Artistic Ethics in an Age of Social Consciousness

March 18th, 2019 | hUI wEN zHENG

From left to to right: Gabriel Moser, Georgiana Uhlyarik, Indu Vashist, Quill Christie Peters, Michele Pearson Clarke

From left to to right: Gabriel Moser, Georgiana Uhlyarik, Indu Vashist, Quill Christie Peters, Michele Pearson Clarke

lead organizer: Mira Pijselman

aSSISTS: AnneMichaela Macdonald, roshni thawani

As part of the diverse topics featured in this year’s Hart House Debates & Dialogue Committee event lineup, the Arts & Culture Subcommittee presented a timely discussion on how to navigate the artistic realm in light of social movements such as #metoo and Indigenous reconciliation. The event was moderated by Gabriel Moser of OCADU, and featured Quill Christie Peters, Indu Vashist, Georgiana Uhlyarik, and Michele Pearson Clarke on the panel in the sun-drenched Music Room.


When asked about how each artist chooses to engage with topics of social justice in their work, Trinidadian filmmaker Clarke recognizes that her medium is rooted in colonial narratives and is mindful of that when she is creating her art. For Peters, who is an Anishinaabe and Scottish-Irish visual artist, resistance starts with the institutions of art she must go through, as they are the very product of the patriarchal and capitalistic system settler-colonialism begot. Vashist, the Executive Direct of the South Asian Visual Arts Centre, notes that she tries to combat this by involving racialized artists at every stage: curation, implementation, and creation. For Uhlyarik, who is the curator of Canadian Art at the AGO, agrees that museums are ideologically self-protective in the logic of wanting to amass artwork and keep them the same. For her, the curator’s role is to ask better questions so art can perform is job of making the world bigger, and not simply uphold the old-guards.


The question of what the responsibility of curators are in promoting decolonization brought agreement between the panelists that greater structural changes must be made to be more welcoming and inclusive for minority artists. Uhlyarik points to the fact that the AGO’s Canadian Art department is endowed, but the Indigenous Art department is not as a sign that institutions must be less tokenistic about how they approach the issue. This performative decolonization is something Peters also critiques. She believes that the current trend of including minority artists in the process of curation still subjects them to the same settler-colonial power structures that are supposedly in the process of being dismanteled. The centrality of the curator in framing the meaning of works for Vashist means that minority artists must be allowed to present their own work, through Clarke points out that just having a person of colour doesn’t mean the problem is automatically solved. As a personal practice, she has begun to ask curators interested in collaborating questions about her work, and will walk away if she feels that she is just a diversity check for them.


In light of allegations of sexual abuse surrounding popular artists such as R. Kelly and Michael Jackson, the question of whether one can separate the artist from their biography has been a hot topic. For the panel, the answer was a unanimous “(hell) no.” Clark aptly notes that her art is intrinsically tied to who she is, and thus it is essentially impossible to understand art without contextualizing it in the life of the artist. Vashist and Peters add that society tends to upholds norms that perpetuate rape culture and settler-colonialism, giving cause for pessimism in terms of whether institutions can adequately represent problematic artists . However, Vashist notes the recent example of the ROM’s contextualized exhibit on Raghubir Singh, a prolific photographer who was posthumously accused of sexual assault, gives some hope that unlearning can be achieved.

During the audience question and answer period, questions such as how to navigate the ethics of financial institutions which fund art and anti-capitalist art were discussed. On these topics, the panel stressed the importance of not creating black-and-white binaries of good and evil. Rather, we should evaluate how we are all complicit in various ways of upholding settler-colonial and capitalist ideologies and should seek to ask ourselves and the institutions we engage with the hard questions that can begin to unpack it.

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