Rerouting History


This summer, I spent a very hot afternoon with some of the smartest people I know, thinking about inheritance and what obligations we must try to observe in carrying histories forward, however aligned or maladapted they may be to who we understand ourselves and others to be.

Convened by Deanna Bowen, I sat with John Hampton, Peter Morin, Lisa Myers and Archer Pechawis on a stage at the University of Toronto. On the occasion of the Hart House’s Centennial, Deanna was invited by the Art Museum at the University of Toronto to examine the foundations of racialized cultural identity in Canada, and as our point of departure we took The God of Gods (1919). Written by Carroll Aikens, this play uses the architecture of a tragic love story to describe the horrors of war, but in a way that inscribes an all-to-familiar racial violence: in all of its performances, in Canada and abroad, white actors in red face were centre stage, a formal echo of the play’s derogatory ideas about Indigenous people and cultures. Deanna has taken our conversation from that day and articulated it as a new video work that will be part of her upcoming exhibition at the Art Museum entitled God of Gods: A Canadian Play.

As described in the press release:

The play is steeped in primitivism, a manufactured construct that positioned Indigenous cultures as naïve precursors to European civilization. In the past, The God of Gods has been presented as an example of seminal Canadian theatre, and it continues to be celebrated as an important play in Canadian history. Bowen’s project visualizes the social and political networks that, in the early twentieth century, came to shape long-lasting and deeply entrenched ideas of Canadian culture.

It is too easy to single out the play as abhorrent and aberrant from our contemporary perspective. More useful, and as Deanna’s exhibition will work to reveal, is the way that these logics were and are prevalent throughout our Canadian cultural institutions and social formations. In this sense, one of our obligations to history is having the clarity and bravery to chart the ways that racism is a foundational component to the long arm of history, from then to now, so that it might be possible to root social and interpersonal relations in new kinds of logic, kinds that don’t confuse surface with substance. Critical conversations about what we understand as Canadian culture is one way to begin.

I look forward to seeing the final video work as part of the exhibition. Knowing Deanna’s practice, I am sure that the archival and contemporary materials she will draw together will provide insight into the writings of histories, and how this work is continually maintained or unsettled in the present. And as the exhibition encounters it publics, I look forward to continuing to interrogate how aesthetic forms are complicit in—or can resist—the ways that social and political power in Canada dispossess Indigenous individuals and communities.

God of Gods: A Canadian Play will be on view at Art Museum at the University of Toronto from 04 September – 30 November 2019.



What Comes Next

It was an honour to be part of this year’s BMO 1st Art! jury alongside my peers Marie-Eve Beaupré (Curator, Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal), Sarah Robayo Sheridan, (Curator, Art Museum at the University of Toronto) and Adriana Kuiper (Artist and Associate Professor, Mount Allison University). This collection of prizes celebrates the work of students who have recently completed undergraduate-level art and design programs across Canada. Nominated by their professors, these are artists who push at how art is going to be understood in the future, and how we, as viewers, will understand what it can do to us.

This year’s winners were recently announced. Check them out here.

Looking through their works again, I can’t help but feel so hopeful for how they will contribute to transformations of art making and theoretical discourses, in Canada and beyond, as their practices continue to develop. Congratulations Luther Konadu, Preston Pavlis, Cheyenne Rain LeGrande, Marie-France Hollier, Clara Patterson, Emily Hayes, Séamus Gallagher, Kaleigh Rose Tagak, Christopher Dela Cruz, Hanna Matheson, Charline Dally, Jimuel Belarmino and Robyn McLeod!

You will have an opportunity to see their works as part of an exhibition at MOCA Toronto this fall, 21 November – 16 December 2019. Come and feel an indication of what comes next…



Countervailing at the Margins

I was thrilled to read Kiran Sunar’s recent article “Countervailing at the Margins: Acts of Refusal in Simranpreet Anand’s ਮੈਂ ਇੱਥੇ ਹਾਂ (i am here)” in the latest issue of Rungh (volume 6 number 2). Reflecting on a performance work by Simranpreet Anand that was presented as part of FUSE: A Conjuring at the Vancouver Art Gallery in November 2017, Sunar beautifully describes the material and conceptual conditions of Anand’s project, reading it in dialogue with the gallery’s concurrent exhibition program (specifically Portrait of the Artist: An Exhibition from the Royal Collection) and as an act of resistance to it.

Critique has become subsumed within gallery procedures, enveloped alongside the retention of more highly patronized canonical collections. Galleries hire educators to re-educate against their own spaces, re-instating centres of imperialism while re-engaging margins of otherness. These, while fraught, provide spaces for voice and an alternate call and response. Invited curatorial counter-script is becoming an increasing phenomenon as institutional galleries realize that their approach to what constitutes art and the artist (one that maintains whiteness, men, and empire at its core) has to be examined. The curatorial re-scripting is necessary and adds value.

The question becomes: is this enough?

The situation that Sunar describes, of education departments re-educating against their institutions is obviously not ideal—art institutions would do well to have this re-education be systemic rather than piecemeal—but in the meantime, work will be done. Anand’s performance is a generous and transformative kind of engagement, one that acknowledges conditions as they are and then provides an alternative to them. It is important to note that education departments and curatorial counterscript cannot unsettle the conditions of the entrenched power of the art world without artists to work in concert with.

Or, in response to Sunar’s question, the presentation of project’s like Anand’s in spaces like the Vancouver Art Gallery is not enough. But, in amplifying work like Anand’s through reviews like Sunar’s, agency roots.


Some Ways of Art’s Working

Writing for the Toronto Star, Chris Hampton has crafted an attentive survey some of the works in Nep Sidhu’s Medicine for a Nightmare (they called, we responded) exhibition. What interests me about Sidhu’s practice in general, and what is exemplified in this new body of work, is the concern he has for exploring the many processes at play in building a relationship to the past, and how this kind of inheritance is reshaped by the practices of life as it continues to unfold. Hampton picks up on this same thread:

Across media — be it metalwork, sculpture, jewelry design, rug-making or the couture sported onstage and off by artists, futurists and mystics like Shabazz Palaces and Erykah Badu — Sidhu is intensely committed to craft. The 40-year-old practitioner is a student of its histories and techniques. It is his vehicle for time travel, bridging various ancestries to the future imaginary.

I believe that Sidhu’s work encourages a specific, embodied understanding of the history he invokes, showing history as an unsettled thing, both for himself and others. In pointing to the need to continue the telling of what has shaped us, perhaps it is that these stories may shape others and, in turn, be reshaped themselves.

Hampton’s article can be found here.


Medicine for a Nightmare (they called, we responded)


I can’t tell you how excited I am for the opening of Nep Sidhu’s Medicine for a Nightmare (they called, we responded), a solo show featuring mostly new works that I have had the privilege of curating. This thing is a true labour of love!

Medicine for a Nightmare (they called, we responded) focuses on Sidhu’s politicized use of textiles to conjure coalition beyond the structures that currently shape civic society, taking the 1984 massacre of Sikh people in India as its foundation. Known as Operation Blue Star, this military event resulted in the death of thousands of Sikh people—a religious minority in India—as well as the deaths of many others. Orchestrated by the Indian government to counter militant activist movements that sought to address the impoverished economic, social and political conditions of life for Sikh people in India, the raid unfolded at the Harmandir Sahib, a Sikh holy site.

Sidhu’s exhibition departs from this recent history to assert the resilience of Sikh people, both as a testament to their faith and as a response to inhumane political brutalities. Commemorating the spiritual role of tending to life in common, he has created a new body of work that includes a major tapestry, Medicine for a Nightmare (2019), that continues his When My Drums Come Knocking They Watch series. By examining to the cultural role that percussion plays across cultures as a symbol of inheritance and becoming, Sidhu conjures a beat that carries ancestral connections forward in time. The exhibition also includes a new sculptural work, Formed in the Divine, Divine of Form (2019), that is charged with exemplifying the practices of community responsibility that characterize Sikh temple kitchens and cultivate cooperation through the practice of seva (selfless service). As gestures of memorialization, Medicine for a Nightmare (they called, we responded) participates in a continuum of material and memorial practices that seek to redress the 1984 massacre and the engineered attempts at erasure of the Sikh communities that followed it.

Medicine for a Nightmare (they called, we responded) also features works produced in dialogue with artists Nicholas Galanin and Maikoiyo Alley-Barnes, frequent collaborators of Sidhu’s.

Join us at Mercer Union on Friday, 08 February 2019 at 19:00 and consider how it is that you build relationships to the past, and how history is reformed through the habits and practices of everyday life.


Entertaining Every Second


Tonight in Saskatoon, Entertaining Every Second opens at AKA Artist-Run Centre.  The solo show features the work of Life of a Craphead, which is the collaborative practice of Amy Lam and Jon McCurely, and it has been curated by Su-Ying Lee and myself. It’s an exhibition that looks critically at how racialization circulates through cultural production. In particular, the show labours to interrupt how determinations of aesthetic value can obscure the social repercussions of a work’s circulation in the world, especially when that work might perpetuate racist stereotypes. In this sense, Life of a Craphead are taking on the works of other artists. However, what makes this show especially powerful are the ways that Life of a Craphead direct that critical impulse back at themselves, interrogating their own intimate, familial and artistic inclinations. It will make you laugh (maybe) and it will make you cry (probably).

As part of the exhibition, Life of a Craphead have instigated a relationship between AKA and the dumpling house next door, Jin Jin Cuisine. Starting tonight, and persisting until either organization ceases to exist, AKA will collaborate with Jin Jin to cater their openings. AKA is located in the historical Chinatown neighbourhood of Saskatoon, a part of town that, like many Chinatowns across Canada, is undergoing a process of gentrification. In some small way, the hope is that this relationship can be mutually sustaining. Plus, the food is crazy delicious and AKA is lucky as hell to get to serve Jin Jin’s food, from now until eternity.

Join us tonight! The opening starts at 8PM, but perhaps you wanna check out Julie Oh’s artist talk next door at PAVED Arts first, which starts at at 7PM.


Best of 2018

I am thrilled that Rosemary Heather has included I continue to shape on her NOW Magazine list of best exhibitions in Toronto for 2018. It is a strange thing to make an exhibition but then not be able to live with it. That being said, it is good to know that the propositions of this show resonated for Heather, and hopefully for many other folks who had the chance to see it. Although the exhibition is now closed, I am still working through the propositions the artists made through their works, considering how to exploit moments of cultures in collision to tell the stories of history differently, to tell them through the concerns of recovery and reconfiguration. And so begins a list of goals for 2019!

Shout out also to Vulture who included I continue to shape on a list of exhibitions to check out in lieu of the insanity of Art Basel Miami Beach—if one were up for exchanging eternal summertime for a winter wonderland.