Feature image: photo by Amory Hall
I’m never really sure if I should call myself an artist.
After all, I don’t really create with my hands, use my body as expression, communicate my ideas in different forms, or imagine and write stories that create worlds. If we have to get into the nitty gritty of it, I don’t like to define myself as a cultural worker either.
My practice sits at the intersection of arts and culture, and advocates for race, cultural histories, and representation as important factors in Canadian arts and culture policies. My work is about creating, facilitating, and changing the boundaries of the spaces in which artists of colour create their work, and attempts to find ways to more accurately represent Canada’s population in Canadian arts and culture. I don’t see myself as a cultural worker because my practice is not about working within Canada’s existing culture. It is about advocating to change the understanding of Canada’s culture, that it has been created in order to make diversity part of the “mainstream.”
Right now, that practice looks like identifying ways to dismantle the whiteness that exists in the policies that determine how artists can create their work, the conditions and resources under which art is created, and even how arts and culture are defined. This can include a wide umbrella of things, ranging from what counts as “art” and what counts as “culture,” to how funding can be distributed, or the the role of languages other than English or French in expressions of culture.
So I see myself as both an artist with a particular vision and expression, but also a cultural worker within colonial Canada, fighting to change how arts and culture are defined, governed, and supported, from the inside out.
Primary Colours/Couleurs primaires (PC/Cp) is a three-year initiative that aims to place Indigenous arts practices at the centre of the Canadian art system. PC/Cp also asserts that art practices by people of colour play a critical role in imagining Canada’s future(s). Over four days in September 2017, PC/Cp gathered over 80 Indigenous artists and artists of colour on traditional Lekwungen territory to update the 30-year-old conversation in Canadian arts and culture about the history of colonialism, race(ism), and artistic practice. The gathering – intentionally framed as a gathering rather than a conference or symposium – offered interdisciplinary and intergenerational perspectives on urgent issues facing Indigenous artists and artists of colour in Canada. PC/Cp borrows Indigenous protocols and encourages knowledge and experience sharing as a means of building new and collaborative relationships and frameworks.
For most artists of colour, opportunities like the PC/Cp gathering are rare. They are even more rare for young artists of colour like me. In comparison to so many of the other attendees, my decade of working in the arts meant I was still a newcomer, though PC/Cp emphasizes a collaborative approach where we are all experts because of our lived experiences. As a young artist of colour who up until that moment in time had been struggling to find out where my practice fit or even what my practice was, PC/Cp became the first crucial influence on my career as an artist of colour in Canada. It was the first time I felt safe, and the first time I felt like I had arrived.
When I think about the influences on artistic practices, I think about how and why we do the work that we do. For Indigenous, Black, and artists of colour, an artistic practice may be one of the few avenues where our voices are heard inside Canada’s Eurocentric cultural model. So the influences become not only about our own intentions and visions, but also about all the oppression we feel on an everyday basis simply by existing within a white supremacist and colonial society. The influences are not only about our memories, experiences, and ideas, but also about any of the following: microaggressions, internalized racism, sexism, patriarchy, doing the emotional labour of educating on whiteness, participating on panels or adjudications as the diverse individual, or being a “4-1-1 information line” on all things not-white.
In this sense, I don’t think I’ve come to my work in ways different than any other artist. The daily influence of colonialism guides, interacts with, and is the reason for the work that I do in creating literal space for non-white artists to be able to do their work. I think almost all Indigenous, Black, and artists of colour feel this responsibility and burden of creating space, despite it sometimes taking away from their artistic work. For me, creating literal space is the primary purpose of my work.
During the gathering, there was a short interactive exercise we did one day around bilingualism. All participants who were bilingual and multilingual (in any languages, not just English or French) had the opportunity to stand up and say their names and one other sentence to everyone else in a language that had not been used during the gathering. At least, I think these were the parameters around the exercise, but it has become very obvious that my memory of this exercise comes from the heart and not the head. For some artists, it meant entire songs. For others, it ranged anywhere from phrases, to sentences, to words or vocabulary that they still knew from their mother tongues or languages that had been stolen from them. While waiting for my turn, I could feel my heart pounding in my chest, was in awe by how quickly the exercise turned emotional, and was very nervous about what I was going to say. To be honest, I couldn’t remember much of what anyone else said because I was frantically trying to piece together my own words, in a language that suddenly felt foreign to me. When it was my turn, I stood up and said in Cantonese: “My name is 張芷彤, and this is the first time I’ve been able to use Chinese to describe and express myself in this environment.”
When I think about the influences on my practice, this memory from the gathering is one of the moments that defined where I wanted my work to go. Though it was a short statement, and one that probably less than ten other people in the room understood, it was an incredibly intense, emotional, and sobering experience for me. I am not the biggest fan of public speaking, but my unease and fear did not stem from speaking in front of 80+ other artists. After all, PC/Cp had made me feel safe in a way that I was comfortable – if for only four days – participating in all kinds of ice breakers, warm up exercises, and confessions that I would not otherwise have dared to attempt. I couldn’t stop my voice from trembling, couldn’t shake the tears in my voice, and all at once was hit by a stunning realization that I had no words in my mother tongue to talk about myself as an artist, what I do, and why I do it.
My practice – like so many other artists – is guided by a desire to understand my identity and to feel a connection to something larger. In that moment, I desperately wanted my artistic practice to have a connection to my cultural heritage, but perhaps have always known that I didn’t have the tools to make that a reality, or even the tools to talk about what that might look like. I just didn’t think it would end up becoming my work.
I read once that culture is one of the hardest words to define in the English language. In my work, I believe that culture must extend beyond traditional art forms or mediums of art. It cannot simply be theatre, dance, or visual art, because art is a reflection and expression of culture. To me, arts and culture is a loaded term that is inherently colonial in a Canadian context. Art (usually Eurocentric, or what we can also call “high art”) is often funded but culture (often anything that relates to or is an expression of an ethnicity) is not. I’m not sure what a better term would be yet, but we must recognize the division in the definition.
In my practice, cultural identity and policy are intricately tied. The influences on my work are not only things that are happening today or contemporary influences, but also where I come from. It’s about ancestors and identity, and how my ancestors, identity, relationships with my family, and my understanding of my life are influenced by Canada and my family’s migration histories to this land. This is definitely not unique to me, and I would be remiss to think so.
Within my practice, my scope of diversity focuses particularly on visible minorities, defined by the Canada Council for the Arts as Canadians of African, Asian, Latin American, Middle Eastern, and mixed racial heritages of one of the aforementioned groups. This is not to say that reconciliation, decolonization, and Indigeneity do not factor into my work at all. In fact, I consider these to be some of the biggest influences on myself as an artist and my practice, though not necessarily in a way that may seem obvious at first.
On my continuous journey of learning about reconciliation and decolonization, this distinction is one of the ways I recognize my own responsibility as an artist of colour working around diversity in the arts. My practice begins with the recognition that diversity and Indigeneity must be two simultaneous and separate but interconnected conversations that form the foundations of how all of us – Indigenous, Black, and people of colour – converse with and listen to our shared and collective histories of colonialism and oppression. While there is a widespread recognition that diversity in conversation includes Indigenous, Black, and people of colour, there is also a very important acknowledgement and respect that the cultures, protocols, ways of being, and expressions of Indigenous people are also separate from the diversity conversation, because they are the foundation and at the forefront of what it means to decolonize and reimagine the arts in Canada. To conflate diversity and Indigeneity would not recognize this, and I firmly believe that without this distinction, we do ourselves a disservice in understanding our work as artists of colour in the project that is Canada.
As a settler-artist of colour, I consider it my own responsibility (even if only to myself) to make this distinction, so as to avoid understandings where the plight, concerns, and circumstances of Indigenous peoples and people of colour are often assumed and considered to be one. This conflation would erase Canada’s colonial formation and systemic disenfranchisement of Indigenous peoples, and diminish both our accountability as people of colour to recognize their own roles as settlers, and also our responsibility in working towards truth and reconciliation. I will be the first to acknowledge that this can, at times, be a limiting factor in my practice, and it continues to be an ongoing lesson every day.
To be an artist of colour in Canada requires a fundamental recognition that I, as a settler of colour, am both “from here” and not “from here.” I am “from here” because I, too am Canadian, despite this country’s predominant narrative of a harmonious multicultural mosaic, English and French bilingualism, and the Great White North. That I – with my skin and hair colour, migration to this country, foreign mother tongues, and personal history of being an immigrant – am actually what many other Canadians look like. But I am also not “from here” because I have the privilege of learning, creating, advocating, and living on the unceded territory and traditional homelands of the Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh peoples.
I have a complicated relationship with the phrase “tell our stories.” As a settler, it is obvious that I, too, have benefitted from the disenfranchisement and systemic racism towards Indigenous peoples. We advocate for artists and people of colour, but must do so in the context and recognition that we have also arrived on this land that is not ours. To create work and have a practice in this context is a privilege that goes beyond simply fighting for a space to “tell our stories.” After all, simply telling our stories seems like such a trivial cause when done in isolation. How can telling our stories exist in a vacuum, as if simply having space to tell our stories means we have done what we are called to do?
Alongside searching for my identity and connection to my cultural heritage, the biggest influence on my work has been the realization that Indigenous ways of knowing and sharing are what taught me more than I could have learned on my own about my own responsibility as a settler-artist of colour, and how I have learned to make sense and purpose of my own practice. Even now, I have a difficult time speaking or writing about it, and it often feels like something I carry in my body instead. Reconciliation and decolonization are lessons I take seriously as a settler-artist of colour, and it continues to be an incredibly humbling experience.
During the gathering, Sylvia Hamilton reminded us to be brave and bold in our work. She reminds us that we not only have the amazing challenge of doing our own work, but also the responsibility of opening ways for other artists . When I think about my practice, influence and responsibility are often interchangeable. During the roundtable, all four artists talked about recognizing the burden – and privilege – of their artistic practice, and how it is not only an assertion of who they are, but also who they are supposed to be. More importantly, it is also something they have risen to rather than something they have chosen. As a young settler-artist of colour, I have been lucky to learn from and be guided by so many others, most of whom were pioneers in creating this space. The work I do is only possible because of the work done by others before me, and it is an honour, privilege, and overwhelming responsibility to have found the influences that help you make sense of your work’s purpose. But the work is heavy, hopeful, despairing, inspiring, stressful, hopeless, and the reason for our being and existence. It can and should be all of these things, because it is.
My practice right now has taken me to city planning and policy work with the City of Vancouver, where I am part a dedicated team of fully bilingual (in English and Chinese) and entirely Chinese team of planners working towards UNESCO World Heritage Designation status for Vancouver’s historic Chinatown. Our work is interdisciplinary, and includes a wide range of areas from affordable housing, to business and economic vitality, to social services, to community development.
Chinatown is one of Vancouver’s formative neighbourhoods and one of the few Chinatowns in the world that still sits at its original site. The migration of Chinese people to Canada is formative and foundational to Canada’s history as a colonial nation, and includes many stories about the relationships between the Chinese and Indigenous communities which are unwritten in history. Today, Chinatown continues to be a symbol of advocacy, resiliency, and community organization. My work on the team specifically involves supporting Chinatown’s arts, culture, and intangible cultural heritage. Intangible heritage includes what has traditionally been defined as arts and culture – such as the performing and visual arts – but also includes oral traditions, social practices, rituals, festive events, knowledge and practices transmitted from one generation to the next, and knowledge and skills to produce traditional crafts. My work is about this living community and all the things that are representative of its people and history, and every day I am reminded of the incredible honour and responsibility of doing this community-responsive work.
As a young settler-artist of colour just starting out on this path, I don’t know where my practice will go, but I do know this: my education may have resulted in an opportunity for me to use my practice in the work that I am now doing, but the substance and heart of this work comes from these influences that I hope will continue to hold me accountable.
For more information about the Lekwungen Gathering 2017, click here.
Other Roundtable Resources
Belle Cheung 張芷彤 is an uninvited 1.5-generation immigrant from Hong Kong who is privileged to live on the unceded territory and traditional homelands of the Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh peoples. Belle’s work sits at the intersection of arts and culture, and advocates for race, cultural histories, and representation as important factors in cultural policies to more accurately represent, and to make diversity part of the “mainstream.” Belle has a background in arts administration and the performing arts, and she holds an MA from the University of British Columbia where her research focused on whiteness in Canadian arts and culture policies. She is currently a Social/Cultural Planner with the City of Vancouver’s Chinatown Transformation Team, part of a specialized team working towards UNESCO World Heritage Status designation for Vancouver’s historic Chinatown.