Developing Historical Negatives: Deanna Bowen, Morris Lum, Jacqueline Hoàng Nguyễn, Krista Belle Stewart, Hajra Waheed
by Henry Heng Lu
Developing Historical Negatives is an exhibition that materializes the undercurrent narratives of belonging, rather than romanticizing an idealistic sense of it. Expressing concern over the one-sided nature of official records, the participating artists reclaim ownership of their respective cultural heritages from a range of subject positions by reimagining and re-appropriating various image-based materials. Working with and through archives, and organically united by intergenerational transfers of resilience and cultural memory, the artists give shape to familial or communal histories in parallel to their official counterparts, which are largely calculated and misleading.
As its title suggests, the exhibition plays with the notion of “negatives”—as in photographic negatives, as well as in the various connotations of the word as the opposite of “positive.” Deanna Bowen’s The Promised Land (2019) is a response to state-sanctioned assimilation in which she reflects upon her family lineage with the help of scraps of found footage—which are reassembled and looped—from an eponymous 1962 CBC TV episode. Classical pianist Ruby Sneed and her sister, jazz legend Eleanor Collins, take turns recounting, narratively and musically, how the idea of Canada as the so-called land of freedom influenced their family’s migration trajectories, and how gospel music plays a critical role in forming community. Extraneous to the frame, Bowen has made markings, such as white margins and sound waves, implicating herself as the third-person examiner, one with agency over these archival materials and thus the narratives they perpetuate. On one hand, the film demonstrates the particular staging of Black bodies in service of fulfilling a national agenda, given its omission of the historical oppression imposed upon the community. On the other hand, the mere presence of Black bodies, and inclusion of the extra-frame markings, contributes to the personalization of these marginalized identities.
Similarly, Jacqueline Hoàng Nguyễn’s Presence in Absentia (2018–19) translates diasporic sensibilities far beyond the level of nostalgia. In this work, the artist has colourized and blown up family photos from her great-grandfather, and then transferred them onto a shallow layer of sand laid out on plinths raised just slightly above the floor. On the closing day of the exhibition, a long-time Asian Canadian art advocate and senior community member, Marilyn Jung, invited by Nguyễn, dismantled the works using a large wooden hand brush, with gallery visitors present. As the brush moved through the coloured sand, the images were smudged and then ultimately gathered at the centre of each platform. With Jung as a conduit of matriarchal energy, the act marked the notion of precarity and impermanence of life inspired by the key principles of Zen Buddhism, and paid respect to ancestral legacies.
The presence of senior community members continued in Krista Belle Stewart’s Potato Gardens Band (2014–ongoing), a two-channel performance documentation that illustrates the transfer of Syilx songs sung by her great-grandmother, Terese Kaimetko, on her family land to various past or future audiences, in a vivid attempt to extend lived Indigenous knowledge in the face of long-term colonial erasure. In this performative work, Stewart plays a recording of the songs to a number of family members, which was livestreamed from Spaxomin (Douglas Lake), Syilx (Okanagan) territory—Stewart’s home territory—to an audience in Vancouver last year. Now acting as a recording of a recording apparatus, the work combines the use of technology and the transfer of ancestral learning to revive—and, in a way, digitize— ephemeral and fragile cultural knowledge.
In contrast, Morris Lum’s digitizing and re-presenting of newspaper images from the Calgary Herald from several decades ago opens up portals into Chinese Canadians’ forced participation in mainstream Canadian society after the country lifted its exclusionary policies targeting residents of Chinese descent. Seemingly composed of multiple realities, the photographs—each of which is titled after its serial number in the archives at the Glenbow Museum, which Lum visited—are snapshots of the seemingly ideal social life of Chinese Canadians from that era, such as a couple wearing Western-style clothing at a barbeque event, two women pleasantly reading a cookbook and a woman posing after having been crowned at a beauty pageant. Echoing the title of the series Subtle Gestures (2018), Lum’s straightforward but instantly enticing flipping, mirroring and stacking of the images is executed in a rather breezy manner. These bizarre, rarely-shown photographs are given a new life, and simultaneously ask the viewer: How far did and can assimilation go? How has its effects trickled down to the present day, the younger generation? What role has assimilation played in masking the clash of different cultural characteristics?
Although quite literally presented by virtue of multiple technical extensions of photographic mediums, the exhibition is less about upending standard photo-chemical processes and more about developing artistic approaches to reshaping history, an ongoing process. If the marginalization of certain groups is perpetuated by the way its members are represented (or not) in mainstream media, the foregrounding of material experimentation in this show functions as a counter-attack on those limiting modalities.