Reclaiming Fabled Territory

A review of Memory and Desire
By Larissa Lai

Share Article

He faces them, dressed in a soldier's uniform, sword at his side, explorer's map in hand and lush uncorrupted Canadian landscape behind. His eyes are cast slightly up and aside, as if consciously looking away from them, perhaps disdainful, perhaps dreaming of conquests to come. He is a colonizer par excellence, and his name is General William Frederick, Second Duke of Gloucester.

He looks on from within an elaborate frame, facing into the main room which houses Memory and Desire a exhibit by eleven local women at the Vancouver Art Gallery from March 7 to April 12, 1992. On the ground floor, surrounded around and above by colonial images, the show is packed into three rooms. The work is emotionally dense with honesty, with the pain or disappointment of loss, with the troubled joy of remembering, with the affirmation of long buried desires. It is exciting to see such strong, introspective work adamantly putting down roots in such a location. The work is confident and mature. It seems to say, "We belong here".

Following on the heels of Fabled Territories , an exhibition of British South Asian photography, curated by Sunil Guptaand sponsored by the Leeds Gallery in London, the success and scale of Memory and Desire was largely a result of protests from the community and the Artists' Coalition for Local Colour. They were concerned about the lack of outreach to the local South Asian community with respect to Fabled Territories, which, according Haruko Okano, went up quietly, with little publicity and no opening.

The Coalition acted in solidarity and with the support of the British artist in Fabled Territories. The Coalition was concerned with the way issues of race are traditionally defined. That is, as separate from issues of local vs global. International exhibitions by artists of colour should not be used as means by which to placate demands by local artists of colour, and dominant art institutions should deal with their own racism.

Okano notes that Memory and Desire breaks the aura of mystique around the notion of art as separate from the everyday lives of people. That work which is meaningful can be produced and shown without the producer needing the validation of the title 'artist' has immense implications for producers in marginalized communities for two rea­sons. Some are excluded from the definition 'artist' by the European art beauocracy which has traditionally validated only Eurocentric art. Others do not choose to label themselves that way. Others do not choose to label themselves that way (in order to deny the validity of a term that has seldom included racially conscious producers of colour).

The exhibit consists of a collaborative piece, and eleven individual works by local Vancou­ver artists Ana Chang, Sherida Levy, Alexis MacDonald-Seto, Shani Mootoo, Marianne Nicolson, Haruko Okano, Linda Ohama, Sandra Semchuk, Alfreda Steindl, and Kiki Yee. British visiting-artist-in-residence, Sutapa Biswas, conducted the workshop during which these works were constructed, and is represented in the collaborative piece. Because of space limitations, this review will deal with the collaborative piece only.

The collaborative piece is made up of windows into the lives and histories of each of the eleven women. Each artist has hung a trans parency sandwiched between two pieces of plexiglas. Behind each plexiglas window is a shelf holding a number of items significant to the personal history of each artist. Image and object-the first represents the subject visually, the second affirms a history, a physical sense oftime and belonging. Each window is like a small altar to the past and the future, contrapuntal melodies setting one another off.

Clothing is used by a number of the artists to represent belonging. In Sherida Levy's piece, masculine shoes placed beside feminine shoes are used to indicate differences in character between siblings. In Kiki Yee's piece, a stranger is mistaken for a dearly loved grandfather partially because of his clothing.

Clothing, as an outer trapping of culture, is used in Sutapa Biswas's piece to suggest both location and separation. Longing and belonging. Two hands hold one another tenderly above a heap of fabric: denim and Indian silk. One hand has a traditional style bracelet on it. Are we to suppose that the individual belonging to the unbraceleted arm dresses in denim, while the other dresses in silk? Perhaps they are reaching across generations, across the evolution of culture from one with a history in Asia to one which looks to the West and incorporates not only Western dress, but Western ideology and Western desires into its lifestyle. These two cultures are connected. One has given birth to the other. They exist on a continuum, there is no clean line between one and the next.There is tenderness between them, but they are both aware of the violence that has been done, of how their relationship is mediated by the British colonizers. Behind them on the shelf is a little pile of rocks. Paper slips are strewn among them to make the phrase: "to touch stone'.' Although stones, like culture, seem solid, seem to keep still, they too change over time as they are worn by the elements. Haruko Okano's piece uses clothing to represent culture and belonging. Okano references ritual, material desire, and how these things are reinterpreted, and incorporated into the lives of individuals who come to belong to two cultures. On the plexiglas are two little girls ofJapanese descent dressed as flower girls for a Western-style wedding. On the shelf in the back is a house shrine complete with incense, oranges, a household god, and two photographs, presumably of one of the artist's ancestors. In one of the photos she is dressed in a kimono, in the other, a smart, Western-style suit circa 1920. In Okano's piece, the photos seem to represent both memory and desire, documents to trigger feelings from the past, but specifically framed (in the past) to represent the kinds of things the subjects and/or the photographer perceived as desirable. Although it is less clear here than in her individual piece, there is reference to the notion that belonging to both cultures, however much one wants to, is not as simple as putting on the clothing and cultural practices of the West. In this piece, as with others in the collaborative work, the use of family photos necessitates the insertion of a non-white face. An Asian face in Western clothing speaks volumes, not only in terms of the impossibility of assimilation, no matter how much it is desired, but also in terms of the sacrifice of a part of the one's self, represented by clothing, but meaning so much more.

Alfreda Steindl's piece deals with a memory of her mother, reconstructed from small fragments of the past, a mother that belonged to her only in fragments, having left her marriage and her child, early in Alfreda's life. She comes back in photographs and occasional postcards. Perhaps the photographs themselves are the tangible memories, part of a paper correspondence exchanged between mother and daughter. Photographs and postcards, memories of photographs and post cards-that is all. There is no original blood memory. In this piece the relationship between personal and mass-generated images is striking. The plexiglas image of Steindl's mother, in a room full of books, dressed in fashionable 1920s lingerie, suggests both a real woman, Mother, and a popular image, an ideal of what a mother should be. She is at once real and mythological.

What separates the mother and daughter in Ana Chang's piece is a language barrier. Using text in English and Chinese, she calls her audience directly into question. Mounted in the plexiglas are two images, her mother's face and her own. They are layered in such a way that it is impossible to tell which features belong to which face; the lines and features of each are blurred.They are both looking at one another, and such an intrinsic part of one another that the boundaries between them are undefinable. Beneath them is text in both English and Chinese. As the viewer faces the piece, the English text is in mirror image. The Chinese text is the right way around, but unless you know how to read it, there is no other means of access into it. Since, looking front on, the most legible text is in Chinese, the piece privileges a Chinese speaking audience. It could very well be the first piece to be shown in the VAG which does so. At another level, the only audience for the mother is the daughter, and vice versa. That they can not understand one another because of the language barrier is indicated in the confusion of the jumbled layers.

The use of two languages in Linda Ohama's One Man, Two Chairs and the Land, produces exactly the opposite effect; instead of confusion, there is a painful clarity. A man sits in a wide open field in a garden chair, looking into the distance at a blossoming cherry tree. Beside him is another chair, empty. One gets the feeling a ghost is sitting there. Imprinted on the wide open sky in the photograph are the Orders from the BC Security Commission which required Japanese-Canadians in Vancouver to leave their homes and businesses and report to Hastings Park or other internment camps. The text is highly legible in both English and Japanese, so that its intended audience, Japanese­Canadians living on the West coast just after the bombing of Pearl Harbour, will make no mistake about what it says. The injustice of that legislation, the sense of loss and longing for his coastal home, and the vastness of the land that separates him from Vancouver are apparent in the wide open space and the man's distant gaze.

In Alexis MacDonald-Seto's piece a representation of a personal experience is layered over a representation from popular culture to demonstrate how beauty and ugliness become equated with white­ness and non-whiteness, respectively. The plexiglas portrays an image of her mother as Miss English Bay, 1952. She looks white. Behind her is an image of the same woman as a child dressed as the evil stepmother in Walt Disney's Snow White. Beneath that is a miniature log cabin, and a perfect suburban home. The two homes suggest a polarized notion of culture, indicating two discreet places of belonging.

The girl disguised as the evil stepmother, who's skin is emphatically not 'snow white: evokes the process of 'othering,' the mainstream identification of a non-white subject as bad, as ugly, and as unworthy of love. Both Snow White and the evil stepmother in Walt Disney's story desire the same things-youth, beauty, and, as a consequence, heterosexual desirability. Because Snow White has it, she is deemed to deserve it, and gets the handsome prince. The stepmother, on the other hand, has lost the privilege of her beauty; she is no longer the "fairest (or whitest) of them all''. While her desire for beauty is no different from Snow White's, because of her age, she is portrayed as unworthy of beauty and as evil and vain for wanting to be beautiful. The implications of this tale are 'agist,' having more to do with the displacement of older women by younger women, in the eyes of the mirror, and in the eyes of men. Remember, in the Walt Disney adaptation (which is recognizably represented in this work, and referenced more explicitly in MacDonald-Seto's individual piece), the mirror speaks with a male voice, and could be assumed to exert a male gaze, just like the handsome prince.

For Blanche, "Age 6'; the Metis girl disguised as the evil stepmother the desired thing is not beauty bestown by youth, but beauty bestown by whiteness. It is not only from the gaze of the mirror (herself? a man?) that she is displaced, but also from her own land, and her place in a society which existed before the advent of the European colonizers who brought with them such tales as "Snow White" in the first place. The racial dimension of beauty, of the lost thing, suggests other also gathers them together in one place. The things lost as well: land, a home, power, a more healthy structure of social organization. That fact that she grows into the white-looking beauty on the plexiglas, is both positive and ironic; positive because, unlike the evil step­mother, she has attained the beauty she desired, ironic because between her identity and her desire, the notion of beauty itself has become less clear cut than it seemed when only white girls played Snow White. Beauty has been pointed out for what it is in Western society, that is, racially specific.

The feeling of loss that often goes with intimate memories is also present in Marianne Nicolson's Melkwolo: To Remember. On the plexiglas are layers of images. On top, six Native children smile into the camera. Their photograph sits on top of a photo of unspoiled land, sky and water, a spiritual and physical homeplace. These photos appear to be attached to a black background with buttons. It is as though the memory of childhood itself has been colonized and has become an artifact. On the shelf in the back the word "melkwala" (to remember) is printed inside the outline of a house. To remember and use a word from Kwakiutl is an act of resistance.To remember the past, associated with childhood and the Kwakiutl language is painful because of all the things that have happened between the image and the present. It is also a celebration of survival.

Shani Mootoo's Wedding Album is the only piece in the collaboration that deals specifically with desire in terms of sexuality, and also the only consciously lesbian work. The plexiglas panel is a collage of photos ­of landscape, of family, of celebration and ritual. All of these images refer to a home and family in Trinidad. Directly on the wall above the shelf is a photograph of the artist kissing another South Asian woman. Text on this image reads: "On looking back, I find that I have, for the most part, thought, said and done whatever I pleased ...at great expense. No greater, however than to have thought, said and done, to discover, uncover and know'.' Between this image and the collage on plexiglas, sits a scale with a model house, car, wedding ring and treasure chest on one side, and on the other, a slip of paper with the words "autonomy'; "self-definition'; and "pride" printed on it. The notion of a trade-off, of things balancing out, comes from a realization that there is no complete sort of belonging in either her Canadian or her Trinidadian home. In Trinidad, there are family expectations of heterosexuality and material desire for the items which represent a conception of home and success. In Canada, there is a measure of anonymity that facilitates an out lesbian identity, without the kinds of repercussions for the rest of the family that would occur if one lived in the same city, or even country. But in Canada, she has no blood family. The specificity and the support of the South Asian Trinidadian commu­nity is not as present to affirm that part of the artist's identity. What exists in its place are only the images from imported magazines, and images generated to cater to a tourist audience. In affirming those parts of herself which turn to different communities to find her places of closest belonging, the artist also gathers them together in one place. The margins intersect in the physical presence of her work, and in the artist herself.

That work from the everyday lives of women working at a personal and community level, without the validation of the art bureaucracy, is showing in one of the VAG's main gallery spaces, is a break with convention. The space in which the show is currently housed is not the space which was initially offered. From its inception, until very late in the game, the exhibit was slated to go up in what is publicly known as the "Children's Gallery'; although the VAG's administration has lately been referring to it as the "Annex Gallery''. Protests by a number ofthe artists from the inside, and outside pressure by the Artists' Coalition for Local Colour, compelled the VAG to offer an exhibition space that would not undermine the validity and importance of the show.

The publicity and the support for the event's opening was not as extensive as that hoped for. Invitations were prepared on in-house stationary and mailed too late for even local people to receive them in time for the opening. Initially the number of invitees to the opening was restricted to one hundred, allowing less than ten for each artist. A number of artists remarked that their extended families were larger than that, and that to invite only some family members and exclude others would be to bring about internal animosities that might last for generations. To solve the problem, the artists took on a share of the responsibility for the opening so that more people could be accommodated.

Judith Mastai, the Head of Public Programmes, assured me that that her administration has been committed to increasing the representa­tion of artists of colour since 1988, and indeed that Memory and Desire is part of an on-going project at the VAG. However, Memory and Desire is the first show to include so many local producers of colour dealing specifically and overtly with issues of marginalization and identity. The other workshops that were organized in a similar manner to the one which resulted in Memory and Desire, and that involved artists ofcolour as facilitators, were usually intended for either students or seniors (marginalized groups in their own right). The other workshops did not deal with issues of representation, and if they resulted in exhibitions, were displayed in the Children's Gallery. Nevertheless, I was also told that if policy and tradition had anything to do with it, the Memory and Desire artists would be invited back either for shows or to give workshops. As assurance that local artists have been supported in this way in the past, Jeff Wall and Ken Lum were quoted as examples. There was no reference, however, to the fact that both of these artists received their initial validation outside Canada; it was only after they had attained international acclaim that they gained the support of the institutions at home. It is understandable that in such an inhospitable climate for art in general, that the VAG is concerned about its own validity as an institution among corporate, government and/or cultural institutions. The question remains as to whether it should be the institution which validates the artists (be they between themselves and the Memory and Jeff Wall, Ken Lum or the artists in Memory Desire artists, differences which are and Desire) or vice versa.

Mainstream institutions still seem to have a problem with the notion of voice, and are uncomfortable specifically with what is local and not white. It is okay to address one's own racism, as long as one maintains control over what is said by being the only one to speak. It is okay to invite discussions around racism and racial identity in other countries, such as Britain (in the case of Fabled Territories), South Africa, China, and even the United States. To admit racism is alive and well in one's own backyard, even within the hallowed halls of our finest monuments to 'culture' is another question. Suddenly, we are talking about re-ghettoizing the already marginalized. It is time that the white cultural mandarins make a distinction between groups who identify themselves as marginalized and the groups who do the marginalizing in the first place. Accusations from the administration of reverse racism, or of being made to feel marginalized do not take into consideration the vast and historical power (and income) differences which are statistically related to race. With such advantages in terms of power and privilege, based on race, the perpetrators of the notion of reverse racism have a severe case of logical discontinuity on their hands. Women of colour can not oppress, as the white administrators of major institutions can, with the weight of history and of institution­alized racism behind them. While the VAG espouses a liberal policy to the effect of "everyone is welcome regardless of... " that "regard­less of" only reluctantly and reactively includes people who have an awareness of their own oppression with regards to race. Everyone is welcome, as long as they do not recognize the historic (racist) agenda of the institution.

Frieze and handprint design by Sherazad Jamal.
Redux Handprint
Larissa Lai
Larissa Lai is a writer, poet, and educator.
More
[smartslider3 alias="evergreen-ads"]