Going Beyond Tokenism: Creating Space for Intersectional Emerging Artists.
Being a third culture person in a defined setting of any kind can be alienating off the bat. When I first moved to a larger city to pursue secondary education I found it shocking to see in clear day what my limitations would be due to my own intersections. As an artist and student I found it very interesting and advancing to research these ideas of alienation and cultural identity in a contemporary context but would find the responses from institutions varying and somewhat lost. It’s very important to note that the artistic choice to reflect my own reality was less of a choice, and more of a necessity to really be able to connect myself in any realm of art I would find myself projected within.
What one would have to watch out for when dealing with these intersections in art is the chance to be both hypervisible as well non-existent to the point where the idea of being an artist becomes unsatisfying and exhausted. Whether it be in an undergraduate class, art gallery, or at an art event I would keep asking myself the same question, how does space truly work when most who need it have to tiptoe around unspoken neoliberal notions of what diversity is? Traveling through the worlds of for profit institutions as well DIY and underground spaces, I took any knowledge I had on me and found a way to get my foot in the arena.
Moving to a city like Toronto, especially from a different cultural and political climate can be quite daunting in many ways. In my own experience I found my own work ethic, values, and interpersonal connections culturally challenged more than ever before just in the first 6 months of living there. For a while I would barely see anything I could truly sought out in my education as something extremely relatable or reflective for my own visibility. Oppositely to that experience, I was also introduced to terms and ideologies like post-colonialism and queer theory things I never really heard about but felt my passion and interest navigate towards. It was almost like an informational overload that institutions would push these ideas of invisibility as well hypervisibility as an introduction, put them into a ring, and be commanded to wrestle each other all in the in deep thoughts of your own mind. To this day in my undergraduate education, I find myself either having to be extremely didactic in explaining my work or completely metaphorical about my own relation to these two realities I find cross my path. While not always a bad thing, especially when introducing these personal feelings with artistic discourse, it can be a tug-of-war of shrouded dismissing labels being flunged at you whenever you present a new work.
Dealing with this conflict in institutional learning and galleries after a while come expected and quite unsurprising, but you also can be easily fooled about your own visibility once you turn your attention toward radical and DIY spaces in your cities art scene. Most likely because of peers, because of call for submissions, because when forming your own community you can and will probably find yourself in spaces for emerging and student artists. This realm is extremely promising for the most part, politics are more of a statement and less of a brand, the experimentation of your artwork is more welcomed and even encouraged than in most places, and you can discuss ideas that contain ideologies like post-modernism and human rights without having to analyze it so thoroughly. While this social aspect of it can be a lot more liberating than a classroom or a traditional gallery, there still is a lot of unspoken red tape and/or exclusivity one might have to face when at a oppressive intersection.
One of the big hot buttons concerning cities and smaller galleries is the inequality in accessibility. Financially for a space it can be hard not have an up or downstairs venue making any wheelchair bound person absolutely unable to attend. Even as a disabled person and a curator I find my personal values and creative prospects to never come together fully due to this distinct issue, having the privilege to be able-bodied to a point always leaves me with guilt because I know more than ever that I have been in a situation where my disability was at odds with art. Though this is not necessarily the fault of anyone besides the price of being an artist, advocation usually is just a footnote or faux pas in the process. If communities ignore a sector of an audience, but conveniently use the politics created by said makers and writers how does that irony betray it? What types of media can be used if an non-abled bodied artist couldn’t enter the space use as a tool to present their work to accommodate them? At this point most questions will go unanswered and the idea of accessibility becomes lost.
What also presents no difference to institutions and underground spaces is the percentiles of overrepresentation with one subsect above most and all other artists who may identify as something else. Tokenism is completely a keyframe of this issue, as it is most likely that an emerging artist of colour will present in an exhibition with a mainly majority or overtly populate white middle class makers. While all visibility counts, especially for artists who don’t often get such, there still is an isolating feeling when you’re art or your identity is overtly highlighted by a subconscious or conscious tokenism. I find that when I submit work to a show and when my peers do the same I will likely get a response much later to them with either a yes or a no; when confiding that fact I will find myself again grouped in an area with other peers of colour who got the same type of response I did.
With my intersections, and with my experiences in my career choices as an emerging artist I realize that sometimes I do even find that institutional spaces at least can accommodate the idea of accessibility and voice due to a status quo. If my work doesn’t seem too obscure or political, or even counter-cultural it is so visible to me that I can stand beyond the periphery of underground and DIY gallery spaces. The feeling of this social welcome and rejection is achingly similar to an inside joke that I wouldn’t get but have to laugh along anyways to keep even socially afloat.
Though this criticism is true to many spaces, it is not to shame institutions or galleries of their own realities. Art can be a hard bargain to be successful in and any maker, curator, and writer will most likely put in work and labor that will go beyond fair payment. What needs to be said is that intersectionality is a reality for many artists, and in this decade the amount of intersectional artists are increasing by the year. In my own university, I have seen a lot more artist of colour as well disabled artists come into the institution than when I first got here. A lot of the systems and ideas that I’ve learn in a four year time frame was mostly sought out by own interest rather than in school or even from a gallery. When analyzing these thoughts or issues whenever they come up, I ask myself every time how can conversation lead to change and opportunity?
Firstly, I feel the only way I could survive the invisibility of the art world was getting inspired to use my voice. Other artist who have found themselves at high levels of frustration will express their discontent of the environment that simultaneously supports and ignores them. I used to be too scared to say much but after a while, I used the privileges I have to constantly bring up my concerns to instructors, office workers, other peers, I made sure to be on the look for new opportunities and state my honesty about the hierarchical system. I would make sure to create community with those I feel solidarity with or heard from. I think for myself those were important ways for me to step outside my comfort zone in school and really convulse my own awareness into the greater community.
The next step in pushing more diversity in institutions and alternative spaces is really simply highlighting marginalized voices in art to the same degree as other subjects. Tokenizing is not just upon a person but even subjects or political stances. Like anti-racism, disability rights, trans, non-binary, and queer activism, when presented in a very isolated space the topic of the both the artist’s identity politics and their work’s social content can be subjected and/or gazed upon in a patronizing fashion. What really comes to mind with these issues that come up in presenting less privileged work is that there should just be as an equal amount of fairness that others outside of these intersections may get on a regular basis by galleries.
Giving or actualizing spaces to larger groups of artists with intersections has become a momentum, especially in highlighting how this in this field it’s much easier for some than others. I feel especially in emerging spaces there can be a lot of room to voice concerns talk about the social responsibility that an art community can contain could only make work and it’s relation to diversity more defined. Opening this space for more artists really can just start with dialogue and understanding. Reflecting our socio-political environments especially as multicultural metropolises in the west is vital for a true and absolute reflection of the labour that all artists, curators, and writers do to stay afloat personally and professionally. Once these discussions begin communities can transcend and produce more visibility.
Published in It's Still Privileged Art a publication compiled and edited by Sanjit Dillon and Leaf Jerleafia in 2016.