What does it mean to be a citizen, let alone an artistic citizen, in Canada today? In Eurocentric modern sovereignties like Canada, citizenship has generally been framed in terms of political, civil, and social rights of which the former two constitute defences against abuses of power by the state, while the latter requires the active intervention of the state to equalize citizens’ opportunities to the first two. The responsibilities of citizens to each other (not to the state) are typically underemphasized. Canada, as a so-called ‘nation of immigrants,’ is of course a colonized territory in which the descendants of settlers, immigrants, and Indigenous people share citizenship unequally. Citizenship can be passively enjoyed by those who benefit from the uneven distribution of resources and imbalanced access to political, civil, and social rights. Within this context, it is all too easy for members of the dominant class—which in Canada includes mainly the descendents of settlers and European immigrants—to become complacent or even defensive and protective. Essentially, the position enjoyed by the dominant, largely white community blinds it to its own power and privilege, so that this community’s own culture becomes a self-invisible norm, and all other cultures and social positions come to be seen as Other.2 The forms of individualism and myopia nurtured in this scenario interfere, in the extreme, with the formation of cross-cultural and cross-class alliances in the service of social justice. In the arts, this has meant a very long history of segregation, wherein the dominant cultural community has remained ignorant of the cultural productions, issues, and ideas of non-European immigrants and, even more so, of Aboriginal artists. Across the country, there are only a few models of creating interaction between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal visual arts communities. (One of the oldest now is TRIBE: A Centre for the Evolving Aboriginal Media, Visual and Performing Arts Inc., based in Saskatoon, conceived by its co-founders in 1995 as a nomadic Aboriginal artist-run organization that would infiltrate mainstream spaces with the work of Aboriginal artists in order to ensure that audiences of Aboriginal art were diverse, and not only Aboriginal or, more precisely, to ensure that members of the dominant culture would engage with the issues and ideas of Aboriginal artists.)
In his work of the past decade, Salloum has been one of a small number of non-Aboriginal Canadian artists to overturn this standard by actively seeking partnerships and collaborations with First Nations individuals and communities in his work. As the grandchild of Lebanese immigrants, he heard stories of the racism experienced by his parents and had first-hand experience of the repressed violence and vagaries of assimilation. Since he began his career as a professional artist in the late 1970s, he has always taken as a primary focus issues of political, social, and cultural representation, with an emphasis in his videotapes, on representations of the transnational in the Middle East and the Western portrayal of Arabs and of Lebanon. But after decades of making work in and about the Middle East, Eastern Europe, the USA, and elsewhere he turned his attentions homeward in 2005—literally, to his hometown of Kelowna, British Columbia, when he was invited by the Alternator Centre for Contemporary Art to produce a videotape for the city’s Centenary. Salloum chose as his subject the history and effects of the settlement of Kelowna by Europeans on the local Westbank First Nation.
Although this work, untitled part 4: terra incognita (2005), involves interviews with many members of the Westbank and Okanagan First Nations, who speak of such things as the community’s memory of the creation of the reserve system, the legacy of residential schools, and the lack of access to sacred places located within city boundaries, it is not a documentary in the typical sense. Whereas documentaries create or impose frameworks for representing their subjects, inserting images and text in such a way that the documentary’s position appears seamless, Salloum instead deliberately engenders, in this videotape as in others, what he refers to as “productive frustration” in the viewer. The usual subject of the gaze becomes the speaker, but unlike typical documentaries, Salloum’s videotapes do not frame the speakers so much as dance with them, around them, and next to them. The presence of the camera operator is almost always perceptible by the way the image shakes or wobbles, or by the sound of Salloum’s slightly muffled voice; there are no soundtracks insisting upon a certain mood or sense of drama. Instead, the wind whips voices from microphones, a telephone rings off screen, or there are other audible cues and interruptions alerting us to the contextual nature of the particular video clip; and often spoken words do not align themselves neatly to the images, such as when one speaker recounts the story of his younger brother’s death from depression and substance use, but the screen shows only the shadow of a leafy tree blowing gently in the breeze.
In a country where opinions proliferate about the so-called Native situation, yet where few white people—particularly from the middle (and upper) class—have any real acquaintance with Aboriginal people or culture, Salloum’s tactics challenge viewers to coordinate their own experiences and assumptions with the presented material to arrive at knowledge. In some cases the diverse realities represented in the videotapes and the prior experience and assumptions of the viewers may on occasion coincide or find agreement, but at other times they may collide or compete with each other, and sometimes the viewer will simply be faced with silence, such as a blackout in the image or an untranslated remark. Yet even these experiences produce a kind of knowledge for viewers, not just about the Westbank First Nation, the artist, or Interior BC, but also about systems of communication and representation, from language itself to tourism promotion to academia to prime-time TV. Viewers are forced to challenge their own preconceptions about what they think they know and what they are able to know (that is, not everything). This self-reflection is as essential and desired an outcome of Salloum’s work as any information he may try to communicate or translate about an individual, thing, place, or situation. To put this in other words, untitled part 4: terra incognita resists equally: the anthropologist’s desire to categorize, label, and consign; the liberal’s desire to feel pity and also to be redeemed by the implication of a (different) culprit; the policeman’s desire to locate and confine; and even the politician’s desire to ignore and dismiss as the product of an artist with a fixed, biased position. In my view, this videotape offers a crucial lesson about how true reconciliation can take place: it is not enough to passively observe the process. Instead, all citizens must actively engage and participate.
Critics on the right have occasionally labelled Salloum’s work as “ugly political propaganda,”3 while some on the left have questioned his engagement with the stories of people who do not fit the artist’s own identity profile, particularly his work with First Nations communities. The latter questioning acknowledges the colonial practice of cultural appropriation, but also disengages from active solidarity. In one interview for a large anthology on Canadian film and video makers, Salloum was asked: “Haven’t we seen too many Native stories told by others?”4 The artist replied: “There are many powerful Aboriginal filmmakers and video artists in Canada, such as Alanis Obomsawin, Zacharius Kunuk, Annie Fraziér Henry, Dana Claxton, Loretta Todd, Barb Cranmer, Cease Wyss, to name just a few. I’m not sure how many of them you’ve interviewed … For me it [is] not a question of speaking for others (appropriation) versus carving out a space for suppressed voices (emancipation)—it is much more complex than that. I speak in affinity with.”5 (In fact, none of the artists Salloum listed were interviewed.) The fact is, colonialism and the legacies of the residential school system are not an “Aboriginal issue,” but an issue that impacts all Canadians, affecting us all, in wildly divergent ways: economically, socially, and psychologically. There is no healing unless we all are healed (and for some, it means being healed of racism and ignorance), and to achieve this we must know each other and work together for change.
Affinity and collaboration are guiding principles not only for Salloum’s untitled videotape series but also for his collaborative art-making workshops, one of which, the Native Youth Art Workshop (NYAW) in Kamloops, BC, was designed to bring the voices of Aboriginal youth from Kamloops and surrounding regions to the wider Kamloops community. Salloum’s project was funded by the Kamloops Art Gallery (KAG), and was co-facilitated by Meeka Morgan, a Secwepemc/Nuu-chah-nulth writer and performer, along with Victoria Morgan and Rob Hall. In a city where Aboriginal parents had recently protested the lack of First Nations cultural education in the city’s public school system, the workshops, held monthly or bi-weekly at the KAG and at some reserves in the Thompson–Nicola Regional District, provided a regular outlet for a broad cross-section of Native youths (including First Nations, Métis, and Inuit, urban, “rez,” traditional, or foster kids in white homes, ranging in age from three to mid-twenties), along with one or two non-Native children, to share experiences, meet with contemporary First Nations artists, come in contact with Aboriginal art history, and express themselves collectively in paint and sound. Importantly, the workshops never focused on the participants’ points of origin, except to acknowledge the different kinds of impacts of the residential school system on them and their families; rather, Salloum and Morgan, as facilitators, along with the participants, set themselves the task of identifying and exploring their divergent and shared histories, with the goal of painting their present conditions and mapping out a future together.
Like Salloum’s videotapes, the paintings produced in NYAW contain equal mixes of beauty and pain, hope and violence, and voice and silence. More symbolic than narrative, the highly colourful works tend to be largely symbolic, with elements of graffiti and poetry. The multi-hued, at times child-like or crude, style of the NYAW works, speaks openly to Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people alike. They don’t mean anything, at least nothing that can be easily summarized; rather, they are expressive of a great deal of energy, shared conversations and points of reflection, and a common goal. At their first public display, during the opening of Salloum’s touring retrospective at the KAG, the paintings were mounted in a long, windowed corridor, visible to passersby on the street, framed by the names (in vinyl lettering) of all the youths involved and of their ethnic origins, as they self-identified. While the majority of participants were Interior Salish, and identified simply as Secwepemc, a huge number claimed hybridized roots, from St’át’imc–Secwepemc to Ojibway–Gwichya Gwich’in–Cree to Gitxsan–Chinese and Blackfoot–Irish. More than particular stories that were embedded in the canvasses, the NYAW works and their installation spoke of the fact of sharing—the sharing of past, present, and future—even if the shared past and present has been ignored by the majority of non-Aboriginal people in Canada until recently, and even if we are still uncertain about our shared future. Confrontation is carried out in these works in subtle and sharp ways that keep spectators not only engaged, but also challenged, which is an integral part of the process of sense-making. The paintings, like the videotapes, and like all of Salloum’s work, do not impose a sense of guilt but a sense of recognition that is a powerful tool in any process of reconciliation.
Jen Budney is interested in epistemology, or the nature and scope and limitations of knowledge. Working as a curator allows her to explore this arena in collaboration with a wide variety of artists, writers, and other creative individuals and groups. Her study foci for several years, both professional and personal, include the relationships between land and language in Indigenous cultures worldwide, Buddhist theories of impermanence and no-self, the roles and practices of museums, and the function of monuments. In 2002, she completed a master’s degree in anthropology, in which her research focused on racial attitudes and barriers to equity in the contemporary art world of Brazil—a subject inspired by her friend and long-time collaborator, the Brazilian artist Maria Thereza Alves. Jen has contributed essays to catalogues and journals including NeoHoodoo: Art for a Forgotten Faith (ed. Franklin Sirmans, Menil Collection, Houston, TX), American West (eds. Jimmie Durham and Richard W. Hill, Compton Verney, UK), Parkett, Third Text, FUSE, Art AsiaPacific, and the now defunct World Art. She lives with her husband, baby daughter, and two border collies in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, where she works as a curator at the Mendel Art Gallery.
Jayce Salloum: I have been producing art, collecting things, making things happen, and mixing it up for as long as I can remember. It was always part art and part social facilitation, or maybe that makes it all “art”; anyways, it was usually counter whatever the “culture” happened to be at the time and involved people from various parts of the “community” in liaison and/or at odds with each other. Lately, the work has involved production and facilitation in Lebanon, Berlin, New York, the former Yugoslavia, Kamloops, Cumberland House, Vancouver, Aotearoa/New Zealand, Afghanistan, and Australia. My practice exists within and between the personal, quotidian, local, and the transnational. In one sense it has always been about mediation—the gap between the experience and the accounting/telling/receiving of it—engaging in an intimate subjectivity and discursive challenge while critically asserting itself in the perception of social manifestations and political realities. Jayce has worked in installation, photography, drawing, performance, text, and video since 1979, as well as curating exhibitions, conducting workshops, and coordinating a vast array of cultural projects. He has exhibited pervasively at the widest range of local and international venues possible, from the smallest unnamed storefronts and community centres in his Downtown Eastside neighbourhood to institutions such as the Künstlerhaus Bethanien, Berlin; The Museum of Modern Art, New York; and the Musée du Louvre, Paris. Recently his work has been featured in The Archive (Whitechapel/MIT, 2006), Projecting Migration: Transcultural Documentary Practice (Wallflower, 2007), and Practical Dreamers: Conversations with Movie Artists (Coach House, 2008). ↩
- Marks, Laura U. (2003:18). Citizen Salloum. FUSE magazine 26(3):18. ↩
- For more on this subject see: Frankenberg, Ruth (ed.) (1997). Displacing Whiteness: Essays in Social and Cultural Criticism. Durham, NC: Duke University Press. ↩
- Dirlik, John (2007:27). Canadian museum decision, reversal angers both Arabs, Jews. The Washington Report on Middle East Affairs 21(1):27. ↩
- Hoolboom, M. (2008:201). Jayce Salloum: From Lebanon to Kelowna. In M. Hoolboom (ed.). Practical Dreamers: Conversations with Movie Artists. (1st ed.). Toronto, ON: Coach House Books: 185–202. ↩
- Hoolboom (2008:201). ↩