Looking the World in the Face
Curatorial Statement by Amin Alsaden
This exhibition honours the agency of artists who depict the faces of “otherized” communities in the northern part of the land traditionally known as Turtle Island, or the modern nation of Canada. It highlights works by historically underrepresented Indigenous and racialized artists, drawn from the Canada Council Art Bank collection, which speak to a plurality often obscured.
The faces in this exhibition range widely: they are produced in a dazzling variety of artistic mediums and capture myriad subjects. From self-portraits to depictions of kin, from comics to allegories, and from historical figures to contemporary groups, the works raise questions about how communities, especially those that might be designated as “minorities,” convey their preoccupations, aspirations, and world views, in creative, unvarnished, and critical ways.
As a member of a displaced family who sought refuge in Canada, I have come to cherish the security this country affords many of us. But I have also experienced the systemic issues that divide Canada’s communities, and which otherize those of us who are perceived and treated as different. I hardly see our stories represented in Canadian museums, and art history programs are barely interested in what those who are like me and my family have to offer. I have painfully discovered the dichotomy that exists between the rhetoric around inclusion and prevalent exclusionary practices, which tend to get manifested in institutional settings.
It dawned on me that being seen and acknowledged can be the first step towards belonging, and a foundation for equality. But when certain society members are marginalized and even oppressed, insisting on being seen becomes an act of defiance. Therefore, the works in this exhibition are about a lot more than mere visibility or self-portrayal. They are acts of valiant resistance and generous affirmation. They are about registering one’s presence against the odds, sharing insights into how individuals and groups wish to be viewed without being filtered or censored.
The exhibition challenges the fixity of the dominant gaze that reduces “other” cultures to monolithic, legible, and controllable sameness. Faces are faces, denoting a humanity without socially constructed distinctions. However, the faces presented in this exhibition point to radically heterogenous backgrounds, perspectives, and concerns, which might be impossible to account for, let alone capture in conventional art forms. Amplifying difference and multiplicity, the wide variety of representations lays bare the astonishing complexity that exists within otherized communities, which, although at times described as minorities, are a microcosm of the global majority.
What brings these diverse communities together is the common world we collectively share: all these artists live, or have once lived, in Canada. To speak of a common world is to also speak of a common ground, and this exhibition acknowledges that these faces meet on the lands of Indigenous peoples—the First Nations, Inuit, and Métis communities—who are the original inhabitants and current custodians of the ground we stand on. Equally, it underlines the larger shifting ground under our feet, in a world rocked by crises, threatening the future of humanity as we know it. I hold that the only way out of the formidable challenges the world is facing today—from environmental collapse and endless warfare to widespread disease and political polarization—is through cooperation. At this pivotal juncture, we can only survive by seeing the humanity behind each other's face, by supporting shared causes, countering apathy, combatting injustices, and uniting to undo the harm we are causing our home, this fragile world.
While this exhibition emphasizes faces, it presents these depictions through the lens of place-making. It examines the relationship between Canada—as a geographic, political, and cultural entity—and its otherized communities (typically grouped under the controversial term “BIPOC,” problematic in its inherently reductive and isolationist premise). For members of our communities, whether the original inhabitants of this land or those who have settled in the country over the past few centuries—diasporic communities of immigrants, as well as forcefully displaced groups, some of whom are regularly discriminated against on the basis of race, ethnicity, and religion, or intersections of these and other identities—our sense of belonging to Canada can be fraught. By bringing together works representative of these communities, this exhibition asserts our integral place within contemporary Canadian society. These works provide an opportunity to centre those of us who are routinely relegated to the periphery: to celebrate the creative output of our communities, the sense of solidarity and affinities that emerge out of common struggles, and our undeniable contributions to this country.
This is, I confess, a highly selective sampling of the Art Bank’s collection across time, from the early works it acquired from pioneering modern Indigenous artists in the 1970s, to those added more recently, by a considerable number of contemporary Indigenous and racialized artists. The selection is by no means encyclopedic or exhaustive, and it does not reflect the breadth of the enormous collection. Through this specific selection, I propose that an ethos of dialogue and cross-cultural exchange is important not just within the arts, but also for charting a meaningful way forward in this country. The “other” will no longer be otherized only when mutual respect, recognition, and reciprocity—while underscoring the sovereignty of Indigenous peoples—inform relationships within Canada’s multicultural society.
Although this exhibition takes place in an institutional setting, it still seeks to become a place for members of otherized communities to speak their truth unfettered by the contradictions and tensions that such settings inevitably embody. It attempts to eschew domineering or dogmatic frameworks, convening the works unmediated, and inviting a selection of artists to directly express their intentions through written statements. The exhibition rejects the usual curatorial impulse towards classification, grouping, and interpretation, acknowledging the shortcomings of existing colonial museological methodologies. The works are presented simply chronologically, to evoke the sequence in which they were acquired by the Art Bank, as well as to signal the advocacy, along with the parallel evolving institutional practices, around the imperative of including underrepresented artists. This is an ongoing conversation that has gradually challenged the stranglehold of Eurocentric collecting and curatorial approaches, but it remains too slow a process: Canadian institutions and collections are still far from proportionately representing the full spectrum of the country’s diverse communities.
In this inquiry, I ask: Can an exhibition give a glimpse of an imaginary Canada where the traumas of the past and the agonies of the present might lay the ground for a future built on elevating plural lineages, creeds, and belongings? What if these faces, and the artists behind them, reflect the current demographics of otherized Canada? What if the works portray the incredible diversity of the country at this specific point in time—and chart a way forward for this national collection, fortifying authentic representation at the Art Bank? Additionally, what if an exhibition is transparent about its strategies of both inclusion and exclusion, acknowledging that every instance of display involves specific conceptual, and highly subjective, decisions?
I broach these questions through this exhibition, while celebrating the subversive politics I see enacted by the selected works and highlighting both the strengths of the Art Bank collection and areas where it might be improved.
When conducting my research, I found out that one of the things to applaud about the collection is its robust holdings of Indigenous works. Therefore, and as a tribute, the number of Indigenous artists included is three times what it would be if this exhibition were to accurately reflect the proportions of each otherized community in Canada—which it attempts to do. However, I also found out that one of the things to remedy in the collection is an obvious gap when it comes to Southeast Asian, West Asian, and North African artists. Representation by quota might seem like a clinical exercise, but I believe that it is a crucial litmus test at this moment of reckoning, especially within national institutions that have the responsibility of representing all Canadians. It was by scrutinizing the collection that I discovered that a lot more needs to be done to address the lack of representation of several equity-seeking groups: it is only by becoming cognizant of whether specific communities are accounted for, through conscious attempts at inclusion, that this collection can grow and better serve Canada.
Just as I see the included works as brave transgressions, this exhibition is likewise presented as a gentle provocation. It aims to convey that the faces presented, and the plural and ever-changing communities they conjure, are anything but “other.” They are us, all of us, constantly negotiating our intertwined presence on this precious and contested land. They are us, attempting to coexist, and perhaps even thrive, as we are carried on this vessel into the turbulent waters of an uncertain future, on a fractured and ailing planet.
This is an exhibition that set out to look for the faces of Canada and found a surprising Canada looking back. It found artists who audaciously insist on being seen, artists who also revealed the faces of their communities and, by doing so, have inadvertently confronted us with the face of the world.
Amin Alsaden thanks and acknowledges those without whom this exhibition would not have been possible. First and foremost, the participating artists, and especially everyone who generously made time to meet and share statements about their work. The team at the Art Bank and Canada Council for the Arts played an integral role in making this group effort a reality, and he is deeply grateful for all the individuals who made a contribution to the exhibition.