Off Colour: Not just an ‘other’ screening

By Shani Mootoo

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'Off Colour' doesn't mean 'tainted'.
What I mean is getting off the topic of Colour.

We have witnessed, in the last three years or so, a tremendous increase in the visibility of artists of colour, an increase that has everything to do with a concerted effort by non-white and white activists to open up access to art media technologies, to skills, to curating and being curated, to exhibition, and to funding for these artists. Just about every festival nowadays has mandatory (unspoken) of colour programming.

It is only natural that the first of colour works (in whichever discipline) in this very tender phase of access and visibility would be screaming explorations of colonization, domination, marginality, home, hybridity.

In a recent interview in Paragraph magazine, John Clement Ball reminds Moyez Vassanji of an essay that he had written a few years ago in which he said, "...that the post-colonial migrant writer's first serious act of writing is a reclamation of the past, after which he or she has a basis from which to write about the present." (Substitute 'writing' for whichever art form suits you and the idea still holds).

Over time however a circle of unfortunates seem to have unwittingly evolved. Film and video festivals invariable have their of colour slots which at one time might have served to highlight these works and their urgent issues. But time has passed and artists and the discourses of race and identity have grown and are taking new shape and direction. But visibility and access strategies seem to have stagnated. A good deal of curatorial choices still suggest that in order for a tape by an of colour artist to merit screening, it must deal specifically with issues of colour and race, etc. otherwise there is confusion as to how and where to shape the program. Work produced by people of colour, regardless of the subject, must fall into the People of Colour Section, leaving the rest of the programming uncomplicated and "pristine." Only tapes that foreground race are easily slottable. In order to be curated, one's work must be straightforward and uncomplicated about its colour. And so, recognizing the currency of and flirtation with works that focus on the specificities of race, artists are reluctant to explore other areas. I believe that we must take risks with techniques and styles and explore the various genres of story and topic dissemination, for example: fiction, fantasy, mystery, etc. The medium itself stays stuck as a tool purely for activism, and goes unchallenged, undiscovered.

However well intentioned its beginnings, this strategy that we ourselves practice as curators and producers, has essentially deteriorated beyond ghettoization to its present form—a kind of benevolent and invisible segregation. It serves to keep us in 'our place', which really is someone else's place for us. I suggest that this current stagnation is actually an opportunity for quite an innovative and effective perpetuation of racism and exclusion. It's funny/bizarre how every good strategy can in time transform into the monster it was designed to destroy in the first place.

A by-product of the current climate is the paralysing fear of critically reviewing works by people of colour—particularly if the subject is racial oppression. White people, on one hand, are justifiably afraid and cautious of the potential for criticism to become a tool for a new oppression and silencing, and also of themselves being seen to be ignorant or politically incorrect. People of colour, on the other hand, are again, justifiably nervous to criticize for fear of our words being used against us and our kind. Of course there are very private pockets of hushed pre-empted discussion. But it is the artist who suffers most in the end, with no honest public discussion of her or his work. Except that if someone likes the work, then it's okay to go public. So omission speaks loudly but not eloquently. Even if producers succeed in shouldering the burden of representing this is no longer enough. Within our communities, patting ourselves on the back takes on an air of complacency. In the end, the artist is usually left emptied, yearning for valuable critical discussion as replenishment.

I suggest that this won't happen until we stop being seen, and seeing ourselves, as programmable only when we have race.

So after access, then what? When I ask this question, I'm not suggesting that access is a fait accompli. It's not as if tapes about race are no longer needed. Quite the contrary—issues of race will forever sit on the surface waiting to be honestly scratched, waiting until access is genuine and most importantly, decision making is shared equitably amongst us all. Still, to date, the racial mix in the faculties of the fine arts departments of the local art college and universities do not reflect any recognition of the urgency and importance of diversity. This makes me wonder if they have even been listening to the conversations and demands of the past ten years. Our local film institute, for all its show at outreach, still has only one staff person of a very specific colour who is expected to handle the programming for all but those without colour. More pertinently, our visibility as artists and curators is still parenthesized—we are still visible only as speciality items. I am reiterating this old news just to emphasize that race is not old and worn out—we haven't got that far along. I do wonder if such a glorious time will ever come. But simultaneously with the ever necessary vigilance of making and showing reclamation tapes, the individuality of a person of colour must be reckoned with.

To quote from Ian Rashid's catalogue essay for the South Asian Film and Video program, Beyond Destination at the Ikon Gallery in England (and replace the words 'South Asian' in the quoted passage below with what ever other monolithic group description you wish):

"Nayan Shah has written that as Black cultural workers we are offered the possibility not just to presume the existence and parameters of our communities and identities but, though our work, to create them. And as with any project that is concerned with articulating identity, there is always a fear that what might have been an attempt at clarification becomes an all too rigid characterisation which is narrow and prescriptive. An attempt to advocate one kind of difference serves merely, in the end, to mask other differences. In this way, the term 'South Asian' has become, for some, a rigid and alienating construct that eclipses, even disallows individualities."

So again I ask, "After access, then what?"

Access. Access to the privilege of normalcy— of being able to speak in our work of love, of death and longing, of mountains and the weather, of family relationships, of adventure and unfamiliar landscapes—to talk of our individual selves without being eclipsed by our colour, without everything that we do being interpreted as a metaphor for race. Visibility can be double edged.

We must feel free to make the kinds of tapes that we want. We must know that we will be afforded visibility with the continued diligence of recent years, coupled with new programming strategies that recognize each of us as individuals, rather than as a representative of a race.

Thank you very much to Wendy Oberlander for editorial suggestions, to Margo Kane, Monica Gagnon and Larissa Lai for discussion.

Frieze and handprint design by Sherazad Jamal.
Redux Handprint
Shani Mootoo
Shani Mootoo writes fiction and poetry, and is a visual artist and video maker. She is the recipient of the K.M. Hunter Arts Award, 2017 Chalmers Fellowship Award, and the James Duggins Outstanding Midcareer Novelist Award. Her forthcoming novel Polar Vortex will be published early 2020 by Book*Hug Press.
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