on a plane in 2018. I decide to go to Berlin for the first time, and see the Berlin Biennale. It blew me away, seeing work with found materials, latent archives, discursive work—interesting things both visually and on a somatic level. It gave me some ideas. I was feeling less fear. I come home. I found a service to convert the Hi8 tapes.
SG: How did you know there was something potent on these tapes, if you hadn’t been able to look at them yet?
PM: I just saw these _names_—Lakshmi Gill, M.G. Vassanji—which they misspelled! And Gino Chiellino, Zafer Şenocak— also misspelled—Antonino Mazza…
SG: You were tantalized.
PM: Yes, I was like, “Who are these people?” What I didn’t realize all those years, too, was that [the tapes are] labelled “masters.” They’re the original tapes! A friend had to point this out. I had been looking at them once a year and I hadn’t noticed. So, then I begin to sleuth the story. My first question was, “Why are these in the garbage?” My second question was, “Are we going to end up in the garbage? Are we going to be lost in an archive?”
So, I made an appointment with the AGO Library and Archives, and I asked them a couple questions. They pull out the 1993 file; they’re like, “This event happened for Perspective ’93.” I know it’s 1993 and I’m not trying to lay blame, but there’s only so much you can really deduce out of a time period that is significantly talking about any representation of you as “third world.” [It tells you] you’re never gonna get a seat at the table; you’re never gonna get a platform because you’re already measured up to a standard, a dramatic standard; where [could] you see yourself in that?
When I looked at that seven-and-a-half minutes that I used, I was like, “Why does this sound so familiar? Why does this story not change at all?” And when I finally make the connection to the tapes, I had a studio visit with Sara Angelucci and she said, “Do this: Just show the tapes and these articles. Hands down, this explains a lot.” I said “Okay, fine.” But soon after that, one year ago, I ran into the mid-career curator of a public gallery in the city, and they asked me what I’m doing in my residency for Gallery 44 from 2017–18, and said that they’re looking forward to seeing the show, ta-da-da. I tell them what I’ve found [the AGO tapes; the John Bentley Mays review], and their attitude was, “Yeah, so what? So what if you found this material? Things are changing.” I said, “Oh, do you really think they’re changing? Is that what you see? ’Cause you’re making the change?” And they said, “Yeah, I think I do a lot to make things equitable.” I said, “Okay”…
SG: This is a white curator?
PM: Yeah. And I didn’t want it to be about that. But, within the span of the summer months [of 2018], two curators queried [what I’d found]. I was like, “Why is it that equity is my problem?” Right? Why isn’t everyone’s desire to see change actually happen? To make it more of an even playing field? You understand what I mean? Case in point, that article [“The Dominance of the White Male Critic”] in the Times about the lack of critics of colour. It’s not something that is a new argument. This is an argument that keeps happening over and over. When will that change? In a country like Canada, it’s a slow drip. It’s like the slowest drip.
SG: Ben Davis writes in one of his chapters for 9.5 Theses on Art and Class (2013) about how at some point we took our hand off the tiller, that we became quite self-satisfied around gender parity such that we stopped driving towards it. And if you take your hand off the tiller, there’s a natural correction that happens, and we return to seeing 85 percent men. It reminds us how we got back here. You can never get too comfortable with the advances that you’ve made.
PM: I don’t know how it is for you in arts publishing, but when I read the statistics on the top six or eight art periodicals [“Visual Arts Journalism: Newsroom Pressure and Generational Change,” Neiman Reports, Harvard University, Spring 2019], and all their art critics are white cis men, it’s very telling. When will we see change? And it informed things for me, as I made the show. I worried, “How will this be reviewed?” But then Kevin Ritchie from NOW did a preview; and then Letticia Cosbert [Miller] from Akimbo; then Noor Bhangu in Hyperallergic; and then Gabby Moser in Artforum. So, look at the change from John to now, Clive to now. In some ways, though, I still worried, “Are they biased? Because they’re now at the table?”
SG: But biased towards or against what? I mean, bias is baked into criticism, on the level of subjectivity. It’s a given. And we shouldn’t be trying to pretend otherwise.
SG: In your framing of the show, you don’t explain much. And you held events that weren’t recorded. So, you’re working with archives, but resistant to making one. Is it a position of, “This isn’t for everyone?”
PM: Yes. And Vicky did address this with me. She said, “If you don’t archive this, you’re adding to the problem.” But I think about collectives like Black Artists Union, who want to make work, and show work, and have their audience participants be exclusively Black— because these institutions have historically failed them, or [just] brought them in for performative allyship. And they’re like, “No. We’re onto you.” So, they do a lot of things in private, as they should.
SG: Well, yeah! Performative allyship at the level of institutional programming should be looked out for—but we should also be skeptical when it comes to institutions “responding.” Look at what happened at the Whitney Biennial in 2017. A dollar short, a day late, in terms of responding to an outrage. Once the institution finally lifted a finger, it was along the lines of, “Here’s your mic, here’s your conference room, have at ’er.” It was superficial. The same thing happened quite recently with Mercer Union and the Nep Sidhu exhibition. It was 10 months before they addressed the community’s hurt and concern over the issues raised in the show, which, in their admission, “prompted recollections of personal and generational trauma.” The exhibition Medicine for a Nightmare: they called, we responded had shown at two other institutions at that point. It’s like, “What’s that worth now?”
PM: Right. How do you go beyond that? My response [to A Space’s invitation for a solo exhibition] was to hold space. That’s what I did. I think what I arrived at in the last 10 minutes of my video, that panel with Homi Bhabha, Monika Kin Gagnon, Jamelie Hassan… In that talk, Jamelie says, “These institutions are for us. They’re our spaces.” And, by that, she means they’re publicly funded. But when I listened to Jamelie also say, “This is a road we all take,” I knew that, as a preset, I was going to have to create a buy-in to a system that doesn’t listen. [Because] we’re all here doing this work of listening to communities, now, particularly through the Indigenous lens, but we’re not actively listening. Everyone wants to consider reconciliation without telling the truth. [But] there’s no truth-telling without trust. So, this was a show about trust, and about cultural safety. Using that material, how was I going to visually demonstrate that this is how we feel around institutional harm?
Sky, I knew that showing these documents would do nothing for the chattering classes. It’s what I do in the counter response that matters. I knew: I don’t go in by myself, I go in with my community. And showing that collection [of Sister Co-Resister], I thought, if I’m coming into Canadian art history, I’m not coming in alone. I’m coming in with Amrit Brar and I’m coming in with Sarindar Dhaliwal. Because there’s a 40-year difference between them. And I’m in the middle. There’s art history.
So, I had a second therapist when I was really, really struggling. And she said, “I want you to write a letter to an ancestor who you think will understand your struggle.” And I said, “Can it be to an art ancestor?” She said, “Yes.” And that’s how I came up with Dear Amrita: How can I forget history when I was just starting to remember? (2019). The moment I started to write her, my brain opened up. I felt taller, I felt like I was moving better. This was the conversation I was waiting to have. In a sense, I was creating a theoretical salon, by talking to her. I thought of how she was pushed out of the Paris salons. What does an artist really truly need to thrive? Community. Audience, of course. And, if they’re good at it, the market. I had two of three.
SG: I love it. It’s like the inverse of a memory palace. Put the things back in rather than name the things that are missing.
SG: In your role as an educator, do you see your teaching as a _déjà-vu_-resisting tactic? We’ve been in mind of what hasn’t changed as we’ve been talking, but I wonder what you do about it on the other end—how do you help ensure that things do change? Or can you?
PM: In public education, I’m decentering myself every day in the classroom. I’m there—the foundation, the grounding. I’m there. But I’m not at the centre. I’m part foster parent, part referee, part punching bag when they’re deregulated… I’m the rails. Fifteen years ago, when I was about to begin teaching, people were like “you’re out of your mind. Why would you go do this?” But did it ever teach me how to re-enter the art world.
SG: How so?
PM: Because I saw developmentally what happens when you are missing pieces. We don’t come out of art school starting on the same level. There’s a slim chance you have personal resources, but if you’re working class, or broke, you’re going to figure it out. By hook or by crook, you’re going to figure it out—get a waitressing job or get more credentialled. We know how we get to where we go. But what happens when you’re Black, Indigenous, queer, trans, struggling with mental health, struggling with adverse childhood experiences like divorce, parents killing themselves, parent gone missing, parent abandonment… that all impacts the adult artist in ways I never understood. But teaching taught me that.
And that’s why I started Bonerkill. I thought I had nothing to lose. I made it for my racialized female students who kept starting an art practice and then coming back to me and saying they’re dropping out. “I’m dropping out of OCAD,” “I’m dropping out of Ryerson,” “I’m dropping out of …” I was like, “Why, why, why? What has changed about the academy?”
So, I started Bonerkill to show some reciprocity, to say, “This is how you become an artist.” And this is where the self-care and aesthetics of care come in. “You’re going to be okay. You’re going to go through some serious change. But this is going to be so life-affirming. It’ll be so validating.” This is where I realized where the gap is—when artists like me or people who have had similar experiences don’t successfully enter the art world, or market, or create audiences, or don’t know how to be in community… So, how do we build the building blocks?
Now, when [my former students] come back and say “hey, I got this, I got that,” it does feel nice to realize you had a part to play in it. I ran into a former student recently who reminded me that I said to him, “You’re the best artwork you’ll ever make.” And every time I want to give up, I think of that. And, you know… the art world doesn’t give you that. And I’d forgotten I ever said it. More recently, I was invited to this reading group. And these three people came up to me—out of eight—and said, “We came to see your show! We loved it!” And then I thought, “Oh! I guess this is the fan-girl moment. Oh boy! I guess I did something.” And now I get to talk about it. Again and again. laughs