Taking Back Space

Commodified Trauma and Supernatural Gentrification reviewed
By S F Ho
"Normalize Suicidality" by TJ Felix. Image Credit: Solomon Chiniquay

Normalize Suicidality by TJ Felix. Image credit: Soloman Chiniquay.

Commodified Trauma and Supernatural Gentrification
Artists: TJ Felix, Kitty Guerin, Erica Masuskapoe
Curated by Jaz Whitford, Vines Arts Festival
December 1–20, 2021
Access Gallery
Vancouver, BC

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Commodified Trauma and Supernatural Gentrification is about taking back space. Highlighting artists that typically would not get support from a bureaucratic government-funded gallery system, the work in this exhibition invokes voices missing from the galleries and artsy developments that pepper the Downtown Eastside alongside upscale restaurants and vegan gyms. Espousing the rhetoric of the liberal left while cloaking themselves in an invisible veneer of middle-class respectability politics, organizations that operate in the colonial non-profit artist-run centre model have too-often been unwelcoming of the vibrant, complicated, and disproportionately Indigenous community of drug users, sex workers, and mentally ill, houseless and criminalized folks that live in the DTES. By situating themselves in the area without cultivating significant relationships in the community, organizations choose to further build upon the unrecorded displacements and deaths that has come to define the gentrification of the neighbourhood.

When I visited the show and spoke to curator Jaz Whitford and artist TJ Felix, they were firm in explicitly framing the exhibition within these very specific socioeconomic constraints with the very material intention of generating funds for artists in need just before the holidays. Prices were scrawled in marker on the wall and tables in the back were selling prints, stickers, jewelry, and tea. However, the works in the show also very obviously excel beyond the exclusionary limitations of the art world that TJ and Jaz so thoroughly described. Borrowing occasionally from the graphic language of comics, zines and memes, the exhibition unflinchingly asserts necessary, compelling, and challenging stories of so-called marginalization with caustic humour and poignant imagery.

Using watercolour, marker, and pencil crayon on paper, Erica Masuskapoe takes us on a tour of “Vancouver” parks from her perspective as a 2-spirited Nehiyaw Okihcihtâw Iskwew (Cree Warrior Woman) trickster, shapeshifter, and land defender. Parkland, as seen through Masuskapoe’s eyes, is not a site of recreation but a colonial space of ongoing displacement paved over with lawns, scented with sewage, and scattered with dog farts. Through depictions of places such as Trout Lake, Crab Park, Grandview, and Camp KT at Strathcona Park, Erica shares glimpses of anti-poverty organizing interspersed with very gay moments of checking out cute cops sent in as a tent city “task force” and making out in Dude Chilling Park. The drawings are adorned with spiky hand-lettered commentary and lots of Anarchy A’s that spill out of the frame and onto the wall with rallying calls to Skoden, Be Gay Do Crime and Land Back. Rendered in black and white with subtle hints of colour, a view of the Twin Sisters mountains shares the respect and care for the land that informs Masuskapoe’s artwork and the desire for its return to original inhabitants that include salmon, beaver, and indigenous plant species.

"The Negotiation of Destruction" by Erica Masuskapoe. Image Credit: Solomon Chiniquay
The Negotiation of Destruction by Erica Masuskapoe. Image credit: Soloman Chiniquay.
"WANISKA - ARISE - EACH DAWN LIFE STOPS AND WORSHIPS THE SUN" by Erica Masuskapoe. Image Credit: Solomon Chiniquay
WANISKA - ARISE - EACH DAWN LIFE STOPS AND WORSHIPS THE SUN by Erica Masuskapoe. Image credit: Soloman Chiniquay.
Favouring a palette of purple, blue, turquoise, and pink, Kitty Guerin from xwməθkwəy̓əm shares a cartoon world populated by amphibious creatures, teenage teddybears, disembodied eyeballs, and violet-skinned figures that seem to be in a constant state of metaphysical transformation. One painting in this allegorical universe takes us to a nebulous pink room where a pink fire is observed by two pink and purple creatures that remind me of salmon. The fire emits a yellow light which seems to be watched over by a benign white hazy being. In the background we can see the skyline of a city with “Let it Burn!!!” written in all-caps lettering. Guerin’s cousin shares with me that this obscure scene depicts Kitty and their sister watching the city burn down, but some drawings in a more graphic style carry their message more explicitly. A one-page comic offers viewers a restaurant scene in which layers of Indigenous representation and experience are dissected. A grey-haired customer with a darker complexion and a medicine wheel on their jacket is asked to leave the restaurant for not wearing formal attire while drunken people in racist sports gear and headdresses party in the background. At another table, a lighter-skinned person looks uncomfortable as they’re told that they “don’t look native at all”. Meanwhile, peering outside a window onto Hastings Street we can see youth being arrested. Tiny figures with drums block an intersection and another tiny figure holds a Land Back sign while news cameras film the scene.
"Let It Burn" by Kitty Guerin. Image Credit: Solomon Chiniquay
Let It Burn by Kitty Guerin. Image credit: Soloman Chiniquay.
Looking at TJ Felix’s art feels like being immersed in encroaching layers of dirt and trash generated by a city that is systemically destroying you. Layers of white-out, marker, colour, and collage transform Uncle Fatih’s pizza boxes until they are unrecognizable while a matching window installation encourages gallery visitors to follow suit and deface pizza boxes “as if art was ur only means of survival.” Methadone bottles decorated with white-out messages and beer cans covered in duct tape inscribed with the names of dive bars adorn a gallery plinth topped by a garbage can. Historic and cartoon images of noble natives mix with selfies and family photos. Myth and pop culture mix in paintings and comic pages laced with memories of cops, social workers, ruptured family ties, video games, life on the reservation and in the streets. More layers of paint, nail polish and detritus swathe and envelop toy figurines until they metamorphose into garish polychromatic urban mutants. A sloping skull titled Normalize Suicidality sits on a plinth covered in scraps of artwork and scrawls of marker that plead “Talk to me don’t call the cops on me”. It is dressed in hide, beads, a broken meth pipe, a plastic gun, burnt ID photos, bones, smokes, hair… and a tiny cowboy hat. Previously, I was talking about how CT+SG excels beyond the limitations of the white cube, but in Felix’s work this excess is taken to visceral intensities that literally extend to every surface in the gallery.
"Normalize Suicidality" by TJ Felix. Image Credit: Solomon Chiniquay
Normalize Suicidality by TJ Felix. Image credit: Soloman Chiniquay.
Artistic expression is not a luxury; it’s a basic human need and desire. For those who are invested in any form of cultural production, this begs the question of whether one is taking part in a culture that supports the creation of art in the communities that need it most or in one that exploits and excludes these voices and perspectives. Stemming from colonial, academic, and non-profit culture, it is evident that Canadian artist-run spaces can only go so far. If the default modality of presentation is, as is so common as of late, a watered-down anxiety about the state of the world wrapped in a neoliberal lexicon of wellness and care, not only is this pretty boring it is also insidious. If you don’t speak in a nice way, if you shout and cry and make bad jokes and talk about hard shit, do you still deserve to be heard? The works in Commodified Trauma and Supernatural Gentrification present a fuller range of experiences, emotions, and ways of being than what is deemed acceptable or fundable in whatever is called the art world at present. It’s not up to these artists to navigate how to participate in this increasingly futile tradition called contemporary art. But for those who are invested in any form of cultural production, their work crucially and vividly addresses the structural and cultural changes necessary for the arts to go beyond inclusion.
S F Ho
S F Ho is an artist.
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