FROM COLLECTIVE TO INSTITUTION
The dark one in the land I was born in
In the land across the seas
I am that Ceylon Refugee girl
In central Lanka, I’m Damala
In the island north, the woman from the east
On the eastern shores where the fish sing
I am that hill-girl
And in the hill country, the woman from Muthur
In this island, stolen from its indigenous people
In this refugee-land
Thank god, I am, like before
the dark one.1
The South Asian Visual Arts Centre (SAVAC) emerged out of the Desh Pardesh, a multidisciplinary arts festival which operated from 1988 to 2001, dedicated to providing a venue for under-represented and marginalized voices within the South Asian diasporic community. Desh Pardesh came with a two-pronged mandate: first, to respond to the racism of the art world by creating a platform to showcase South Asian contemporary art; and second, to create a space for diasporic South Asians who were marginalized or exiled from the South Asian communities as queer and/or queer positive, social-justice-oriented people. SAVAC began as a curatorial collective within Desh Pardesh.
Twenty years later, SAVAC has been institutionalized. In 2008, in its 15th year, SAVAC changed its name from South Asian Visual Arts Collective to South Asian Visual Arts Centre to more accurately reflect its organizational purpose and structure as an artist-run centre. Today, SAVAC continues to be the only non-profit artist-run centre in Canada dedicated to the development and presentation of contemporary visual art by South Asian artists. Our mission is to produce innovative programs that critically explore issues and ideas shaping South Asian identities and experiences both locally and internationally as well as to facilitate a transnational conversation. SAVAC develops and produces exhibitions and a range of contemporary visual art interventions and programs. We work without a gallery space and typically in collaboration with other artist-run centres, public galleries and visual arts organizations.2 This collaborative process allows us to intervene in multiple spaces with our unique perspectives.
The move from collective to institution rose out of an increased dependency on funding from the arts councils. Desh Pardesh operated as a community-funded festival for many years. In the final stages of the festival, as it could not sustain itself on the amount of funding that the collective was able to muster, many entities within Desh Pardesh splintered to form other organizations such as ASAAP (Alliance for South Asian AIDS Prevention). SAVAC sought funding from the various arts councils. Dependency on that funding created the need for SAVAC to adhere to the demands of the councils. For example, the councils prefer that funded organizations prioritize paying Canadian artists and for programming planned within Canada. For an organization that has a mandate to facilitate transnational dialogues, that requirement dampens our ability to fulfill that aspect of our mandate. As extensions of the state, the arts councils are implicated in implementing multicultural policy in Canada. For an organization like SAVAC, our concern is not only to have a stake within the art world in Canada, but also to continue to engage with what is happening within the contemporary art scene internationally, especially on the subcontinent. Additionally, while multiyear funding enables organizations to plan for three years in advance, it also locks organizations into programming and makes it difficult to remain fresh because planning must be done far into the future. Organizations in other countries do not tend to plan programming for more than a year in advance. Thus, it becomes far more difficult as a funded institution to work with organizations abroad due to a variety of factors.
In SAVAC’s twenty years, locally, we have dealt with xenophobia, racism, exclusion and migration in three ways: through programming and interacting with the general public, by advocating for a space for people of colour within the art world and art institutions, and by providing our members with the support that they do not receive in other venues.
In 2003, while SAVAC was still a collective, it produced a project called Peace Taxi that involved fourteen artists from different cultural backgrounds who produced work in response to globalization and the threat to civil liberties around the world. These works were mounted in taxis around the city of Toronto. Taxi drivers, often immigrant workers, are always more vulnerable to racism and hate crimes; these issues were particularly hard in the years following the attacks on the World Trade Centre in New York in 2001. This project used the tiny space of the taxi to make a public intervention and start conversations between taxi drivers and their clients. One of the primary ways in which SAVAC has resisted the pitfalls of institutionalization is that we still maintain the ability to work in multiple and unusual venues such as this because we do not have a physical gallery space. This model allows us to partner with a range of spaces, from taxis to other artist run spaces to public galleries.
In 2013, SAVAC collaborated with PAMA (Peel Art Gallery Museum + Archives) in Brampton, Ontario for a show called Study for a Glass House. Brampton, now a heavily Punjabi suburb of Toronto, was once called “Flower Town” because it housed the third largest cut flower industry in the world. Artist, Abbas Akhavan created a site-specific installation in the form of archival vitrines that also resemble greenhouses within PAMA. Within this vitrine, on one side he planted flowers and plants that are indigenous to the area, while on the other side he placed historical materials and reproductions from the PAMA archives. As the plants grew throughout the duration of the installation, they created hostile conditions for the textual and photographic materials. By the end of the show, the colonial archival materials had deteriorated while the indigenous flowers grew. As Marina Roy put it, this show is “paying respect to the stifled voices and suffering lives that are at the foundation of industry, civilization, and archives; it lays bare the colonial violence that quietly unfolds across reams of mulched plant life and coal dust, ink on paper.”3
Abbas Akhavan, Study for a Glasshouse (2013), PAMA, Brampton, Ontario,
photos by Elise Windsor.
Brampton — much like Surrey, British Columbia —continues to be an agricultural community where many Punjabis work on the farms. For the opening of Study for a Glass House, we reached out to local YouTube star Chef LeTigre4 to pay homage to the current population who lives in the area. Chef LeTigre, born and brought up in Brampton, has a comedy cooking show on YouTube where he puts a Punjabi twist on North American classics. For the opening, he created three signature dishes using ingredients grown locally. This formula of having a live event involving fusion food has become a SAVAC mainstay. We create an open, inclusive environment where people feel comfortable to stay, chat, snack and drink for hours.
Since I have been Executive Director of SAVAC, my vision for our social justice mandate has been to counter the barriers that artists of colour face within art institutions. As an artist-run centre, our members are the backbone of our organization. At SAVAC, we are prioritizing supporting artists of colour by providing professional development workshops and opportunities. In a recent article in The New Yorker called “MFA VS. POC”, writer Junot Diaz describes the barriers for people of colour that come up before they even apply to an MFA program, let alone the alienation and isolation that they feel while they are there. It is worth quoting at length here:
Too white as in Cornell had almost no POC — no people of color — in it. Too white as in the MFA had no faculty of color in the fiction program — like none — and neither the faculty nor the administration saw that lack of color as a big problem. (At least the students are diverse, they told us.) Too white as in my workshop reproduced exactly the dominant culture’s blind spots and assumptions around race and racism (and sexism and heteronormativity, etc). In my workshop there was an almost lunatical belief that race was no longer a major social force (it’s class!) In my workshop we never explored our racial identities or how they impacted our writing — at all. Never got any kind of instruction in that area — at all. Shit, in my workshop we never talked about race except on the rare occasion someone wanted to argue that “race discussions” were exactly the discussion a serious writer should not be having.
From what I saw the plurality of students and faculty had been educated exclusively in the tradition of writers like William Gaddis, Francine Prose, or Alice Munro — and not at all in the traditions of Toni Morrison, Cherrie Moraga, Maxine Hong-Kingston, Arundhati Roy, Edwidge Danticat, Alice Walker, or Jamaica Kincaid… Race was the unfortunate condition of nonwhite people that had nothing to do with white people and as such was not a natural part of the Universal of Literature, and anyone that tried to introduce racial consciousness to the Great (White) Universal of Literature would be seen as politicizing the Pure Art and betraying the (White) Universal (no race) ideal of True Literature.5
In the last few years, many young (mostly women) art students and emerging artists have been coming to SAVAC with complaints similar to those articulated by Diaz. We have found that art institutions do not provide the types of support that these students require. Earlier this year, we provided our members with a free portfolio review. We asked two of our long-standing, mid-career artists to sit as jurors to provide feedback to these artists. An art student who also interns with SAVAC showed a very rough cut of a video that she shot in Pakistan. She had been wrestling with this work for four months. She had shown different versions of this video in her classes and received negative feedback on the work from her teachers and her peers. The video that she shot was an argument between a domestic worker and her employer. She managed to catch an extremely complicated dynamic between two women who have a professional-yet-intimate relationship that is mediated by class. The video is difficult to watch because emotions are high and there is a sense that some sort of grave injustice is being done, yet it is not clear to whom this injustice is being done.
The jury and the rest of people taking part in the portfolio review were astounded by the potential of this work. We were able to provide her with the constructive criticism and feedback she needed in order to be able to take her work to the next level. It is through such activities that I feel that the mandate of SAVAC is realized. These students come to us when they feel like they have run out of options for mentors and teachers who can push their work further.
As artists of colour, students often are pushed by art schools and institutions to make work that is about identity framed by Canadian multiculturalism. In fact, there is a push to portray culture and identity in digestible ways that reference a Canadian multiculturalism’s flattened version of who they are. Within these institutions there is little space to articulate nuanced, self-determined explorations of self.
On the flip-side, the other barrier that many young artists encounter is that of their families. It is very often that these students live with their families who disapprove of their choice of career path. One of our Toronto Art Council grant officers who teaches at an art school in Toronto directed one of his young students to us. This young woman’s parents (who had fled war) wanted to keep their daughter very close to them. They did not approve of her studying art — in fact she had to study two other disciplines to be able to continue in the art program. She was not allowed to stay out past 7PM, nor come downtown for any reason. This meant that she could not attend any openings or see much art outside of the classroom. When she would come to the office, she would unload all of her personal life. I spoke to her mother to reassure her that coming to SAVAC would help her in her career. Rather than getting her to do office work when she would come in, I would make a list of all the shows that she should see and gave her a journal to write down her thoughts about the works that she saw. I explained that if you don’t see art, it is difficult to make art and understand yourself as an artist.
While working through our members’ moments of personal crisis is not directly in SAVAC’s mandate, having come out of Desh Pardesh, it is clear that supporting people who are marginalized within the South Asian community is an absolute imperative for an organization with an identity-based mandate. Additionally, this type of emotional labour is difficult to quantify or even describe in grant applications for funding and is yet another form of work that is unacknowledged within the current art system.
INTERVENING IN ART INSTITUTIONS
In the final days of Desh Pardesh, which was a community-funded festival, SAVAC applied for funding from the Toronto Arts Council. Currently, SAVAC receives funding from municipal, provincial and federal bodies. It is interfacing with a granting system that forces organizations to institutionalize. First off, there is granting language that must be used to define oneself. For instance, SAVAC does not define South Asia as just simply Afghanistan, India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Myanmar, the Maldives and Tibet — we acknowledge that these borders are very recent in the history of the region. SAVAC maintains an open and inclusive definition of “South Asian” that is based in the complexities within the region itself: amongst the various diasporic communities in places like the Caribbean, East Africa and South East Asia; and within diasporic populations in the South Asian region. Within the diaspora, notions of home and identity become as blurred and complicated as the concept of South Asia itself. Given the complexity of South Asia, SAVAC is not limited by political boundaries drawn onto maps and resists the temptation of over defining and being overdetermined by a land mass whose borders have been persistently renegotiated. Instead, SAVAC prioritizes themes that relate to the historical and lived realities that South Asian people have encountered over time. Tangibly, we work with artists from neighbouring geographical regions as well because there has been exchange between these peoples for centuries.
Now, how to explain the complexity of South Asia in a few words in a grant application? We expend much energy to make our work understandable to a jury who might be completely unfamiliar with the complexity of the region — this is a complexity that exceeds the fact that these borders are simultaneously meaningful and meaningless. Given the difficulty in explaining our programming, the artistic merit of the work gets overshadowed by the contextualization that is required to frame it. This results in our work being underexposed and under analyzed. Arts writers will write about community arts because such projects are more easily made digestible to a general public as community arts organizations often use the language and formula of state multicultural policies as their framework; SAVAC’s work is rarely written about because the arts writer must do the work of understanding the complex and unfamiliar context, a problem that is as much about systematic exclusion as it is about the lack of training within arts schools as alluded above.
While SAVAC’s work within the art world is to advocate for a nuanced understanding of the context from which people work, as well as to create a space for this type of work, we are often asked to do more. We are approached by many galleries who want to host our shows in order to meet demands from the arts councils to show works from diverse communities. The difficulty is that many curators and gallerists prefer to have us do much of the intellectual work for these shows rather than do the research required to understand the works or the context from which the artists work, while they receive the credit and cultural currency for hosting these shows. The assumption is that an identity-based organization such as SAVAC exists to perform this intellectual labour so that the arts community as a whole can benefit from it. The unfortunate consequence is that the partner organizations are not necessarily required to be aware of the ways in which they function, whether it be hiring or curatorial practices. While the incentive from equity mandates put in place by the arts councils, like the Ontario Arts Council, to show works by artists of colour is welcome, one outcome is more work for organizations like ours. We need to train more curators and critics of colour and provide training within art schools on how to research, write about and read the works made by artists of colour. As Junot Diaz elucidates in the quote above, students in art schools are rarely taught about works by people of colour. To paraphrase the Senior Curator at the Royal Ontario Museum, Deepali Dewan, in a recent talk about photography in the British Empire, “You cannot just add a chapter about South Asian photography into a book, you have to rewrite the whole book to write our narrative and perspective into it.”6 People who are familiar with these ideas need to be employed within these institutions in order to adequately change these systems of art.
The creation of programs like the Ontario Art Council’s Access and Career Development grants are incredible for artists and arts administrators of colour, but they are just scratching the surface for equity within the arts. As I have mentioned before, one must be well-versed not only in written English, but also in the granting language. At SAVAC, we have been hosting an information session and grant writing workshop for this specific grant; our staff end up doing the bulk of the work to publicize the existence of the grant, as well as the work required to facilitate the grant writing itself.
I started off this paper by quoting Aazhiyal, a Sri Lankan Tamil poet who writes about how her identity is perceived due to where she is and how the systems that surround her define her. In Canada, where we are fortunate enough to still have funding for the arts, we, as artists of colour, need to wrestle with the beast of multiculturalism as the framework within which we are expected to perform our identities. In the words of Vijay Prashad: “Multiculturalism, in my estimation, emerged as the liberal doctrine designed to undercut the radicalism of anti-racism. Instead of anti-racism, we are fed a diet of cultural pluralism and ethnic diversity. The history of oppression and the fact of exploitation are shunted aside in favour of a celebration of difference and of the experiences of individuals who can narrate their ethnicity for the consumption of others.”7 Implementation of state multicultural policies within arts organizations can be difficult, but not impossible. Over the course of the last year, identity politics within the arts has been revisited in multiple fora like the State of Blackness conference in Toronto and the Disfiguring Identity symposium in Surrey. These dialogues identified the need for people of colour to re-create spaces for ourselves where self-representation and deeper conversation about representation within the systems in which we live can be re-activated.
1. Poem by Aazhiyal, a Sri Lankan Tamil poet now living in Australia. This poem was featured in a play called Karuppi, a production of Madras-based Marapachchi Theatre collective. This unpublished play featured a collection of writings by and about Tamil speaking women who migrated across oceans from Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka for work. The stories were compiled and translated by V. Geetha.
2. SAVAC website, “About” page, accessed July 21, 2014: link
3. SAVAC website, exhibition page, “Abbas Akhavan: Study for a Glasshouse”, accessed May 5, 2014: link
4. Chef Le Tigre, YouTube page, accessed July 15, 2014: link
5. Junot Diaz, “MFA vs. POC”, New Yorker, April 30, 2014, accessed May 9, 2014: link
6. Deepali Dewan, “Messy Photography & the Crucible of India”, Goldfarb Lecture in Visual Arts, (York University, March 7, 2013).
7. Vijay Prashad, “From Multiculture to Polyculture in South Asian American Studies,” Diaspora: The Journal of Transnational Studies, 8:2 (1999): 189.