The Mainstreaming of Dissent: Women Artists of Colour and Canadian Arts Institutions

By Sethi, Meera | Resources for Feminist Research, Fall 2002 | Go to article overview

The Mainstreaming of Dissent: Women Artists of Colour and Canadian Arts Institutions


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.

[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 practice 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 this 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. …

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