Editorial: Déjà Vu
by Merray Gerges
I began to formulate the questions and concerns that drive this issue when I went to a major biennial, in summer 2018, in which two thirds of the almost 50 artists were people of colour. The celebration of its unprecedented diversity epitomized the sentiment I’d been hearing echoed in Canada after sesquicentennial funding allowed for a seemingly unprecedented inclusion of BIPOC. I was reminded of a prescient quip by artist James Luna, when the 500-year anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s invasion signaled a “gold rush” for Indigenous artists in 1992, that Paul Chaat Smith recalls: “[Luna] knew the sudden attention Indian artists were receiving wasn’t likely to last, and it didn’t.”1 Smith quotes Luna: “So when people call me I have to ask ‘Why didn’t you call me before? You’re calling me now, but will you call me in ’93?’”
Later that summer when I was negotiating with a former employer for an unpaid sick leave to recover from job-induced PTSD and burnout, I had to wonder: What comes after these watershed moments, and how do they structurally take hold? How long could the effects of our work last if the people who are invested in doing it can’t last? I found myself having these conversations with BIPOC curators, critics and artists, who’ve invested in anti-racism activism in the Canadian art world since the ‘80s. Those surges in inclusivity that we’ve witnessed in the past few years are right on schedule in the cycle, many suspected; when the pendulum swings to one end it inevitably swings back to the other.
After artnet news published a report that found that “despite public perception, progress has in fact been quite limited” for women over the past decade, artist Adrian Piper called out2 the publication’s perpetuation of the art world’s pervasive ignorance that the report identifies, listing several significant moments in her career that the publication failed to report on. In a piece published in C Magazine’s last issue on “Ownership” titled “The Market Will Never Catch Up,” which questioned why the market in Canada left out the work of Black Canadian artists, the author initially wrote that Wangechi Mutu and Mickalene Thomas had been the only two Black women artists—designations that Piper has rejected— to have solo shows at the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO). I edited the sentence to include Sandra Brewster to that list, and thus erroneously insinuated that Brewster was the first Black Canadian woman artist to have a solo show at the AGO, when in fact, Brewster was the fourth. This fallacy discounted the work of those who came before her, and epitomizes the rush to proclaim “the first”—a desire to declare progress that is worth interrogating. Who does it serve? And if our predecessors have already done much of the work that we are now attempting but the lineages that connect us to it have been severed by amnesia—both intentional and unintentional, individual and institutional—how do we take stock of their work, to build on it?
“Visibility comes with its own challenges… Part of that involves a particular refusal of the kinds of practices that try to create singularities and exemplars,” scholar and curator Andrea Fatona tells her former student, curator Liz Ikiriko. The lack of rigorous criticism acknowledging genealogies of Black Canadian cultural production means that “we’re always going to end up with a void in the historical record of what happened,” says Fatona, who curated an exhibition of Winsom’s—one of Brewster’s predecessors—at the AGO.
But how many times must we repeat histories that are already documented yet perhaps deliberately disregarded? When Toronto artist, educator and activist Pamila Matharu was finally offered her first solo exhibition earlier this year, she centred a discarded archival tape of a 1993 panel at the AGO called “Identity in a Foreign Place.” She asks: “Are we going to end up in the garbage? Are we going to be lost in an archive?” With writer and MOMUS publisher Sky Goodden, she discusses honouring her art ancestors, how her role as an educator is a déjà-vu resistance tactic, and the illness and burnout that this work brings. The concern with institutional amnesia is also at the heart of curator and scholar Rachelle Dickenson’s conversation with her mentor, curator and scholar Lee-Ann Martin. They discuss Martin’s role in the production of two pivotal documents—”The Politics of Inclusion and Exclusion: Contemporary Native Art and Public Art Museums in Canada” and the “Task Force Report on Museums and First Peoples”—that examined the systemic exclusion (or troubled inclusion) of Indigenous art three decades ago, and put forth recommendations to alleviate it.
In their new, collaborative project Trajet, artists Dean Baldwin and Caroline Monnet honour the 11,000-year-old footprints made by Indigenous ancestors, which were uncovered in blue clay on the floor of Lake Ontario in 1908, and swiftly cemented over. In conversation with artist and technologist Aamna Muzaffar and writer, critic and editor, Jaclyn Bruneau, the artists discuss how several generations of Anishinaabe, Dene and Haudenosaunee Torontonians casting their prints in clay makes their predecessors’ presence tangible. Intergenerational witnessing has also been key to Jin-me Yoon’s performance and photo-based work for the past three decades, and writer Areum Kim reflects on its significance for her, personally, as a second-generation Korean settler. As both an artist and teacher, Yoon imagines intergenerational support systems that could facilitate solidarity between immigrant settlers and Indigenous people.
“Déjà Vu” suggests strategies that might be used to instil the memory of the artistic and activist work of those who have come before us, to both honour their contributions and avoid reinventing the wheel. Importantly, the contributors insist on evading the binary of “nothing’s changed” and “things are better!!! :)” both of which are simultaneously true and false. Instead of asking, “What can institutions do?”— which diffuses individual responsibility—this issue centres on what we, as members of institutions, can collectively do to transform them for ourselves.