Other Conundrums: Race, Culture and Canadian Art

Monica Kin Gagnon

Monika Kin Gagnon's Other Conundrums: Race, Culture and Canadian Art presents a portion of the author's considerable body of writing and critical interventions in the articulations of race and visual culture in Canada over the past decade. Gagnon has been an important figure in the culture scene in Canada since the early 1980s through her critical writing on art and film, and as a founding member of the periodicals Borderlines and Public Access. As the 11 essays gathered here attest, she has occupied positions of both observer and participant in the Canadian cultural scene and weaves those perspectives together into strikingly perceptive and complex discussions of the mobilization of race in contemporary Canadian culture. A central argument emerging from Other Conundrums highlights the political and epistemological distinctions between a cultural race politics that acknowledges and seeks to intervene in the structural racism of Canada's cultural organizations, and what Gagnon refers to as the "taming" of racism by shifting the terms of reference to questions of diversity, multiculturalism, and "ethnic or minority art."

The book's purview encompasses two broadly defined areas of analysis: artists whose work engages with racial politics through a consideration of identity and representation, and the refusal of cultural institutions to acknowledge and address the racism inherent in their own structures. In the first category of essays, Gagnon discusses the work of such artists as Dana Claxton, Paul Wong, Shani Mootoo, and Jamelie Hassan as crucial interventions in the formation of a cultural race politics, defined as "processes of self-identification and the self organization of Native artists and artists of colour into communities with the goals of making interventions in the larger Canadian cultural domain" (pp. 22-23). These essays provide important discussions of Canadian artists whose work is often ignored or marginalized in mainstream publications. The selection of Shani Mootoo's work in both Xerox and video as the focus of analysis provides a fundamental metaphor for the modes, circulation, and reproduction of identities that is first conveyed through the subject matter and subsequently underscored by the formal nature of the medium itself. Seen together, these essays offer points of connection between artists of colour and First Nations artists, illustrating the necessity of developing coherent strategies to illuminate and thus combat the racialized structures of the Canadian art world.

The second, related component of Other Conundrums is the discussion of the erasure of "race" and "racism" from the discourse of many of the country's cultural institutions. Through an analysis of a series of national conferences on race organized between 1989 and 1994, Gagnon chronicles the inability of alternative organizations to acknowledge their complicity in maintaining racist policies and processes. A telling instance of this complicity emerged during the 1993 meeting of the Association of National Non-Profit Artists Centres (ANNPAC) - a group ostensibly founded on the principle of encouraging engaged and critical art practices. At this meeting, the proposals for change presented to ANNPAC by a caucus of artists of colour and First Nations artists formed the year before (the Minquon Panchayat, of which Gagnon was a member) was criticized as counterproductive to the workings of the organization and dismissed. While this is in many ways an expected critique of mainstream organizations - and Gagnon links this moment to the "Writing thru Race" conference organized by PEN the following year - her account of the ANNPAC executive's refusal to consider arguments raised about its lack of attention to issues of race in its deliberations is telling of the assimilationist stance of the dominant white discourse at work across the Canadian cultural spectrum.

One of the most striking aspects of Other Conundrums is the shifting mode of address evident throughout the book. Gagnon combines standard critical essays with letters and lexicons - a selection of terms whose definitions are gleaned from a variety of reference and other source materials. In one lexicon, for example, the concept of hybridity is explored through definitions and descriptions of terms ranging from American Beauty, Amerasians, cyborg, Eurasian, half-breed, and heterosis to Minotaur, Mixologist, and Picasso. The result is a combination of expected and unexpected terms whose relationship is created as the words unfold on the page, but whose lack of immediate consonance reveals the reader's desire for the kind of "natural" connections found in standard dictionaries. These lexicons and the letters written to artist Jamelie Hassan as part of a 1993 residency at La Chambre Blanche in Québec, allow Gagnon's voice to emerge clearly from the distanced stance of the critic occupied in many of the essays. It is at this juncture that the stakes of the writing become evident, as her location as a participant in shaping a cultural race politics in Canada is made clear.

The lexicons and letters also produce a certain anxiety in the reader: a sense of intrusion into a very personal and deeply felt engagement with race and racism. The reader's anxiety, however, is not simply the result of the encounter with the personal that emerges through both the content of the essays and the format of the book; it is revealed in the open-ended nature of Gagnon's arguments. This lack of closure - or the positing of questions rather than the formulation of easy answers - is unsettling for the reader, but also very powerful. As a white reader I felt that I had read many of these arguments before, reflecting that surely there must be "a solution" that will mediate the conflicts and enable cultural harmony. But that's the point: the desire for "harmony" posits diversity and multiculturalism at the expense of the recognition of the reality of structural racism, and is the very "solution" that Gagnon's book militates against. In this regard, it appears at a very propitious time. As the continued relevance of the issues voiced by Minquon Panchayat in 1993 illuminates, discussions around race and racism are at a crossroads. There is an overwhelming feeling of satisfaction in some quarters, a feeling that much has been done, that race no longer needs to be addressed in explicit fashion, that this country's policies of multiculturalism and cultural diversity have created a more positive climate for people of colour. As Other Conundrums insistently argues, however, symbolic gestures toward cultural equality are not enough. Rather, an engaged cultural politics of race requires the constant recognition and critical examination of the structural operation of racism across the Canadian cultural sphere.



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We wish to acknowledge the financial support of the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council for their financial support through theAid to Scholarly Journals Program.

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