In Visible Colours – Rosemary Heather In Conversation With Zainub Verjee

September 27, 2017 § Leave a comment

A groundbreaking film and video festival made for and by women of colour in late 1980s Vancouver stands as an important precedent for the return of identity politics

Still from Tracey Moffatt’s Nice Coloured Girls (1987), which made its Canadian premiere at InVisible Colours. Courtesy Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery, Sydney.

The personal trajectory of Zainub Verjee over the past four decades intersects with cultural moments that continue to resonate.

Born in Kenya and educated in the UK, Verjee arrived in Canada in the 1970s to study economics at Simon Fraser University. A close collaborator with Ken Lum in the early years of Vancouver’s photoconceptualism movement, and with Sara Diamond on a history of women’s labour in British Columbia, Verjee also helped build the international profile of the Western Front throughout the 1990s. Her policy work on the BC Arts Board in the early 1990s helped produce the province’s Arts Council Act, leading to the formation of the BC Arts Council, and she later worked on early digital initiatives at the Canada Council for the Arts and the Department of Canadian Heritage.

As a practicing artist in the 1980s and ’90s, Verjee was included in national and international group exhibitions, including “New Canadian Video” at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1994; “TransCulture,” a satellite exhibition at the Venice Biennale in 1995; “Traversing Territory, Part II: Road Movies in a Post-Colonial Landscape,” curated by Judith Mastai for the Portland Institute of Contemporary Art in 1997; and “Tracing Cultures III,” curated by Karen Henry and installed at the Ismaili Jamatkhana and Centre in Burnaby in 1997. (“A first when contemporary art was shown in a mosque in Canada,” says Verjee.)

 One of the defining legacies in Verjee’s career is In Visible Colours (IVC), an international festival in Vancouver dedicated to film and video by women of colour that she co-founded, with Lorraine Chan, in 1989. A landmark event of its time, IVC assembled works by then-emerging artists such as Tracey Moffatt, Gurinder Chadha, Alanis Obomsawin, Merata Mita and Mona Hatoum. IVC and the issues it foregrounded is one reason why, from Verjee’s perspective, the identity politics of today is in large part a return to a conversation that started in the 1980s.

Rosemary Heather: It’s been almost 30 years since you staged In Visible Colours, with more than 100 films and videos by artists from 28 countries and 75 international delegates in attendance. The event focused on global issues around diversity and representation. What do you think has changed in the intervening time? Have we seen any progress?

Zainub Verjee: In Visible Colours emerged amid contestations on nation building and the making of a global neoliberal order, as much as the social and political upheavals of the late 1970s and ’80s that foregrounded race, gender and the politics of cultural difference.

 IVC was primarily about the contested history of the modernist aesthetic and modernism in the visual arts and the making of the contemporary condition—as a historical marker—for the decolonized world. It asked: Who was defining this marker?

To reduce that conversation to diversity and representation can undermine the deeper issues of contested art histories and the politics of aesthetics. The reality today is that embedding oneself into such a discourse is still a massive challenge for people of colour, particularly women.

RH: So IVC was essentially informed by that era’s worldwide push for decolonialization, but with a stronger emphasis on discourse, correct?

ZV: IVC was made, not found; it was historically produced and was historically productive. Post-war decolonization led to a global societal upheaval.

There were transatlantic responses in the art world: In New York, for example, the Museum of Modern Art’s controversial “Primitivism in 20th Century Art: Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern,” in 1984, can be read in context of the ascendancy of two generations of Black artists (this includes South Asians) in the UK in the early 1980s. Their contrasting relationship to modernism, and opposition to anticolonial and postcolonial politics, resulted in the making of the Black British Arts movement.

In Canada, the 1951 Massey Report frames this nation-building project, and despite its multiple flaws—primarily its Eurocentric orientation— remains well entrenched today. The failure of the 1970 Royal Commission on the Status of Women led to a flurry of counter-events with the emergence of second-wave feminism. Race also became a major element in this collective endeavour and shook the cultural institutional apparatus. IVC was a forerunner of these phenomena.

RH: You worked with cultural theorist Stuart Hall, who was a key inspiration for Black British Arts—the radical political art movement founded in the UK in 1982 and inspired by anti-racist discourse and feminist critique. How did Black British Arts influence IVC?

ZV: Black as a label in Britain encompassed a broad range of non-European ethnic minority populations. Since I was from London and hooked into that scene, I closely followed Lubaina Himid’s set of three exhibitions beginning in 1983 and culminating with “The Thin Black Line” at the Institute for Contemporary Arts in 1985. Another important one was the one-off Third Eye festival of Third World cinema held in London and Birmingham in 1983. Together they addressed Black invisibility in the art world and engaged with the sociopolitical and aesthetic issues of the time.

Over that decade, artists and thinkers such as Hall, Sonia Boyce, Hanif Kureishi, Kobena Mercer and Rasheed Araeen, and institutions like the Black Audio Film Collective, Sankofa and Third Text, were other major influences. They informed me about the agency I had as a person of colour and how I could use that position to intervene on the racialized gender issues of cultural production and institutional discourse that had been unleashed by globalization and a new neoliberal order.

RH: Was this conversation also happening in Vancouver at the time?

ZV: Indeed. For instance, from the 1970s onwards, Chilean women in the exile community established themselves in Vancouver. Their activism against the Pinochet dictatorship influenced multiple sites: Simon Fraser University, artist scenes and centres, literary circles and left movements. Pinochet was, after all, the poster boy of the neoliberal regime!

In 1987, I started working at Women in Focus Society (WIF), a feminist, arts and media centre devoted to women’s cultural production in film, video and the visual arts in Vancouver. I recall the WIF exhibition “Mujer, arte y periferia” [Women, art and periphery], in 1987, raising complex questions about the gestures of Chilean women under dictatorship as well as the “placement” of women’s art.

It was within these larger contexts that I noticed there were no works by women of colour in WIF’s distribution collection. This overwhelming absence of the voice of women of colour in the Canadian context led to the first conversations that ultimately took the form of IVC.

RH:
 This sense of tumult at the end of the 1980s produced other exhibitions that were equally influential to the direction of IVC. Can you talk about that?

ZV: The two-year period leading to IVC in 1989 became coterminous with other exhibitions of equal critical import.

In Paris, in response to the colonial ethnography of MoMA’s “Primitivism” exhibition, Jean-Hubert Martin curated “Magiciens de la Terre,” presenting works by more than 100 Western and non-Western artists from 50 countries. In London, Araeen’s “The Other Story” invoked multiple modernities. And in Ottawa, Gerald McMaster’s “In the Shadow of the Sun” framed Indigenous contemporary expression without any apology, offering a definitive moment in the contemporary art history of Canada.

This post is adapted from an article in the Fall 2017 issue of Canadian Art.

Nasty

January 24, 2017 § Leave a comment

This essay was written to accompany the exhibition of the same name. Details below.

Donald Trump deriding his electoral opponent as a “nasty woman” is hardly the biggest problem associated with the new American president. The insult delivered during the third presidential debate does, however, have relevance to the bizarre state of affairs that is the United States in 2017. The country is currently in the grip of a self-inflicted catastrophe. Chaos is not too strong a word for what is unfolding; who knows where its all heading? But just think what the cause is — the threat of a woman holding the country’s highest office. Reality TV host and fraud businessman Donald Trump was thought a better alternative than that.

jmurphy_cobra

Jennifer Murphy, from collage series, 2016

Nasty personifies the idea of an embodied threat. On the occasion of Trump’s inauguration, the word takes on an added significance: as an emblem of resistance. Taking this challenge on, Nasty the exhibition is organized to coincide with the inauguration and the worldwide protests that are accompanying it. The idea of nasty connects with art in the latter’s embodied seductions — art is always in some sectors considered dangerous, in a tangible but hard-to-define way. We know from Plato that art is thought a program for deception; like misogyny, the social prejudice against it runs eons deep.  If artworks and women still engender a suspect reputation, what is the problem exactly?

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Image: Shannon Bool (photogram) 2016

Going back to Hilary, the New York Times ran an illuminating opinion piece last November 5th, three days before the election. Titled, “The Men Feminists Left Behind,” the author Jill Filipovic talks about an America (and by extension all of the West) in which men have enjoyed a default dominance, forever. “It was mostly white men in charge and it was white male experiences against which all others found themselves contrasted and defined.” The clearest indication that this status quo might be undergoing change is — what else? — the resistance to it expressed by Donald Trump’s electoral success. Filipovic outlines the many advances women have made in the past decades — “For women, feminism is both remarkably successful and a work in progress” — and notes that “men haven’t gained nearly as much flexibility.” Accurately derided in Vanity Fair as “shallow and mediocre,” Trump as US President is living proof that men still rule, regardless of how ill-suited they may be for the job.

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Nadia Belerique, from shelf series, 2016

Is the argument of this show then that artworks are like women? Clearly, yes. More specifically it proposes that both derive their power from a position of vulnerability. This position, however, produces in its turn an entire world of invention. Writing about Clinton’s loss to Trump in the election, the philosopher Rebecca Solnit notes: “power… is a male prerogative, which is to say that the set-up was not intended to include women.” If power is not “set up” for women to share in, they have to figure out other ways to get it. Faced with this reality, the appurtenances, so called, of the feminine are a way of owning it — if not power necessarily, then an equivalent force all its own.

An heightened relevance for feminist politics provides the context for this exhibition, but its not a political show. Nasty presents work by eight women artists, each one in some way investigating the visual culture of femininity. The types of practices on view are wide-ranging. Through surface collisions of ornamentation and draping, Shannon Bool evokes the figure of the feminine, as both historically specific and timeless. Stiletto heels, rendered as both support and staging ground, form the basis for Elizabeth Zvonar’s evocative collages. The power dynamics of looking take on new — gendered — meaning in Nadia Belerique’s shelf sculptures. Jennifer Murphy’s delicate sculptural collage works hint at the poisoned barbs that lie beneath the natural world’s seductions. Against an astringent blue background, the title Shady Lady (2010), suggests the gendered nature of Kristine Moran’s gestural abstractions. Aleesa Cohene’s 2009 video installation Like, Like discovers ulterior narratives for mass culture’s female icons. With Valerie Blass’s 2009 work Touche de bois, wood and jeggings are combined to be somehow confrontational. And finally, and hardly least, Kara Hamilton contributes further embodied aggressions with the beast-like, Tonka, a work she made in 2015.

Rosemary Heather

Nasty
Nadia Belerique, Valérie Blass, Shannon Bool, Aleesa Cohene, Kara Hamilton, Kristine Moran, Jennifer Murphy and Elizabeth Zvonar
January 21 – March 4, 2017
Daniel Faria Gallery
188 St Helens Avenue
Toronto ON, M6H 4A1
Canada
www.danielfariagallery.com

See also, Nasty Talk: Feminist Art In The Age Of Trump, a reprint of this text with a nice selection of images from the show, at Good Trouble Magazine.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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