Twenty-five years ago, I looked around and I didn’t see what I wanted to see. In some ways, I was looking for artwork that spoke to me about questions that I was asking—questions that had been denied answers by my community, my family, and particularly the art world, and the film and television industries. I set out to answer some of these questions and ended up producing a series of exhibitions culminating in Yellow Peril: Reconsidered (1991) that featured twenty-five Asian Canadian photo, film, and video artists. That was not an easy task; it was produced against all odds by people who did not want me asking those questions and did not want to be focusing on identity politics, racism, and Chinese or Asian Canadian sensibilities. I was told by many of the artists whom I had asked to be part of the exhibition that they didn’t want to be ghettoized. I was told by the mainstream art world to stay away from that territory if I did not want to ruin my career. We went ahead with the project and we produced an exhibition that I think helped galvanize—not just for the Asian Canadian community, but for other communities as well—a sense of permission to ask questions about ourselves and others, questions that had not been part of our cultural landscape until then.
The Disfiguring Identity symposium presented an opportunity to revisit some of those challenging, difficult, and harsh questions that we were asking a quarter of a century ago, a large question being that of why we were marginalized and left out of the mainstream dialogue. We faced many limits in putting together a program twenty-five years ago; there weren’t many of us speaking out and making activist works that looked at ourselves because we hadn’t been allowed that option. We had been denied that voice as a community, certainly by our parents who were living in silence, living in shame, living illegally, and living as oppressed migrants, coming from a past of violence and disruption, and being in a country and a place that was not very welcoming. They were coming from a place of severe racism and in many cases were confused, uneducated, and poor. I certainly grew up in a climate where things were just not spoken about for reasons of privacy safety, and denial—for reasons related to fear. Part of the process is to overcome that fear, to be able to ask those questions and to look at what’s possible. It is important, as an artist, and certainly as one of the aims of this symposium to promote the creative freedom of expression. That has always been the very core of why I love art and artists, and celebrate and respect art, activism, and artists. With the film night, we set out to present artists who are taking risks and we programmed a selection of a few of the many works that have been produced over the last couple of decades that are asking some of those questions, and that are revisiting, rewriting, and reclaiming art history.