I have been thinking about what it means to be a racialized person in the arts, and what kinds of tactics and strategies we’ve developed to move through these spaces. We wear politics on our skin; to be racialized is to live, every day, with a myriad of projected assumptions. I no longer see this as a burden. In my writing, programming, and commissioning, I privilege the work and experience of Black women in particular—and Black, Indigenous, racialized or marginalized folks more generally—because, as I learned from the Combahee River Collective, the position of Black women is the best starting point from which to shift, if ever so slightly, the whiteness (still very often regarded as “neutral”) that structures so many arts institutions.
My curiosity about the many ways in which we navigate the art world came after an experience I had in 2017, when I was invited to give a presentation about the work of an older Black painter whose life’s work was being surveyed in an exhibition. I talked about the need to contextualize Black artists in a Black Canadian art history. And since that art history still goes mostly unremarked in official accounts, I suggested art historians should note the absented presence of those practices in art historical narratives and do the research necessary to establish this context. Each of the speakers that followed did exactly what I warned against: they largely situated the Black artist’s work in European and euro-Canadian art histories. During the group panel that followed, I was looked to as a kind of moral arbiter. A Black woman addressing white supremacy in art history made the other speakers—and the audience—uncomfortable. I had touched a nerve and triggered white fragility. Instead of thinking through the issues I had raised in my observations, the other panelists performed an excessive deference that felt, to me, like thinly veiled, aggressive defensiveness.
Had I taken the call—racialized writer talking about racialized artist—in the wrong direction? Was my role there as a Black critic in front of a mostly white audience on a mostly white panel speaking about a Black artist to appease? Even the artist, who was in the audience that day, wanted to avoid the racial framework I used to discuss his work. Though I have noticed some racialized people in the art world try hard to help white people discover structural racism, I have no interest in doing that (very generous) labour.
In the year since this event, I have gradually shifted my practice to circumvent white fragility and enact a politics of care and advocacy that strengthens my community and empowers overlooked artists and art workers. I’ve developed a way of working and making career choices that helps me avoid the drain of dealing with those whose equivocation and inability to confront systemic racism puts an increased burden on the racialized and marginalised people in their midst. It’s not a fool-proof methodology, but it has brought me a certain amount of peace in my everyday work. My strategy at that panel, when invited to perform as a racialized arts worker, was of deflection: I did my research and asked the questions that I had hoped would evidence the structural hold of white supremacy that it felt obliged to address for a comprehensive reading of the work. But this is not the only way. I have noticed a variety of strategies used by racialized artists–of which deflection and refusal are only a few—to navigate their careers.
The stakes for BIPOC strategies of survival within the art world are higher now, in the wake of a relatively recent, hypervigilant attention to the representation of marginalized artists in exhibitions, and to the inclusion of marginalized art workers in institutions. Sure, in some ways it has been heartening, but it has also made me nervous and suspicious. Do these changes actually create space for people and reorder institutional structures? What are the terms of inclusion? The kind of work that marginalized artists and art workers are frequently called upon to do is more than just to represent, share, and educate (kinds of labour that are rarely expected of white artists or art workers). Speaking from the position of the “other” in mostly white institutions is a form of unremunerated emotional labour. Though I have found a balance in my own work, I fear Black, Indigenous and racialized or marginalized people are increasingly being called upon to fill art organizations and other creative platforms with diversity, only to ultimately occupy temporary or static positions within these institutions. Meanwhile, these organizations continue to be run by successions of mostly white, mostly male people in executive and directorial positions.
What if all of the inclusive and diverse exhibitions that have been curated, all of the critical essays that have been written, and all of the self-congratulatory diversity panels and talks that have been hosted ultimately had no effect whatsoever on the structural make-up of cultural institutions in Canada?
In what follows I share some of the conversations I have had with BIPOC artists working in Canada about different tactics and strategies they’ve used to protect and pursue their art practices. The artists I speak with are finding ways to navigate structures that privilege whiteness and, at the same time, tend to a fulfilling development of their art practices.
In his story “You’re Not the Indian I Had in Mind,” Thomas King discusses the journeys of ethnographic documentary photographer Edward Curtis, an artist who dedicated a large portion of his career to creating a series of images that captured his misguided idea of the so-called noble, disappearing Indian. He carried a trunk of costumes across America and photographed Indigenous people he dressed in his outfits. For Curtis, King says, “the idea of Indians was already fixed in time in space.” King ponders the importance of Curtis’s work and uses it as a foil to show the complete fiction of a single, definable and knowable Indigenous identity.
Walter Kaheró:ton Scott, an artist who grew up in Kahnawake, in a Kanien’keha community, has described the ways in which Indigenous artists are encouraged to tell a certain kind of story in the contemporary art world. “I think Indigenous artists get coerced into perpetuating larger, general narratives of sorrow or grief or family,” he says. The thing is, however, that the people with those expectations “want you to show complicated narratives but they want the emotions around those narratives to be simple.” For Indigenous artists trying to gain recognition in a mostly white art world, the demand for this sorrow-story constrains what they can represent. This demand simplifies rather than makes space for the complexities of any single person’s lived experience. In reality, all people, not just BIPOC, “are sort of living in an in-between place between fixed identities,” Scott explains, “and having self-reflexivity in how you navigate that is important.”
When he graduated from art school in Montreal, Scott started drawing the Wendy comic series as a way of making light of some of the pressure he was feeling as an emerging artist. In the satirical Wendy-verse, the eponymous protagonist, an emerging artist, is also the artist’s own white girl avatar. Awash in self-doubt, she shakily navigates ambition, anxiety, and a susceptibility to excessive drinking and partying. The comics are poignant and funny because they ring so true to anyone who’s ever been to art school or hung around in an art scene. Scott is often read as a white, straight cis male, and he describes how whiteness, both Wendy’s and the one sometimes ascribed to him, has influenced his career: “I managed to enter the artworld under the pretense that I was white,” he says.
The decision to use Wendy as a passing point of entry was strategic. Scott knew the stories he could tell with her would be taken as universal in a culture that maintains whiteness as neutral. She’s an easy figure to latch onto, especially for readers accustomed to white stories and white protagonists. In some ways, Scott used Wendy as a trojan horse. “It was only when Wendy became successful that I introduced an Indigenous character’s perspective through the lens of Winona,” he says, because, “at that point people can take it or leave it.” The character of Winona, a friend of Wendy’s, is an Indigenous artist who often presents a different understanding and approach to the issues Wendy confronts. As Scott explained in a 2015 interview, “it’s a double-edged sword of creating a space using what’s available and then afterward slipping in thornier, more important, political, racial and identity-based narratives. And at the same time parodying that that’s what’s happening.”
Scott has made increasingly complicated stories. In 2017 he created the multimedia work Xinona for the National Film Board of Canada’s Legacies 150 series. According to the website copy, the 13 projects were commissioned by diverse artists to explore “legacy and inheritance, 150 years into our collective journey.” The “our,” of course, refers to Canada and its history of settler colonialism. In his contribution, Scott tells the story of Xinona—ostensibly related to the Indigenous character Winona in the Wendy-verse—and her frustration with the “breathless ethno-cultural ‘I’” she is called upon to perform in order to please funding bodies and gain access to the engine of success. Xinona is a ludicrous and profoundly lucid tale in which Scott leaves behind his perfectly legible white girl avatar to invent a thriller on a planet made of Kombucha. In the NFB piece’s final moments, Xinona faces the fact that “the deeper she gets, the less she feels like she’s any one thing anymore. She becomes less of everything: a gender, Indigenous to Kombucha planet, Indigenous to anything, a body, a brain, a citizen, an artist.”
In this work, Scott manages to evade clear-cut identities, and this kind of playfulness with storytelling has become a distinct feature of his style. He prefers the interstice, the uncertain tension of a place that allows us to humorously confront the serious and ongoing problems of colonialism. In the NFB piece, a reimagining of the Wendy-verse, Scott finds a way to do the work of jamming common expectations of representation.
Toronto based, Jamaican-Canadian sculptor Tau Lewis uses found materials to create environments and sculptural portraits that are often explicitly identity-based. When I ask the how she has encountered racialization in the arts, she describes working with white art writers and curators who misconstrue her work. “They take anything on my website that has to do with being Black—something that was written specifically about one set of works—and apply it to any and everything.” She attributes this to a lack of research. “It’s lazy and it’s also a bit of an insult to my entire practice because it’s saying that everything that I do or make falls under the exact same narrative, which is totally untrue.” It’s as if they have an inability to really see the work, or that they have an inability to think through it on their own without broadly categorizing it in relation to race.
Lewis explains the ways in which these misapprehensions are systemic: “A lot of the time I think institutional or non-racialized curators are fulfilling a checklist and they want to include people that are minorities and racialized artists and represent their stories, but there’s only so far some of them will go to try and really understand what something is. And there’s only so much work that they’re going to do to properly represent something once they’ve checked that box.” In a 2015 article, I spoke about a similar carelessness in white Canadian art critics. I argued that when faced with work by racialized and Indigenous artists they experience anxiety that “stems from an inability to displace their assumptions of neutrality, and that without taking into account their own whiteness, they cannot examine the intimate relation of their own, exalted point of view with the perspective of the perceived ‘others.’” There is something of this anxiety in art workers as well, even in those who consider themselves woke. Oftentimes their engagements with racialized artists and their practices are shallow and end up flattening out possible complexity. Lewis agrees, “That’s part of institutional racism: overlooking the narratives of people of colour, forgetting to do the work—even if your intentions are good—and not putting the required time and care into something because it’s not easy for you to understand.”
What I understand as anxiety, Lewis regards as carelessness, an approach that can be dangerous. In order to counter this carelessness she is diligent to know who she is working with, and how her work will enter the world. This is her strategy for protecting herself and her practice from racism and miscontextualization. “I’m really hyper aware of the inquiries about anything to do with my work—any reason why people would be interested in working with me or purchasing or curating my work. I like to know what their intentions are, what their history is of interacting with or buying from, or working with, people of colour.”
In this way, Lewis uses a strategy of attention and care. To overcome tendencies that casually disregard complexity, her solution is to have more control. This manifests in her practice as an ongoing attention to the life of her sculptures. She knows who buys her work and maintains the right to check in on them, for visits or repairs, whenever needed. In material ways, she is not precious about what she creates. She is fine if the sculptures are kept outside, or unprotected from the elements: they are responsive to the changes of their environment, and will come apart if they have to. She is dedicated instead to maintaining relationships of intimacy with her creations, and through this ongoing relationship with her sculptures, she ensures that her guardianship cannot smoothly be dissolved with a purchase.
The conceptual artist Divya Mehra was born in Winnipeg, Manitoba to Indian parents. In the art world, Mehra’s survival tactic is refusal itself. Her performances, text-based works, sculptures and installations play with meaning and perception and draw viewers into multiple, simultaneous possible readings. She refuses to let the racialized experience be understood as separate from the racist assumptions that generate it. For example, her piece There are Greater Tragedies (2014) is an oversized black flag inscribed with the phrase “MY ARRIVAL IS YOUR UNDOING” in big, white block letters. The Postulation of Reality (2011) is a pink neon sign in which the cursive words “I’m you” and “I’m fucking you” flicker back and forth. Mehra’s works expose the viewer’s own cultural expectations and experiences. She reveals the tropes and assumptions those expectations and experiences are connected to. With humour and careful bravado, her works recuperate and redeploy common attitudes and in this way affect a release of tension (for some) by making visible what is felt or known but rarely openly acknowledged. Whether or not the viewer feels implicated, the candor of her sculptures and wordplay is difficult to resist. The work leaves you feeling awful or elated, but rarely anything in between.
Mehra says that as racialized artists and art workers in Canada, we are meant to feel that we do not deserve our success, and to be grateful for everything we get. “They think we get opportunities because we’re racialized,” she tells me over the phone, speaking of the racism she’s encountered. “They don’t know how to recognize our accomplishments!” She explains some of the ways in which her life and art career have been structured, to some degree, by the confines to which whiteness tends to relegate racialized artists. In Mehra’s experience, if you’re brown, the white art world in Canada won’t engage with your work: the color of your skin is enough for them to situate you and pre-determine your approach to art. Mehra has become familiar with these disturbing expectations and other forms of prejudice, and her artworks are often her way of speaking back.
People have a particularly hard time reading conceptual art as specifically political, she tells me. In other words, so-called ethnic art and conceptual art don’t mix. Mehra makes work that combines them anyway. “You have to tell Them, I’m not a Racist,” her 2017 exhibition at Georgia Scherman Projects, was the ultimate refusal. At first glance it seemed to leave the entire white-cube gallery space empty, while in actuality, the show was composed of wall-works that the viewers had to strain to see and read. “Working within the lexicon of capital-A Art,” one reviewer of the exhibition described, “one can’t help but notice that the white cube often fails to accommodate art about racialized identities without fetishizing or appropriating their power, forcing artists to play by their rules in order to gain legitimacy (often in its cheaper incarnation, visibility).” Mehra arranged words, phrases and translations based on one-liner jokes, as well as quotes gathered from her professional and personal life in white acrylic vinyl on white walls. The way the white on white aesthetic made the space seem empty echoed an oft-expressed sentiment that racism is a figment of the imagination of the people who experience it, when in actuality racism is often only invisible to those not conditioned by it. Mehra’s works in this exhibition also upend a white-cube assumption of presenting art objects to be consumed or bought. In this show, the work was not meant be brought home and forgotten: viewers could only leave with the experience of levity or discomfort they felt during the exhibition.
It takes an incredible amount of emotional energy to survive in a system that otherwise works to destroy you. Some strive to break down that system head-on; I’m interested in those who shape their own paths. Lewis and Mehra and Scott create and express themselves in a manner of infinite difference through strategies of complication, care, and refusal. These approaches foster spaces of freedom from the assumptions and expectations of the art world, or its terms of inclusion. Furthermore, the new lines of navigation they draw out—forged, of course, by generations of racialized artists who came before them—make it possible for other racialized artists to flourish. I want to move in concert with them. I want to ask new questions, tell different stories, practice care, and refuse complicity. If we achieve critical mass, we will cause a shift, just by doing our own, regular work.
These interviews were conducted in the summer of 2017, when the majority of this text was originally written.
Yaniya Lee is a Toronto-based writer and editor interested in the ethics of aesthetics. She is a founding collective member of MICE Magazine and she was the 2017-2018 writer-in-residence at Gallery 44, in Toronto. She currently works as associate editor at Canadian Art magazine and teaches art criticism at the University of Toronto.