Mark



(Dis)Placed: A Virtual Artist Spotlight and Talk Series

January 15 - February 11 2021


The Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area is home to many diasporic communities. Approximately half of the region’s current population was born outside of Canada—making the region a natural place for meaningful discussions on the complexities of movement, language, and community belonging. What does it mean to be Canadian, when Canada has become a crossroad for such a rich diversity of peoples? Are traditional definitions of “home” meant to be challenged, reconciled, stretched, or embraced in our current geopolitical context? In 2021, Greenwood engages with contemporary discourses in Ontario’s diasporic experience. (Dis)placed: A Virtual Artist Spotlight and Talk Series considers the fallout of westernization and the effects of displacement, cultural belonging, and visibility on our local communities. 

Greenwood’s forthcoming programming series takes the form of two artist talks hosted in tandem with a collection of four virtual artist spotlights. (Dis)Placed showcases the diverse and intergenerational interpretation of diaspora by artists and arts activists in the Greater Toronto Area. In response to a year of unprecedented events, Greenwood— an initiative led by Blackwood Gallery Work-Study students— considers the importance of providing a space for emerging voices to grapple with cultural movement and belonging complexities. (Dis)Placed invites emerging and mid-career artists to unpack these present-day experiences, activating various perspectives on space, belonging, and place in our communities. 


We at Greenwod recognize (Dis)Placed as an opportunity to examine, learn, and unlearn traditional definitions of diaspora in the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Area. For this reason, we have complied a list of resources that influenced our direction – a collection of works that process themes of cultural belonging, identity, assimilation, and intergenerational doubt in North America. It is our hope that this small sampling proves insightful, tying together traditional and contemporary discourses on the subject:

  • Dionne Brand, What We All Long For (Toronto: Penguin Random House Canada, 2005). 
  • Jana Evans Braziel and Anita Mannur, Theorizing Diaspora: A Reader (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2003).
  • Judith M. Brown, Global South Asians: Introducing the Modern Diaspora (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006). 
  • Roger Brubaker, “Revisiting ‘The ‘Diaspora’ Diaspora,’” Ethnic and Racial Studies 40, no. 9 (2017), 1556–1561.
  • James Clifford, “Diasporas,” Cultural Anthropology 9, no. 3 (Aug. 1994), 302-338.
  • Robin Cohen and Caroline Fischer, Routledge Handbook of Diaspora Studies (Abingdon: Routledge, 2018). 
  • Sneja Gunew, “Serial Accommodations,” Canadian Literature no. 196 (2008), 6-16.
  • Media Farzin, “The Imaginary Elsewhere: How Not to Think about Diasporic Art,” Bidoun, originally published in Summe 2012.
  • Maurice Halbwachs, On Collective Memory, [Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, (1925) 1992].
  • Stuart Hall, “Cultural Identity and Diaspora,” in Jonathan Rutherford (ed.) Identity: Community, Culture, Difference (London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1990), 222-237.
  • Smaro Kamboureli, Scandalous Bodies: Diasporic Literature in English Canada (Waterloo: Wilfred Laurier University Press, 2009).
  • Jacques Khalip, Anonymous Life: Romanticism and Dispossession (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2009).
  • Saloni Mathur, The Migrant’s Time: Rethinking Art History and Diaspora (Williamstown: The Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, 2011).
  • Linda Nochlin, “Art and the Conditions of Exile: Men/Women, Emigration/Expatriation,” Poetics Today 17, no. 3 (Autumn 1996), 317-337.
  • Kobena Mercer, Exiles, Diasporas & Strangers (Boston: MIT Press, 2008).
  • Edward W. Said, Reflections on Exile and Other Essays (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2002). 
  • Tahseen Shams, Here, There, and Elsewhere: The Making of Immigrant Identities in a Globalized World (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2020).
  • University of Toronto’s Centre for Diaspora & Transnational Studies, Between, Across, and Through, Podcast, October 1, 2019 – ongoing.

Acknowledgements


The members of Greenwood UTM would like to thank all of our contributors for generously sharing their work and trust with us throughout the production of (Dis)Placed. With full hearts, we thank Shaheer Zazai, Idil Djafer, Florence Yee, and Abedar Kamgari for their continued cooperation, patience, and enthusiasm. We are honoured to reach and represent artists with such a rich diversity of backgrounds. We would also like to extend our sincere thanks to the Blackwood Gallery staff for their generous guidance throughout this series' production. Our final thanks are to Greenwood's growing digital audience. It is through your viewership that we are able to continue elevating emerging student and mid-career voices from our local community. We cannot thank you enough for your generous support.

With gratitude, 
–Greenwood UTM, the Fall 2020 - Winter 2021 Blackwood Gallery Work Study Team

Muskoka Dittmar-Mccallum, New Media Assistant
Nancy Hamdy, Outreach Assistant
Megan Kammerer, Collections Assistant  
Nicholas Markowski, Outreach Assistant
Jessica Velasco, Collections Assistant
Anila Wahid, New Media Assistant



Shaheer Zazai 


“The digital nature of the project has allowed me to be able to speak in a new visual language that strangely mimics carpet knotting technique. They are both a play of numbers and density per square inch – the rest is left to improvisation. This language has also served as an opportunity to bring my heritage to a contemporary dialogue” - Shaheer Zazai, 2020.


Shaeer Zazai, Carpet No. 6 (digital print, produced in Microsoft Word), 2017. 

Shaheer Zazai’s practice navigates processes of cultural identity, hybridity, movement, and migration. Each work simulates a process of resettlement, re-enacting the lived experience of diasporic peoples. In doing so, these images provide a unique opportunity to explore the condition of being (dis)placed. 

Zazai reconciles traditional visual motifs with new media by digitally mimicking the process of Afghan carpet-weaving. BWG FD ALL SC, for example, depicts another of the artist’s works currently shown in the Blackwood Gallery’s Burning Glass, Reading Stone lightbox series. However, here it is deconstructed and split into various stages of completion. Zazai visually analogizes the textile codes of carpet weaving with those of digital programming. His recent works, such as NS46 7F, appear entirely computerized, as if distorted by glitch. While the digital renderings retain the decorative patterns of traditional weaving design, they also abstract these patterns beyond immediate recognition. Zazai’s work then speaks toward the dissonance of diasporic experiences, exploring the simultaneity of cultural detachment and connection.  

Shaeer Zazai, 44 NS 10F (digital print, produced in Microsoft Word), 2019.                               
Shaeer Zazai, NS46 7F (digital print, produced in Microsoft Word), 2020.
Q: Tell us about yourself. Was there a specific moment when you, as an artist, knew that you needed to create work that engaged with diasporic themes? Was this always a goal in your practice or did you gradually integrate these themes into your work?A: My practice has always been focused on my relationship with my home country without specifically aiming to be creating work that engaged with diasporic themes. With the development of the digital work the theme of diaspora became more visible to me. 

Q: The Greater Toronto Area has become a cultural crossroad for a rich diversity of peoples from across the globe. How do you identify/position yourself as an artist in this context engaging with themes of diaspora in 2020? What are the messages surrounding this identity and current themes of belonging that you try to convey or amplify in your practice?  
A: The digital work, for me, has raised the question of the development of identity in diaspora. What happens to identity when it lives between cultural identity and environmental identity?  

Q: Tell us more about your ongoing digital carpet series. How has the project enabled you to explore the connections, or disconnections, between your Afghan heritage and current experience as an artist in Canada? Does the digital nature of this project have an impact on how you navigate these relationships?   A: I realized this much later but the carpet series is the pivoting point when my perspective of my own culture changed. Prior to the carpet series, I was focused on Afghanistan’s history and politics from a position of rejecting one’s cultural identity. The process of making the carpet series changed my perspective from rejection to trying to understand what it means to be in diaspora. 
The digital nature of the project has allowed me to be able to speak in a new visual language that strangely mimics carpet knotting technique. They are both a play of numbers and density per square inch – the rest is left to improvisation. This language has also served as an opportunity to bring my heritage to a contemporary dialogue.

To learn more about Zazai’s artistic practice, you can view his website or follow their Instagram account.

  

Shaeer Zazai, BWG FD ALL SC (digital print, produced in Microsoft Word), 2020. 


Idil Djafer 


“I feel that I am able to say something about my identity in showcasing my surroundings. It’s important to also note that although my practice is mainly photography, my process is heavily conceptual. From idea to execution, the concept will always come first. I constantly ask myself throughout my practice, what medium would work best to bring this idea to fruition? Sometimes the right medium isn’t photography or video, but I enjoy learning the necessary skills to create work in different forms ” - Idil Djafer, 2020

Idil Djafer, If You Ain’t Black Don’t Say It (detail), 2018.  

Idil Djafer is a Scarborough-based conceptual artist examining themes of language, cultural space, and belonging in her multi-disciplinary practice. Working primarily with lens-based media, Djafer proposes new forms of diasporic identity construction by navigating her intersectional experience as a Black Muslim woman in the Toronto area. 

Not Our Space explores the theme of white space as negative space. The majority of public settings in Toronto are populated by white bodies. Djafer breaks down this characteristic, exploring how cultural asymmetries generate feelings of discomfort and unease for persons of colour navigating these spaces. Who belongs in these settings and who does not? The video’s white space is deconstructed to visualize the abundance of negative space surrounding its subjects. move b*tch, get out the way! takes these questions one step further – exploring how women of colour can combat exclusive sidewalk politics. They are empowered to make space among the crowd. 

Related themes on the functionality of language are surveyed in If You Ain’t Black Don’t Say It. Five sentences are brought together in the embroidered work to focus on the excuses individuals use when they are called out for using the N word. Each phrase is surrounded by charming textile designs to emphasize attempts to sugar-coat these excuses. Djafer summarizes the work best, proposing “There is a great deal of anti-blackness around the world, therefore I refuse to allow anyone to use language that makes me uncomfortable. Yet, a golden question remains: why is it that when a Black individual expresses their discomfort, they are ultimately disregarded by weak, nonsensical excuses?”


Idil Djafer, move b*tch, get out the way! (video still), 2020. Life-sized projection, 3 minutes 48 seconds.
You can watch the full video here.
Idil Djafer, Not Our Space (video still), 2019. Digital video, 4 minutes 35 seconds. 
You can watch the full video here.

Q: Tell us about yourself. Was there a specific moment when you, as an artist, knew that you needed to create work that engaged with diasporic themes? Was this always a goal in your practice or did you gradually integrate these themes into your work? A: During my third year of Studio at the University of Toronto Scarborough, I realized that I wanted to create more meaningful work that resonated with diasporic themes. This wasn’t always a goal in my practice, I definitely needed the push of my wonderful professors and peers to actualize these themes into my work. Prior to creating more conceptual-based works, my main goal was to create a certain aesthetic which led me to always prioritize that over the themes of the work.

Q: The Greater Toronto Area has become a cultural crossroad for a rich diversity of peoples from across the globe. How do you identify/position yourself as an artist in this context engaging with themes of diaspora in 2020? What are the messages surrounding this identity and current themes of belonging that you try to convey or amplify in your practice?
A: I love that the Greater Toronto Area is so diverse. However, based on the 2016 Census, Black folks make up only 7.5% of Toronto’s population. This number is sure to increase for the 2021 Census. I am therefore a part of the minority in this city and I position myself as an artist focusing on the intersectionality of my identities within this context. Although I am a Black Muslim Woman, I’ve had folks from all different backgrounds relate to my work because they might fall under the category of one my identities. The message surrounding current themes of belonging that I try to amplify is that I want everyone to feel comfortable in their identities and to not feel any sort of alienation.

Q: The activation of lens-based media seems to be a recurrent theme in your practice. How has the use of photography and video influenced your development as an artist? Do images have the power to showcase something about your identity that other mediums cannot? A: Photography was my first introduction to the arts. From joining the photography club in high school, to buying my first DSLR, to finally taking photography courses in university to up my skill level, photography always been a significant aspect of my artistic life. These are all examples of how I got to my current comfort level with lens-based media. The use of photography has influenced my development as an artist by instilling a strong foundation in my practice. It’s the medium I’m most comfortable using, which then led me to explore other lens-based media such as video. Although my body is never the main focus in my works, with the exception of Salah (2018), the images that I take hold more power in showcasing my surroundings. Other mediums cannot necessarily achieve these goals. I feel that I am able to say something about my identity in showcasing my surroundings. It’s important to also note that although my practice is mainly photography, my process is heavily conceptual. From idea to execution, the concept will always come first. I constantly ask myself throughout my practice, what medium would work best to bring this idea to fruition? Sometimes the right medium isn’t photography or video, but I enjoy learning the necessary skills to create work in different forms 

To learn more about Djafer artistic practice, you can view her website or follow their Instagram account.


Florence Yee 


“I’ve found that the general blanket term of “diaspora” often eclipses the differences between class, queerness, and gender (among other things). I want to engage the term beyond “bobaralism,” beyond long-distance nationalism, beyond nostalgia” - Florence Yee, 2020.   

Florence Yee, in collaboration with Kiona Ligtvoet, SEEKING (sharpie on copy paper, 11” x 8.5”), 2020. 


Florence Yee’s multimedia practice engages with the complexities of diaspora, navigating the issues of class, gender, and queerness that are often subsumed (and perhaps hidden) beneath its umbrella. Their work draws upon text, sculpture, installation, and textiles to represent intimate narratives of cultural belonging and intergenerational distance. 

An embroidered fabric from Yee’s Please Reply (2019) reads, “[you honour them] in a language they do not speak.” The first part of the sentence is rendered as a ghostly apparition that throws the referent of “they” into question. The spectral text “they” seems to refer to familial predecessors. The speaker intends to honour their kin, but their sense of shared language has been lost—displaced—between generations. If this fragment is disregarded, “they” could just as easily refer to those outside of the work’s inferred community—a community that is possibly diasporic, possibly queer, – or both. Language does not have to be taken literally, after all.  The artwork raises evocative and ambiguous questions regarding kinship, belonging, language, community, and what it means to “honour” one's family and culture.

The artist expanded upon these themes when they joined us for (Dis)Placed’s upcoming talk series. Reflecting on their time as a student at Concordia, Yee expressed “At the time, there were very few BIPOC students and so there always needed to be so much assuredness in what I said - that there was no room left for an uncertainty that I think is necessary in talking about these complex issues...”  

Florence Yee, Please Reply (polyester thread embroidered on cotton voile with archival gloves, 8.5”x 1”), 2019. 
Florence Yee, A Labour of Labour (hand embroidery polyester thread on found comforter 7’x10’) 2018.

Florence Yee, Whitewashed (installation view of found objects, polyester thread embroidered on a found jacket), 2019.

Q: Tell us about yourself. Was there a specific moment when you, as an artist, knew that you needed to create work that engaged with diasporic themes? Was this always a goal in your practice or did you gradually integrate these themes into your work? A: There was no specific moment because there were many contributing factors. I didn’t make the connections between the shame I felt over my struggling Cantonese, my parents’ unwillingness to talk about the past, my father’s compulsion to work, and the fetishizing comments I received from others when I was younger. One moment that might summarize this feeling well was my therapist’s reaction to my grandparents’ experiences of displacement: “Wow, that’s a lot of twentieth century history.” 

Q: The Greater Toronto Area has become a cultural crossroad for a rich diversity of peoples from across the globe. How do you identify/position yourself as an artist in this context engaging with themes of diaspora in 2020? What are the messages surrounding this identity and current themes of belonging that you try to convey or amplify in your practice?   A: It's one kind of relationship, but I’ve found that the general blanket term of “diaspora” often eclipses the differences between class, queerness, and gender (among other things). I want to engage the term beyond “boba liberalism,” beyond long-distance nationalism, beyond nostalgia. That’s why I try to be as specific as I can in my narratives, avoiding generalizations and using a style of autobiographical fiction to extend objects into their parts in/away from historical imperialism. I think intimacy is one of those ways.

Q: Have community-driven projects, such as your involvement with Tea Base, impacted how you explore diasporic themes in your own art practice? Do these projects influence how you navigate representations of assimilation, intergenerational doubt, and cultural belonging in your own work?   A: I’ve been more interested in facilitating solidarity and building connections. This longer-term commitment to community has been grounding in many ways, exhausting in others, but important in the big picture. The space and people of Tea Base have given me an opportunity to make work without (or at least with less of) a white gaze. It provides a place to speak of uncomfortable, but necessary, internal dialogues within our communities.  

To learn more about Yee’s artistic practice, you can view their website or follow their Instagram account.




(Dis)placed: A Conversation with Florence Yee  


(Dis)Placed: A Conversation with Florence Yee via Vimeo. You can find a full transcript of the video here