«by Matthew D. Chin A dissertation submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy (Social Work and ...»
Nadijah Robinson, whose website describes her as a "multidisciplinary artist producing both visual art, sound and video work", also finds herself frustrated with the dynamics of art production in QTPOC community arts circles. I had first met Nadijah at Asian Arts Freedom School when she facilitated a workshop where she showed pieces from her visual art series "Black Infinity". Several months later, I contacted her to do an interview and we met up in one of Toronto’s public libraries. She shared, “When I had my opening for Black Infinity, I had so much praise but I couldn't even tell if it was genuine or not. There was this praise around being earnest and being honest and being vulnerable but no one is going to tell me if my work is quality or not and be honest about that. They are going to say, "That's so great!" But no one would tell me, "You know what? It could have more of this." Or "It could have had more of that." Or "You know what would have made it even stronger? This" No one is here for that at all. People praise everything. As long as you get up on stage or you do something, it's just praise... It's hard to tell if I'm making quality art in the community because no matter what I make people will say it's golden.” More recently Nadijah was featured in the 2013 That’s So Gay event, the annual gay pride art exhibition hosted by the Gladstone (a trendy boutique hotel in the west end of downtown Toronto).
Elisha: I want to continue to try to go for skill and merit. That's been an interest in community organizing. To try to set a high bar and I think that’s the next place to go. I'm not sure if that's how everyone feels but that's how I feel. I don't want to do things that are cathartic and for therapy's sake. I want respect.
Matthew: Who do you want respect from?
Elisha: Well after this show [That's So Gay], I really want galleryists pay attention to these artists and invite them to be in their shows, not because they are people of color but because they are amazing…I want to take the friends and networks I've made and the politics that I've learned and move it up in a way so that people have more power. I guess it feels like when I get to a certain level it's still all white and it's frustrating. At a, not a board room, but at a planning meeting… it's me and a bunch of white people and I hate that and it's not fair. How come they still have the power in this way? I want to push upward and that's why I'm interested in curating. Curating is a labor of love. I don't like it because you don't get to show [your own work] yourself because it's a professional conflict, at least in my opinion. I would rather be making art. That's where my activism is moving. Whereas before I wanted to have parties for us for fun and relaxation, now I want to push us into power. And so I want to try to continue to organize things that people come out to because they are high profile not because they are therapy of any kind…Some people are disappointed that I do it that way and disagree with me. [They say] "It's more important that we are boding and why are you catering", not exactly to white people, but "Why are you going into places that are not so community?" In some ways, this tension between building safe spaces so that QTPOC with limited formal arts training can feel comfortable in engaging in the often emotional process of creating art about their lived experiences and the desire to pay greater attention to the quality of the art produced maps onto the broader Canadian arts sector distinction between “community arts” and “mainstream arts”. In speaking about this distinction Ella Cooper, manager of the Toronto
Neighborhood Art Network states:
“Sometimes what you have to look at is the process. Sometimes it's not the product that's important in community arts, it’s what's happening in the process. So, what that means or looks like is that… So an arts world person might go [and] I have heard someone quite prominent say, "Why does community arts have to be so ugly? Why can't people do a good job as well?" And the thing is, let's say from a creative facilitation model, I may take someone through a visualization of their creative spirit and they draw what they learn from that visualization. What they draw, it's not about, "Please convey this as Rembrandt would" It's just like, "Tap into your creativity, see where this marker or pen, crayon, paint brush takes you". This is not a place of judgment. It may be the catalyst for you to create the next Brothco. This is where you are finding your voice again. You're not inviting someone to sing and "you better be perfect or get out of the room" Ella thus explains the differences between “community arts” and “mainstream arts” in terms of distinct logics of production such that the process of creating community arts is a central concern whereas mainstream art circles place greater emphasis on the aesthetic qualities of the final artistic product. Ella’s understandings of the differences between these modes of art production bears a faint resemblance to Peter Li’s (1994) analysis of the distinction between what he refers to as “Occidental arts” and “minority arts” in Canada. (As will be elaborated in chapter two, the category of “community arts” came into existence because minority artists advocated for their arts practices to be given proper consideration by public arts funding institutions). Li argues that Canada’s policy toward Occidental arts and its multiculturalism policy toward minority arts and cultures have produced different art worlds for enhancing the artistic development of white Canadians and visible minorities. Though many of the institutional practices and political economic arrangements that Li describes in his text are no longer in operation, his main contention that minority art is generally held to be of lower status than Occidental art continues to be true of the distinction between community arts and mainstream arts respectively.
By making the claim that QTPOC’s safe space mode of art production makes it difficult for queer and trans of color artists to transition into mainstream art settings, I do not mean to imply that these settings are without affective character of their own. Rather, I argue that the affective environments that enable the production of community arts among QTPOC are not necessarily commensurate with the logics of art production to be found in more mainstream environments. While QTPOC community organizations espouse a kind of creative egalitarianism in which everyone has the potential to be an artist and affective measures must be taken to nourish this potential, hegemonic arts institutions in Toronto such as the Royal Ontario Museum are less focused on the redistribution of the means of cultural production. Instead they operate according to a more elitist approach in which hierarchical distinctions are made between the different kinds of people who evaluate, produce and consume works of art. While a thoroughgoing analysis of the affective tone of mainstream art settings is beyond the scope of this chapter, it is worth noting that many of QTPOC community artists expressed feelings of discomfort in coming into contact with more dominant art institutions. For instance, as mentioned earlier, ILL NANA intensive participants articulated a powerful sense of unease as a consequence of being at the prestigious National Ballet School and having to interact with largely middle to upper class white adults and their children.
How can we make sense of this situation in which “safe spaces” not only create the settings necessary for the production of a kind of purposefully self-expressive art among those who have been subject to racism, sexism and gender oppression, but also condition these emerging artists to produce works in ways that are incompatible with logics of a more prestigious art world? While existing literature on minority identity formation may serve as an important starting point, it is the insights from scholars on affect that prove to be the most productive starting point for this line of inquiry. Political theorists caution against the reification of the processes that produce minority subjects because of the potential to reproduce the conditions that construct minority subjecthood to begin with. Yet what is at stake is not a question of identity politics per se but rather a question of the limitations that arise with the formation of affective settings that enable minority subjects to come together.
In her critique of identity politics in the United States, Wendy Brown states, “In its emergence as a protest against marginalization or subordination, politicized identity thus becomes attached to its own exclusion both because it is premised on this exclusion for its very existence as identity and because the formation of identity at the site of exclusion, as exclusion, augments or ‘alters the direction of the suffering’ entailed in subordination or marginalization by finding a site of blame for it. But in so doing, it installs its pain over its unredeemed history in the very foundation of its political claim, in its demand for recognition as identity. In locating a site of blame for its powerlessness over its past…it converts this reasoning into an ethicizing politics, a politics of recrimination that seeks to avenge the hurt even while it reaffirms it, discursively codifies it. Politicized identity thus enunciates itself, makes claims for itself, only by entrenching, dramatizing, and inscribing its pain in politics and can hold out no future-for itself or others-that triumphs over this pain” (1993, p. 406) In this passage from “Wounded attachments”, Brown seeks to clarify how the codification of processes of marginalization (through, for instance legislation against discriminatory acts) forecloses the possibility of politicized identities engaging in their own self fashioning and instead re-inscribes their historical and present pain. The limits of identity politics that Brown describes can be seen in the quotation that Anne Cvetkovich (2003) published from her interview with Zoe Leonard as part of her study of lesbian activists in the group AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP) in New York. While it was not uncommon for lesbians and gay men to have sex with each other within the group, it was also fairly taboo at the time, and in describing her sexual relationship with fellow ACT Up activist Greg Bordowitz, Leonard states, “People were either "supportive" (quote/unquote) or angry and unsupportive of our relationship. In retrospect, I can understand that. We had created a safe queer space and now there were people having heterosexual sex within that space, occupying that space. I can understand now why that was threatening. At the time it felt small-minded and painful. But I stayed in ACT UP and I still felt good there most of the time, and 1 still felt I could be a contributing member.…I think identity politics can be a double edged sword that way in that this definition and container you seek for your feelings or for your culture is so helpful, but it can also be restrictive” (2003, p, 193) Although lesbians and gay men having sex within queer activist circles are not currently necessarily met with the same kind of negative regard as in the 1980s and 90s, Leonard’s point is significant in showing the limits of social interactions premised on identity politics.