Three years ago, I saw Richard Hill speak on a panel titled “Art Criticism and the Ecology of Art.” There, he pointed to his position as one of a handful of Indigenous scholar-critic-curators in Canada, and—if memory serves me correctly—how that weighed on the kind of criticism he could level at work produced by members of his community, which had just recently begun to achieve visibility and acknowledgment by the settler-Canadian artworld.
Hill’s comment, for me, conjured up a clip from Mean Girls (2004), where main characters Regina George, the high-school “queen bee,” and Cady Heron, the “new girl from Africa,” gossip until the outfit of a passerby, a woman of vague non-white origin, catches Regina’s eye. “Oh my god! I love your skirt—where did you get it?” she gushes. But as soon as this woman leaves the scene, Regina turns back to Cady and whispers, “That is the ugliest effing skirt I’ve ever seen.”
Though this analogy doesn’t 100 per cent mirror Hill’s dilemma, I’ve asked myself many related questions since I saw him speak in 2013: Are critics who are people of colour (POC) expected to be representatives of the marginalized communities that they belong to—and if so, how does that inform whether they sugarcoat or critique bluntly? Does the Bambi/Thumper rule—“If you can’t say something nice, don’t say nothing at all”—especially hold water in marginalized communities? If the role of the critic is to survey, demystify and contextualize art for an informed audience, then is the critic of colour tasked with elucidating identity politics, to be a mouthpiece or a mediator to predominantly white, uninformed audiences? To cheerlead and advocate for the artists of colour whose work might be considered too esoteric, or too “special interest,” by these audiences? When there are so few POC artists and even fewer POC critics, is the onus on critics in my position to champion them because, seemingly, no one else will? What actually, tangibly results from roundups of diversity? What happens after we’ve shaken our heads and glanced at stats that testify that the landscape is bleaker than we’d thought, that maybe we aren’t as “inclusive” as we’d lauded ourselves to be?
I am a woman of colour who passes: visible enough to be subject to the question “Where are you really from?” but usually able to avert it with, “I’m a Canadian citizen.” So when I was asked by the editors at Canadian Art to weigh the virtues and the perils of an initiative like Black History Month—or African Heritage Month, as it is called where I live in Nova Scotia—I wondered: How much space can I take up without detracting from those who’ve been systemically dispossessed of it?
If I’m given an opportunity because I might be one of few writers of colour on an editor’s contact list, and if I’m selected for positions elsewhere—where the first thing I’m told is, “You’re very lucky you got this. It was very competitive”—because I say I’m interested in writing about tokenism, and it’s hot to purport to support marginalized voices, then where does that leave me when I don’t feel like speaking to any of this? I can’t help but wonder if I’m approached on the basis of fulfilling some undisclosed diversity quota, to be paranoid of institutional claims of meritocracy and, therefore, of my own merit.
Where is this tension coming from? Is it self-imposed or is it internalized? Take into consideration my lived experience: In the 10 years I have lived in Canada, it wasn’t until strangers on the street approached me to point out that I look like Ilana from Broad City that I encountered someone who resembled me on a screen. I was known in my suburban southwestern Ontario high school as “the girl from Egypt” / “Cleo” / “Fez” (the exchange student in That 70s Show), invited to sit at lunch with my white peers only to be quizzed about what it was like to live in the pyramids and how I learnt to speak more fluent English than them if I had only just gotten here (ignoring, of course, the necessity for the colonized to speak the colonizer’s language better than them), and then getting dragged by the hand to be introduced to the only two other Arabic speakers at our school.
All these years later, how could I not feel responsibility tugging at me when the first thing that I notice when I enter most art spaces in Nova Scotia is that I’m the only person of colour—and it cuts—and I see individuals and institutions relentlessly performing ally theatre with lip-service proclamations of support?
When I moved back to Halifax for a residency in October 2015, the first POC I encountered in the three weeks after I arrived advised me that I ought to consider my writing practice as what they called a “creek of [my] privilege”—to lend a voice and give space to those rarely afforded either. I revisit many of the questions I asked myself earlier when I remember that I am in a place that is home to one of the first and largest settlements of black people in Canada, where Africville was razed just under 60 years ago to make room for urban development, a place where incidences of anti-blackness still abound.
The very fact that people still ask whether we need Black History Month is symptomatic of the belief in a so-called “post-racial” society. This debate arises annually, roughly taking the same shape: one side denigrates the relegation and the pigeonholing and pushes for integration, the other side asks what we would be left with, whether we’d talk about it at all in the absence of a designated month.
And while Black History Month programming, at its best, can be an exposure opportunity for emerging black artists, the visibility comes at a price in this essentialist context.
“You’re given your month, but [you’re treated like] this is not real art. There’s no real level of engagement with the work,” said Pamela Edmonds, a Toronto-based curator, when I interviewed her in 2014 about her involvement with the Black Artists Network of Nova Scotia and the countless exhibits she’s curated that address the politics of representation.
Mind you, it’s totally fair for the editors who commissioned this article to anticipate that I would take up this proposal. Last May, I wrote about being only one of a handful of POC at a large-scale art-criticism conference, and one of the writing samples I’ve submitted to all the mentorships and internships I’ve applied to in the two years since graduating is titled “Insufficient Funds: A Case Study of Veiled Tokenism.”
I had the option to decline this writing opportunity. I deliberated on forwarding it to a black Canadian writer. But, as Jessica Lynne, co-founder of ARTS.BLACK, an art-criticism journal from black perspectives, has said, “Black writers shouldn’t be called upon only to write about ‘Black’ things.”
Those same editors told me I would be welcome to pitch any other time on other topics. Though the door wasn’t exactly closed in my face, I still have reservations about the instances I’m invited in.
Ultimately, I took this opportunity to open the dialogue about diversity in Canadian art publishing, to encourage editors and curators to diversify their rosters of writers, to push those gatekeepers to reach out to writers of colour not just when their “flavour of the month” is propelling the rotation of think pieces and listicles.
I must remember that I have agency in my self-representation, too.
“If you’re presenting yourself as the other all the time, then you’re doing it to yourself. The institution will do it to you, no problem whatsoever. I think you know when you’re being put in that position,” Edmonds told me. “It’s about being more strategic, if you’re a cultural worker, to not allow that to happen. Those systems are set up to tokenize you. They’re not always aware of their own self to be able to not do it. There’s no excuse anymore; I’m not letting them get away with it.”
Merray Gerges is a co-founder and co-editor of CRIT, a free biannual newsprint publication curating contemporary criticism. She is currently the inaugural Emerging Critical Writer-in-Residence at Art Gallery of Nova Scotia and Visual Arts Nova Scotia. And she occasionally posts on Snapchat, Instagram, and Twitter as @merrayrayray.
This article was corrected on February 22, 2016. The original article identified a 2013 panel as being titled “The Challenges of Writing Frank Criticism.” In fact, the panel was titled “Art Criticism and the Ecology of Art.”