In­vis­i­ble Colours

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

Canadian Art - - Contents - Rose­mary Heather in con­ver­sa­tion with Zainub Ver­jee

Re­vis­it­ing a ground­break­ing film and video fes­ti­val made for and by women of colour in late 1980s Van­cou­ver Rose­mary Heather in con­ver­sa­tion with Zainub Ver­jee

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, worked on early dig­i­tal ini­tia­tives at the Canada Coun­cil for the Arts and De­part­ment of Cana­dian Her­itage and is an artist her­self. In 1989, she co-founded, with Lor­raine Chan, In­vis­i­ble Colours (IVC), an in­ter­na­tional fes­ti­val in Van­cou­ver ded­i­cated to film and video by women of colour. 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 In­vis­i­ble 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: In­vis­i­ble 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: 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. 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.

RH: Canada has long branded it­self as a suc­cess­ful mul­ti­cul­tural ex­per­i­ment. Is there any truth to this idea? Or does a new con­ver­sa­tion have to hap­pen? What would the terms of that con­ver­sa­tion be?

ZV: The man­age­rial tem­plate of mul­ti­cul­tur­al­ism emerged from the po­lit­i­cal ex­pe­di­ency of the Royal Com­mis­sion on Bilin­gual­ism and Bi­cul­tur­al­ism in the 1960s. To­day, it is philo­soph­i­cally de­funct. Po­lit­i­cally, how­ever, it is still used to pack­age “dif­fer­ence” as a re­cited truth! This elas­tic sense of mul­ti­cul­tur­al­ism is cen­tral to the re­cast­ing of racism to­day. Given the in­creased anx­i­eties around race, we keep see­ing the fault lines every now and then, as in the re­cent con­tro­versy around a so-called Cul­tural Ap­pro­pri­a­tion Prize. Pri­mar­ily, this call to “re­ward” cul­tural ap­pro­pri­a­tion is flip­pant and a dis­trac­tion from deeper is­sues—in­clud­ing the term “rep­re­sen­ta­tion.” We con­tinue to in­vent or quar­rel over words! Diver­sity is a very ho­mog­e­niz­ing term; the cul­ture of lib­eral in­di­vid­u­al­ity con­flates dif­fer­ence as plu­ral­ism!

Over the past few decades we have cre­ated new vo­cab­u­lar­ies that pro­mote an as­sump­tion that this is­sue has been ad­dressed. In­sti­tu­tional am­ne­sia has set­tled in with a nor­mal­iz­ing ef­fect. To­day, Truth and Rec­on­cil­i­a­tion is an im­por­tant marker, but there is a dan­ger in mis­read­ing the grow­ing as­cen­dancy of the iden­tity pol­i­tics. A wrong read­ing of his­tory will cre­ate con­di­tions for it to be con­sumed and pi­geon­holed by the same lib­er­al­ism with no eman­ci­pa­tion in sight for gen­er­a­tions to come. ■

Still from Tracey Mof­fatt’s Nice Coloured Girls (1987), which made its Cana­dian pre­miere at In­vis­i­ble Colours COUR­TESY ROSLYN OXLEY9 GALLERY, SYD­NEY

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