RELATIONS: Diaspora and Painting

July 24 - November 27, 2021

Larry Achiampong, Hurvin Anderson, Kamrooz Aram, Firelei Báez, Frank Bowling, Cy Gavin, Barkley L. Hendricks, Lubaina Himid, Bharti Kher, Moridja Kitenge Banza, Rick Leong, Manuel Mathieu, Julie Mehretu, Jordan Nassar, Yoko Ono, Maia Cruz Palileo, Rajni Perera, Ed Pien, Jessica Sabogal, Curtis Talwst Santiago, Marigold Santos, Yinka Shonibare CBE, Shanna Strauss, Mickalene Thomas, Salman Toor, Hajra Waheed, Jinny Yu

Curated by Cheryl Sim

This group exhibition explores the multiple and complex meanings of the idea of the diaspora, its condition, and its experiences as expressed in painting. “Diaspora issues and concepts are of particular importance to me as a person of colour, born in Canada with mixed Asian origins,” says curator and director Cheryl Sim. The wide spectrum of interpretations and fruitful relationships attached to diaspora experiences knows no bounds, which promotes constant dialogue with notions of kinship and identity in the current context of globalization and mass migration.

This exhibition offers a selection of works by artists who address the question of the diaspora from various points of view, approaches, and aesthetic languages. With a rich and complex history, painting is a particularly stimulating mode of expression for exploring a variety of issues comparable to the multiplicity of the diasporic experience. All the works on display aim to establish an intergenerational dialogue and to present artists whose work has contributed to pushing the limits of what painting is and can be. Given the open and discursive nature of the subject, the exhibition does not claim to be exhaustive, but rather seeks to generate ideas and encourage dialogue.

RELATIONS: Diaspora and Painting is organized by the PHI Foundation for Contemporary Art, Montréal, and presented in collaboration with the Esker Foundation.

 

A Confluence of Relations
by Cheryl Sim

My parents are immigrants. My father was born in Swatow, China but grew up in Hong Kong, where his family fled during the fall of the Republic Era. My mother was born in Kabankalan, located in the western Visayas of the Philippine archipelago but, due to economic constraints, was sent to live with her aunt’s family in the northern town of Laoag at the age of eight. No strangers to migration, they both left their countries of origin in the 1960s for the lure of prosperity in the United States. They met at the University of Houston, Texas. When my mother secured a job as a nurse at St. Joseph’s hospital in Hamilton, Ontario, she left the U.S., and my father followed soon after. They married in 1967 and eventually became Canadian citizens in conjunction with the relaxation of immigration laws. I was born in Hamilton in 1971, also the year that the Trudeau government made multiculturalism an official policy.

I have been telling this story all my life.

It started in kindergarten, when I was asked to share it at a school-wide celebration organized around the theme of multiculturalism. Kindergarten was also the time of an awakening awareness of my difference within Canadian society. The larger social context of school brought me into contact with things like ethnic slurs, comments on my appearance, and physical bullying. Over time, it occurred to me that the utopian rhetoric of the multiculturalism policy, which was meant to affirm “the value and dignity of all Canadian citizens regardless of their racial or ethnic origins, their language, or their religious affiliation,”1 would prove to be instrumental in articulating uneven power relations between immigrant ‘others’ and the dominant Anglo-Saxon Canadian culture. As a result, like so many second-generation people of colour born in Canada, I eschewed the signifiers of my difference in an attempt to assimilate into mainstream culture, which—underneath its accommodating surface—is ultimately what the multiculturalism policy would have us do.

Entering adulthood, I came to celebrate my mixed ethnic heritage, and I have been empowered by what I learned in the margins. Disillusioned by the double discourse of multiculturalism, haunted by the voices of ghosts that destabilized my sense of belonging with their constant whispers of where are you from, and politicized by post-colonial and feminist theory, I discovered the term/concept/condition/experience called ‘diaspora.’ Without a deep investigation into the academic and theoretical explorations of this slippery and messy word, it spoke directly to my deepest desires to root while asserting my route—to reference the great text by Paul Gilroy.2 The re-telling of one’s migration story is a validating process of diasporic transcription, one of thousands that account for really being here, but also there…and there too. As so much of my living and thinking have been informed by a diaspora experience as a personal and professional interrogation, I am infinitely grateful for the opportunity to realize RELATIONS: Diaspora and Painting. With this exhibition, our hope was that we might explore and gain insight into the complex, multiple, constantly evolving, and syncretic meanings of diaspora—along with its conditions and experiences—through painting, from a diversity of artist’s perspectives, methodologies, and aesthetic languages. The wide spectrum of productive interpretations and relations that bring about a diasporic consciousness remain unfixed, providing an expanded notion of identity and belonging in a world of advanced globalization and migration.

The word ‘diaspora’ is taken from the Greek, diaspeirein, which means to ‘disperse.’ More precisely, from dia ‘across’ and speirein ‘scatter.’3 As many scholars claim, the earliest academic discussions of diaspora were grounded in the concept of a ‘homeland’ and, moreover, a longing for and desire to return to that homeland. Furthermore, scholars were pre-occupied with identifying a paradigmatic case, or a few cases, that would become the reference for the term. As Rogers Brubaker writes, the “paradigmatic case was, of course, the Jewish diaspora; some dictionary definitions of diaspora, until recently, did not simply illustrate but defined the word with reference to that case.”4 The centrality of this reference later branched out to include the Armenian and Greek diasporas. Historian George Shepperson introduced the idea of the African diaspora as early as 1966, and in 1976, John Armstrong threw the term ‘mobilized diasporas’ or ‘trading diaspora’ into the mix, which would include Chinese, Indians, Lebanese, Baltic Germans, and the Hausa of Nigeria.5 Diasporans have been defined as those forcibly displaced from their countries of origin and include exiles, refugees, asylum seekers, and survivors of the slave trade. But diasporans also uproot themselves in pursuit of education, land, and business or career opportunities. From the 1960s onwards, the idea of diaspora became mostly associated with the first generation of people who settle in the ‘new’ country, who develop the ability to skillfully negotiate its cultural terrains but stay emotionally connected to the homeland, forming communities with others who share the same ethno-diasporic heritage.

By 1990, Stuart Hall complicated this definition by, first of all, asserting that the idea of a homeland can “neither be fulfilled nor requited,” but also that diasporic identities can be defined:

“…not by essence or purity, but by the recognition of a necessary heterogeneity and diversity; by a conception of ‘identity’ which lives with and through, not despite difference; by hybridity. Diaspora identities are those which are constantly producing and reproducing themselves anew, through transformation and difference.”6

Hall sees a diasporic identity as mutable, informed and empowered by its difference, which produces an ability to traverse and negotiate multiple cultural terrains simultaneously. This idea provided me with a substantial way to joyfully reconcile the multiplicity of my heritage with the ambivalence of nationality. In 1994, James Clifford also challenged the established definitions of diaspora with the contention that the Jewish case need not be the definitive model of diaspora, and that “transnational connections linking diasporas need not be articulated primarily through a real or symbolic homeland.”7 Rather, diasporas could share “decentered, lateral connections” through a shared consciousness, which is “entirely a product of cultures and histories in collision and dialogue.”8 In 1996, Avtar Brah went a step further, taking up Hall and asserting that:

“…not all diasporas sustain an ideology of return. Moreover, the multi-placedness of home in the diasporic imaginary does not mean that diasporian subjectivity is ‘rootless.’ I argue for a distinction between ‘feeling at home’ and declaring a place as home. Processes of diasporic identity formation are exemplars par excellence of the claim that identity is always plural, and in process…. In other words, the concept of diaspora refers to multi-locationality within and across territorial, cultural and psychic boundaries.”9

By releasing the concept of diaspora from the idea of a longing for a ‘homeland,’ real or imagined, these writings provide second generation diasporans, such as children of the post-1965 wave of immigrants to countries like Canada, the ability to assert the multiplicity of their identities as part of diaspora discourse. Following Brubaker’s suggestion that “we should think of diaspora not in substantialist terms as a bounded entity, but rather as an idiom, a stance, a claim,” I also argue that the appropriation of the term diaspora as a condition/experience/consciousness in constant evolution can provide agency and a sense of belonging for first generation immigrants and the generations that follow.10 As Trinh T. Minh Ha has written, the “multidimensional necessity of being both here(s) and there(s) implies a more radical ability to shuttle between frontiers and to cut across ethnic allegiances while assuming a specific and contingent legacy.”11 In this way, the diasporic experience involves a sharpening of the senses and learning to ‘see’ and appreciate the existence of many perspectives at the same time, which can involve the psychological negotiation of treacherous terrain. This unique position of being both within and without, therefore, teaches the diasporic person how to be comfortable with discomfort. Operating within diasporic consciousness also collapses temporality, allowing for one to exercise and be the confluence of histories, cultures, and languages that inform one’s identity, without negating those of the ‘new’ nation-state. I offer this very brief overview of the evolution of the idea or term diaspora as a way to foreground the conceptual underpinnings of this exhibition. Hall and Brah’s contributions liberate diaspora discussions through a consideration of racialization, ethnicity, class, sex, and capital, and they provide the theoretical framework upon which this exhibition ‘un’rests.

For many years, I have been drawn to artists who explore diasporic experiences in their work, as they are a potent place from which to formulate questions, to acknowledge ambivalences, to pay homage, and to assert positions. I had it in the back of my mind to one day propose a large-scale exhibition devoted to diasporan perspectives. But every attempt to think it through left me feeling daunted about where to start. When our Founder/Director suggested we pursue a painting show, I thought ‘yes!’; her suggestion provided a focus through which to explore this research interest as a conceptual framework that could ground itself in a medium that in contemporary practices is also continuously freeing itself from strict definitions. If there was an over-arching directive that helped guide the organization of this exhibition, it was to privilege a multiplicity of voices that would never let the discourse settle.

A focus on painting, with its historicity and Western-centrism, provided more than a way to narrow the field of selection, but became a particularly provocative medium through which to explore diasporic consciousness in its many variations and permutations. Indeed, the artists in RELATIONS demonstrate a profound awareness of the power relations of painting that have become entrenched in the canon of art history. The countless arguments about what painting is or isn’t, as well as its temporality, are taken up and challenged by the proposals of the many artists presented in this show. Through various richly contemplated approaches, these artists stake out and claim positions that both critique and engage with the histories of painting, exemplifying Schwabsky’s observation that in contemporary painting “positions are now multiple, simultaneous and decentered.”12 These are the very qualities that can describe diasporic consciousness and, in this sense, contemporary painting practices can be seen as analogous.

This exhibition presents the work of twenty-seven artists who employ a staggering array of materials and strategies to traverse painting’s incredibly rich terrain of possibilities, and to push the boundaries of what painting is and can be. A concern in researching and selecting artists was to bring together works from a diversity of diaspora experiences, which manifest in a multifarious array of methodological, material, and aesthetic approaches. I also wanted to acknowledge the diaspora experiences across countries that experienced a major influx of people of colour, as the realities of racialization add a significant dimension to the experience of living in and through difference, where questions of kinship are sought and redefined as strategies for survival. Diasporas are everywhere and the contours of these experiences take on different shapes according to where they are located. With that in mind, and in consideration of the Montreal context, I decided to focus on artists operating in (and in some cases between) Canada, the United States, and Britain. The histories of imperialism and the colonialist projects of nation-building put forth by these countries would be critical contexts through which to contemplate the works on view. Another intention in regards to the selection of artists was to assemble an intergenerational dialogue that would contribute to a sense of the harmonies and dissonances over time, and to a sense of contemporary diasporic consciousness.

In line with the curatorial research practice at the Foundation, the works were placed intuitively, guided by a concern to offer each one a space to speak on its own terms, free of the imposition of a ‘grand narrative’ or set of sub-themes. With this ethos in mind, this publication brings together a brilliant group of writers from a variety of fields including poetry, cultural studies, and art history. This interdisciplinary approach is exemplary of our desire at the Foundation to tear down academic silos in pursuit of a more liberating space to talk about art. Given the open ended and discursive nature of the subject/theme, RELATIONS made no attempt to be exhaustive but, rather, endeavoured to open up ideas and encourage dialogue.

In reference to the creative possibilities of the experience of exile, Edward Said has suggested that living in and with more than one culture produces a ‘plurality of vision’ that “gives rise to an awareness, of simultaneous dimensions, an awareness that – to borrow a phrase from music – is contrapuntal.”13 It was my hope that this strategy of a multiplicity of voices with their joys, tensions, traumas, and struggles across these many approaches would allow for a polyphonic experience. The relations in and between these artists’ works elicit melodies and counter melodies that accumulate as each is encountered, culminating in a beautiful and complex baroque fugue or jazz counterpoint. By adding our own melodic readings to the score, we too exercise the potential of a contrapuntal gaze.

Notes

1 This formulation, which has been revised since 2015, has been quoted in a variety of published texts, including Andrew Griffith’s Multiculturalism in Canada: Evidence and Anecdote (Ottawa: Anar Press, 2015); and Fethi Mansouri’s Interculturalism at the Crossroads: Comparative Perspectives on Concepts, Policies and Practices (Paris: UNESCO Publishing, 2017).

2 Paul Gilroy, L’Atlantique Noir: modernité et double conscience (The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness) (Paris: Éditions Amsterdam, 2010).

3 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Diaspora

4 Rogers Brubaker, “The ‘Diaspora’ Diaspora,” Ethnic and Racial Studies 28, no. 1 (2005): 2.

5 Ibid.

6 Stuart Hall, “Cultural Identity and Diaspora,” in Identity, Community, Culture, Difference, ed. Jonathan Rutherford (London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1990), 234.

7 James Clifford, “Diasporas,” Cultural Anthropology 9, no. 3 (August 1994): 302–38.

8 Ibid.

9 Avtar Brah, Cartographies of Diaspora: Contesting Identities (London: Routledge, 1996), 197.

10 Brubaker, “The ‘Diaspora’ Diaspora,” 12.

11 Trinh T. Minh-ha, “Bold Omissions and Minute Depictions,” in When the Moon Waxes Red (New York: Routledge, 1991), 159.

12 Barry Schwabsky, “Painting in the Interrogative Mode,” in Vitamin P: New Perspectives in Painting (London: Phaidon, 2002), 8–9.

13 Edward W. Said, “Reflections on Exile,” in Reflections on Exile and Other Essays (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1990), 186.

 

 

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