to visit the tiger in review & Artist’s Statements

By Henry Tsang

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to visit the tiger held at the Community Arts Council in Vancouver in October, 1992, was the first exhibition in British Columbia of contemporary visual art by artists of South Asian origin. As a representation of a community that has had little exposure within the 'mainstream,' white arts communities, this was an important project and a historic act of affirmation and self-definition. Here was the first 'public' presentation of artists who identified themselves as South Asian, although for some, the ethno-specific framework was not a comfortable one. Nevertheless, this was a repositioning of their work in order to facilitate a dialogue concerning issues of cultural identity, displacement and racism.

Curators Shani Mootoo and Chris Creighton-Kelly chose twelve artists who work in painting, printmaking, and installation. The forms presented were limited (media-based works such as photography and video were absent), and all of the pieces showed strong connections to western historical art practices, whether they be straightforward representational painting or politicized avant-gardist installations.The artists selected reflected to some degree the diasporic histories of South Asians, with differing birthplaces (such as Zaire, Uganda, Kenya, England, India, and Pakistan), historical arrival periods in Canada's immigration history, and religious backgrounds. The wide age spread of these cultural producers is evident in the work presented. They offer varied, sometimes antithetical, relationships with their heritage; for some, especially the older artists, cultural identity is not an issue in their art practice.

Badru Jamal's small, subdued watercolours of a landscape, a cabin interior, and a desk with various significant personal objects, are painted in a restrained manner There are subtle references to importance of his faith in his personalized view. Ranjan Sen's four-panel painting The Animals, The Flower, The Fish, The Land is vivid, looser, and technically more proficient. Sen's broad strokes and bold use of colour depict fauna and flora in separate spaces, juxtaposed but not intersecting. A tenuous allegorical relationship exists, alluding to the fragility and delicacy of the balance in nature as we see and attempt to control it.

For some others, especially younger politically-sensitized cultural producers like Sherazad Jamal, Amir Ali Alibhai, and Sur Mehat, the investigation of personal, cultural, and national identities becomes a focus, along with the problem of defining one's cultural hybridity. Their works show the influence of postmodern, postcolonial discourse in their approach to subject matter as well as form.

Jamal's sculptural installation consists of a chest of drawers in front of a rich golden sari fabric backdrop. The drawers are lavishly painted and layered with lasercopied images of herself in poses of entrapment and frustration. On top of the chest sits typical bedroom paraphernalia; the tools for making one presentable in 'public,' including a hairbrush, handmirror, a jar of vanishing cream, and a small framed memo to the colonizer. The private domestic sphere becomes a site of resistance from the erasure of racial otherness, rejecting assimilative pressures to cosmetically whiten oneself up and down. She affirms her heritage as she identifies the oppressive society she lives in. As the most direct anti-racist piece in the exhibition, this work is positioned firmly within the current discourse on art as social activism.

Jamal's work was placed opposite to Alibhai's in the exhibition space, and an ambiguous relationship resulted. Certain formal elements in both works, such as the sari fabric and the use of the swastika suggested a visual link. Beyond that, however, on a conceptual level, the two pieces had very little in common and did not merit such inadvertent conflation.

Amir Ali Alibhai's painting-installation also employs sari material, but not as a cultural backdrop; they are front and centre, functioning as translucent scrims in front of his paintings. Draped from ceiling to floor, the three delicately patterned fabrics form an ethereal wall, filtering and mixing in with the patterns of the three paintings behind. On the floor are dyed green rice grains forming lotus petals (life and rebirth) and swastikas. The richly textured paintings are mystical and mystifying, with an idealized woman's face surrounded by fractured space, populated by intensely activated images of flowers. Perhaps these are allusions to the feminine as 'other,' as some manifestation of Alibhai's relationship to his own self as male and as South Asian. The shrine-like presentation emphasizes the other-wordliness of his iconography. It pushes towards an exoticization of that which he cannot yet know, yet is an integral part of him nevertheless. The title, Avatar (incarnation/visible manifestation) implies approaching a mystical 'other'. In this case, he has used the form of a woman, a problematic proposition. The hanging fabric is not the only barrier in accessing this highly personalized, somewhat esoteric, and complex work.

Sur Mehat's sprawling installation is concerned with the racist construction of Canada through language. There are file folders with images and text, framed history and geography textbooks, plywood boxes with peepholes and journals inside, all scattered along the second-floor balcony. Mehat's installation also includes plastic refrigerator-magnet-letter mobiles hanging like a chandelier over the foyer. Mehat re-presents images of official, institutionalized Canada with irony and sarcasm. Those left out of the equation are either exoticized or marginalized. What her piece lacked in technical finish and, at times focus, was almost made up for by her ambitious undertaking of attempting to inhabit parts of the Community Arts Council Gallery space seldom utilized for presenting artwork.

Waheeda Tejani-Byron's etchings were evocative and subtle, imparting through the painfully stark yet textured renderings of enigmatic figures, a stillness and solitude.

The large lithographs of streetscapes by Ameen Gill were technically impressive particularly due to their scale. She documents Vancouver's old-time architecture through exaggerated perspectival licence, as if with wide-angled lens distortions.

Shamina Senaratne's quilt Lands, Seas & Resources contains elements and fabric materials from Canada, Sri Lanka, Kenya, India, Pakistan, and England. It is a combination of influences from the displacement she and her family have experienced thus far in their journey to find a home.

Parminder Mann's triptych incorporates photos and texts into the painted surface. Images of a female figure wrapped completely in muslin are surrounded by quotes from The Book of Dead, giving off an eerie sense of otherworldliness, as if she is attempting to find the middle ground between this reality and elsewhere.

This type of proclamation is not so much a reflection of a community of artists who merely want recognititon, but rather the inequity of the present system in which they live.

Surjit Mehat's acrylic on wood paintings are abstracted formal depictions of women in traditional garb. His smaller two pieces almost leave representation behind, and in so doing, with a clearer palette, move toward a bolder graphic quality.

Kauser Nigita's woodcuts, drypoint, and etchings refer most directly to classical Indian art history and mythology. Her dream-like illustrations place women in various poses in fantastical landscapes, infused with a feminine essence.

Paul Pahal's loud paintings, with shiny stones and cloth imbedded into the bright paint, point almost to a decorative tradition of whimsy, if notforthe references in his abstractions to the American Formalist tradition. It is a fusion of cultural influences.

On opening night, the speechmakings, poetry readings, and supportive audience created a sense of community. And there was the feeling of completion. "I wish this had been done long ago" sighed an exhausted Shani Mootoo in conversation that evening; such a statement requires contextualizing.

As the first of its type, as a community-building project, there is inevitably the burden of responsibility to present positive imagery. The pressure to propose a single, unproblematic view of what is usually fractured and polyperspectival is the result of two very different strategies for survival. One is to present a front of solidarity to the outside, resisting divide-and-conquer manoeuvres from institutions and the status quo. The other is to maintain the sufferance and traditions of silence that non-white, non-anglo peoples have utilized to endure the racism they have faced in Canada. Hence the need exists to present a general overview of South Asian art, to present an image of a community to the outside, where the construction of that larger 'public' is still generally perceived (regressively, I believe) to be 'white.'

Chris Creighton-Kelly, in the catalogue introduction, writes that the exhibition 'does not represent itself as exhaustive.'

Such first shows from the 'marginalized' are invariably surveys, and are seldom coherent or consistent. They are held together by the sheer will to work together in order to refute their marginality. They constitute a coming-of-age, demanding mainstream exposure because it is their right and should be their privilege as well.

Meanwhile, the diversity and accessibility of traditions, religions, and ethnicities are concomitantly displaying to the communities within. This reference, again, to the inside and outside is not to set up a dichotomy, but to argue that they occupy separate states. Rather, these spaces overlap, and more so, they contain each other. The view of the outside is just as fabricated as the image of the inside, and both are constructions of the other And so the artists in to visit the tiger occupy these spaces simultaneously. They have experiences so unique that no comparison can be made. Together in this exhibition, their participation speaks of a commonality, a commonality of differences. gender-specific shows in the Sixties and Seventies with women's art indicated feminism's rising influence, so too does (to visit the tiger) harken to a stage of development in which issues of representation, access and aesthetic sensibility dominate.

"Simultaneous with the recognition that much ground remains unbroken, and issues, such as systemic elitism, are left on the table," states co-curator Shani Mootoo in the introduction to the exhibition catalogue.

Clearly, this show is a celebration. It is a self-conscious statement of presence. South Asian artists are alive and well and occupy an important role in the production of contemporary culture here in Vancouver.

This type of proclamation is not so much a reflection of a community of artists who merely want recognition, but rather of the inequity of the present system in which they live. Whether as South Asians with different art historical traditions or as South Asians with different theoretical and philosophical frameworks, or as South Asians with different coloured-skin and languages, the equating of South Asian with different must be noted. This assertion of a communal identity works in opposition to a belief that there is a dominating culture where white is normal and therefore non-different. The problem with this assertion is that it inherently acknowledges that there is a dominating structure. This exhibition works toward a time when there no longer exists the political urgency for ethno-specific projects.

And certainly, the function that to visit the tiger has is specific to this socio-historical period; as gender-specific shows in the Sixties and Seventies with 'women's art' indicated feminism's rising influence, so too does this project harken to a stage of development in which issues of 'representation,' 'access' and 'aesthetic sensibility' dominate. In keeping with other community-based presentations dealing with self-definition within a broader context, this first venture is a survey of work from various diverse practitioners, unified by an oversimplistic theme, in this case, race.

to visit the tiger Artist Statements

Excerpted from the catalogue

Amir Ali Alibhai

As an artist I have been concerned with the search for self and home by reclaiming themes, media, images, techniques and the history of my South Asian/Ismaili roots. I present and re-present these through my experience as a western-educated and ‘assimilated’ Canadian. And like my ancestors, I also have a taste for story- telling, decorating, adorning and exaggerating...The basis of my aesthetic is that ‘there is no empty space.’

Ameen Gill

For the past five years my predominant mode of artistic expression has been stone lithography...I’m attracted to the older parts of town where the buildings show signs of decomposition, of being weathered-of-time.We often say that these neighbourhoods have character and that is a human quality. That these build- ings show signs of decomposition makes them feel, to me, full of energy, full of life. In my prints I try to convey these feelings.

Badru Jamal

...Painting becomes a form of meditation, of contentment.There is an excitement, a satisfaction he feels in being able to work solitaire, absorbed by his subject, his colours and by the very act of putting paintbrush to paper...(He) chooses subjects that speak of contrast: old and new; decaying and growing; de- tailed and obscured. He is interested in colour, light and shade, capturing the details in layering...

Sherazad Jamal

I am keenly aware of being culturally schizophrenic...The only time I feel ‘at home’ is when I am creating. It means that I define the boundaries—boundaries don’t define me...The fissure that exists in Western theory between art and every- day life concerns me...I think that art comes from life, from experience, from context...My work is to be touched, felt, utilized...And when it leaves the sacred setting of the gallery, it integrates back into my everyday life.

Parminder Mann

My works are mainly collages, using a variety of methods such as photographs, pen and ink drawings, cheese-cloth, paint, plaster and occasionally, text...(I) need to express my diverse and conflicting cultural roots, and my inability to fully integrate into India, English or Canadian Society. Modern life has created this new generation of displaced individuals search- ing for their own identity. My art is the process of finding that identity.

Sur Mehat

...From the beginning of my green- walled, desks-in-straight-rows education, I was expected to rely on and revere the assumed authority of overbearing and seemingly omnipresent patriarchal value judgements–Western European/English Canadian/White American–as the truth, as the way things are...The only moment of lucidity came when fact became prefixed suddenly (and irreversibly) with white male subjectivity, Eurocentric, phallocentric, etc. It is with this strategy that I re-view my Archive. It is from this position that I explore questionable historicity as the basis of a shifting identity.

Surjit Mehat

...Growing up in Canada and being surrounded by so few, if any, images on oneself creates a sort of multiple, split personality...In terms of art and art practice...(s)uddenly you are transformed into a South Asian artist. I think living beyond a stereotype is one of the hardest things to do. Yet as an artist of colour you become surrounded by what people want you to be. These wants include such categories as the exotic, passive, sensual, mystical vessel that is forever other. This other is always on the fringes of dialogue. It is the subject of discourse, never the enunciator of it.

Kausar Nigita

Printmaking appeals to me because of its long tradition and its ritualistic nature...I do not like my subjects to be anchored in time and space. I prefer them to be light with a timeless quality about them...I seek to create a dream-like atmosphere in my images, similar to the state of dream-like, mystic contemplation evoked by Sufi poets. My Indo- Persian roots are apparent in my style which is sometimes ornate, sometimes calligraphic, sometimes both.

Paul Pahal

...My work over the past few years has concentrated on the colours and patterns of our culture. More recent work incorporates silk sarees and other fabrics...The main influence in the manner of painting is abstract expression with definite focus on Hoffmann, Pollock and Kline...Utilizing my heritage and upbringing, my pieces should convey two points of South Asian background, (and) my Western influences.

Ranjan Sen

Attraction to nature is obvious to my recent works. I want my paintings to be subtle, subliminal reminders to the viewer of how fragile and precarious the balance in nature is. These works are a witness and a reminder so that we don’t spoil it all but at the same time I want the viewer to enjoy and revel in the magic of movement, colour and aroma and wonder how and where one wants to fit in the scheme of things.

Shamina Senaratne

This piece grew out of the realization that I am only able to direct my life with ease and grace when I recognize who I am and where I come from. What cultures do I come from? What countries have I come from? What religions have influenced me the most? What perspectives flow from this collage and patchwork that makes up my background? What perspectives flow from my lands, seas and resources?...The patches, motifs and fabrics that make up this work come from Canada, Sri Lanka, Kenya, India, Pakistan and England. Inspiration for the designs came from Canadian heritage quilts, the work in La- hore Fort and Sri Lankan temple border patterns.

Waheeda Tejani-Byron

During one particular art education course we were asked to draw a house we once lived in. This assignment triggered a series of drawings, paintings and prints based on my memories of Africa. I was able to recall... happy childhood memories without reference to the political conditions. My Indian cultural heritage was still absent in my work. Then after my trip to India in 1985, this aspect of my identity started to manifest itself in my art, either through memories of my visit or imaginative interpretations of its folklore.

Frieze and handprint design by Sherazad Jamal.
Redux Handprint
Henry Tsang
Henry Tsang is a Vancouver artist. He co-curated Self Not Whole: Cultural Identity and Chinese Canadian Artists in Vancouver at the Chinese Cultural Center in 1991.
Rungh Redux Winner 2022 Award of Merit Innovative Practice
Rungh Redux Winner 2022 Award of Merit Innovative Practice
Britannia Art Gallery
Britannia Art Gallery
Bookhug Press
Bookhug Press
Plantation Memories
Plantation Memories
Alternator Centre