The Mainstreaming of Dissent: Women Artists of Colour and Canadian Arts Institutions. (Research Articles/Rapports De Recherche)
Sethi, Meera, Resources for Feminist Research
In this paper, I develop a theoretical framework that addresses key debates relevant to women artists of colour in Canada. I explore the relationship between established Canadian art institutions and women artists of colour and the corresponding ideological formations that give meaning to their art. In doing this, I note positioning of women artists of colour in Canada in relation to institutional exclusion, naming practices, multiculturalism and representational politics, government funding and survey exhibitions. I consider the relationship of women artists of colour to discourses of "Canadian" art and nation as constructed through the lens of multiculturalism.
Dans cet article, je developpe une structure theorique qui s'adresse aux debats principaux touchant aux femmes de couleur au Canada. Je sonde le rapport entre les institutions artistiques canadiennes et les artistes femmes de couleur en tenant compte des constitutions ideologiques porteuses de signification vis-a-vis de leur creation. Ainsi faisant, je note la situation des femmes artistes de couleur au Canada par rapport 'exclusion institutionnelle, les pratiques nominatives, le multiculturalisme et les politiques representationnelles, les subventions gouvernementales et expographies. Selon moi, le rapport entre temmes artistes de couleur et les discours touchant a l'art et a la nation [much less than] canadienne [much greater than], est construite en fonction de I'ideologie du multiculturalisme.
[C]hanging the broader social aspects of an oppressive culture and its dehumanizing effect requires a deliberate collective effort that must essentially be politically creative and creatively political. (Joseph, 1997, p. 48)
Cliff Joseph, in the quote above, explicitly links creative expression to political action, employing it in the vision of a better future. To be "politically creative and creatively political" is a phrase that effectively captures the underlying imperative in the work of many cultural producers of colour who, through engaging with their individual and collective histories, are contributing to a collective effort to imagine a better future. Women artists of colour, (1) too, are playing their part. Through their artistic practices, they articulate the necessity to envision collective social change through a creative politic. The visual art of diasporic women of colour resonates with the urgent desire felt by many diasporic (2) people of colour to explore pasts, challenge presents, and imagine improved futures. Many issues, such as those of gender, race, nation, class, identity, community, activism, globalization, ethnicity, partition, migration, memory, diaspora and sexuality extend from the production and prac tice of women artists of colour. The contributions they make through their art and other related activities are valuable assets to the many communities, artistic and otherwise, that are the receptors of their work. These artists are contributing to the growth of a transnational community of women artists of colour and their activist, academic, and cultural allies. This transnational community has been described by Ella Shohat as "multicultural feminist" (Shohat, 1998).
However, despite a long history of practising women artists of colour in Canada, their artistic production, while socially, politically, culturally and historically important, is still vastly undertheorized and underrepresented. Speaking of a British context, Pratibha Parmar says: "The creative upsurge in black women and women of colour's cultural production has not been given the spotlight it deserves. Women of colour have been organizing and creating communities which have inspired a new sense of collective identity, and it is only through our own efforts that we have ensured against our erasure as artists and cultural producers" (Parmar, 1993, p. 3). Parmar's point is just as valid in Canada. Similarly, karen/miranda augustine, editor of the now defunct At the Crossroads, a Black women's art magazine published in Toronto, has said that, "The documentation of Black Canadian women's artwork is virtually nonexistent. We know a lot more about the history, activists, artists from Black America than we do in th is country" (augustine, 1993, p. 45). This, unfortunately, can also be said of the underepresentation in public discourse of all artists of colour in Canada, a serious charge that requires immediate attention. Apart from contributing to a body of Canadian art and a wider community of cultural workers, women artists of colour challenge the dominant ideological constructions that work to define "Canadian" identity and consequently Canadian art. Furthermore, it is specifically in the work of these artists that social and political relations relevant to diasporic peoples of colour are illuminated. These cultural contributions make it vital to understand and discuss the artistic practices of women artists of colour if indeed art is to be envisioned as a tool for imaging a better future.
The artistic practices of women artists of colour exist in a particular social, economic, and cultural climate that influences the production, exhibition, and reception of their artwork. Working in a capitalist socio-economic structure that is organized around divisions of race, class and gender, women artists of colour are faced with the challenge of producing artwork within an extremely inequitable local and global space. Moreover, the distinct sociopolitical ideologies of liberalism and multiculturalism that characterize Canadian governing bodies effectively situate Canadian women artists of colour within a framework that marks them as both the beneficiaries and burden of the state. Therefore, to examine these complex relationships of production, exhibition and reception, it is necessary to understand the relations of power which situate and marginalize women artists of colour.
The politics of location is an important area of theoretical consideration when defining the subject of a feminist inquiry. Jacqui Alexander and Chandra Mohanty explain the concept of "third world women and the politics of feminism" as one that encompasses "imagined communities of women with divergent histories and social locations, woven together by the political threads of opposition to forms of domination that are not only pervasive but also systemic" (Alexander and Mohanty, 1991, p. 4). Similar to Alexander and Mohanty, I posit an alliance among women artists of colour based on "political threads of opposition," not biology or culture. Despite drawing together the work and practices of women artists of colour, I am not suggesting that these artists share the same perspective. Their work is diverse and their histories are diverse. I am, however, arranging them into a loose collectivity based on a perceived similarity, not sameness, of location and politics.
At present, there is a gap in critical scholarship addressing the art practices of women artists of colour in Canada. While there have been articles written on individual artists and individual artworks by women artists of colour, although even these are quite limited, there has not been a sustained theoretical engagement with the politics of their practices, the issues of their art making and the themes addressed in their work. Increased representation in cultural debates and critiques is essential to greater awareness and understanding of the work of women artists of colour. Indeed, there are many issues of specific significance to women artists of colour. It is not only that their identities are marked by race and gender in a racist and sexist world, it is also that their artwork often engages those issues that are particularly relevant to people who are marginalized because of their race, gender, class or ethnicity. The visual production of women artists of colour in Canada is received within a hegemonic framework that takes as its starting place the centrality of white male artists, thus building onto that a discourse that situates women artists of colour outside its normalizing boundaries.
There are many significant areas of concern to women artists of colour that I do not take up here because they constitute entire studies in themselves.
These areas include the relationship of women artists of colour to major metropolitan art centres, institutions, curators, critics, journals, dealers, and of course, art history and canon formation. Instead, the key questions that frame this inquiry are: What discourses mediate the reception of the work of women artists of colour in Canada; and what are the representational politics of Canadian art institutions who …
Questia, a part of Gale, Cengage Learning. www.questia.com
Publication information: Article title: The Mainstreaming of Dissent: Women Artists of Colour and Canadian Arts Institutions. (Research Articles/Rapports De Recherche). Contributors: Sethi, Meera - Author. Journal title: Resources for Feminist Research. Publication date: Fall 2002. Page number: 85+. © 2008 O.I.S.E. COPYRIGHT 2002 Gale Group.
This material is protected by copyright and, with the exception of fair use, may not be further copied, distributed or transmitted in any form or by any means.