How Was The Art Show?
Some of you may have seen that I was part of an art show at the VPL this past weekend. If you watched my Insta-story, or were there from 1-2pm on Saturday (if you were, please reach out because I was not there when it happened), then you know that one of my artworks was taken down due to "various complaints."
I was excited that the Rape Relief and Women's Centre wanted my work to be a part of their show. I’d sent them ten images to pick from and they chose four. My work isn't exactly "landscapes" or anything all that trendy or decorative, so it was really cool to feel like I had found a place for my work to be seen - and for what I see as an important event.
I showed up right on time for the "artist introductions" and met three of the other women in the show. A lot of the other artists hadn't shown up, so the organizers were planning not to do the introductions after all. But one of the three artists I’d just met turned to me and said she had pushed for the introductions anyway.
She asked me, "Which one is your work?"
I said, "I have a few. One is called ‘Safescape’, with the water, sheets, and legs..."
"Oh, I was admiring that one!"
"Thanks! I also have a couple illustrations, and a painting called ‘Figure of Speech’ with the girl lifting her skirt up revealing the word 'envy.'"
She said she hadn't seen that one yet. We figured it must be displayed in a different room.
I waited for my name to be called, gave a little wave to the crowd. Then I walked outside to see where they had decided to display my work.
And there it was, an empty space. Two strings hanging from chains. All that was left of my art piece were my two bull clips holding nothing... suspended over a table of people half-heartedly eating sandwiches.
My dad and I looked around for the work. I told him, “It's gone.” So I walked inside to where the discussion panel was being held and found the woman who had chosen my work for the show.
"Where is my art?"
She took me outside the lecture hall and told me my work had received strong complaints so her supervisor decided to take it down. It was in the back room behind the lecture hall and it was safe.
"I don't understand. What were the complaints?"
She was reluctant to tell me. Instead she told me it had also received a lot of compliments and that she loved the work.
I didn't know what to do. I told her I needed to leave and that I would come back another time. My dad took me to do a yoga class with him and my mom. After I found out the piece was safe, and the initial shock wore off a bit, I started running through my head what my work possibly could have done done to deserve complaints.
Maybe it's the swear words, I thought. Maybe it's because the work "fuck" is written on there and a little hand giving the middle finger to "the patriarch" beside it. I could understand if the VPL didn't want that, but at the same time, there were other triggering four letter words being discussed that day. Maybe the painting looked like someone they knew. Maybe they didn't like that I had painted a portrait of a POC⸺but I couldn't make sense of that either. I kept trying to see where I had gone wrong.
I went to pick up my work after I finished the yoga class. When I picked it up, I asked, "Please, moving forward it is important for me to know what the complaints were."
"The complaints... were generally... about the nudity."
Again, I was shocked. I looked at my piece lying out on the table and didn't see any nudity. Hell, one of my illustrations, which was left up, has a naked girl kissing another girl.
She agreed with me. Said again how much she liked my work. Even the fact that it caused such a strong reaction was possibly a sign that it is an important piece.
I left even more confused. The last thing I wanted to do was cause the women who run the Rape Relief and Women's Centre any trouble. I am also not someone who seeks to anger people. Anyone who knows me knows that I often fill the role of the diplomat in social situations.
When I painted what I call "Figure of Speech," my plan was for her to be the first in a long line of people exposing different words. This plan may still happen, but work like this takes me a lot of time. I also wanted to express how Freud's concept of "Penis Envy" is sexist and ridiculous. Figured most people would agree! Nothing too groundbreaking in that! I wanted to paint an empowered, cheeky woman with a sense of humour. I decided to paint her because I felt she deserved a spotlight, to be looked up to. I painted a cracking wall because what is considered "concrete" can change. Critique the melodrama of my symbolism all you want. I used graffiti-style lettering because I think it's powerful, and because all those comments written on the girls’ bathroom walls in UBC's Art History building gave me LIFE. One of the tags I wrote is a quote from a female comedian who made fun of penis envy. I even chose the purple and yellow of her clothes because I love the feeling of those colours.
I could go on and on. In my head, I keep picturing what it must have looked like to see her come down off the wall. To have people yelling at her, to have no one standing up for her.
I went for dinner with a friend. I then went to crash at my brother’s, and accidentally got locked out of his building and he wasn't home. Someone helped me get back in. I was in tears. I kept thinking, "I should go out, have a good time despite what happened." But I ended up staying inside and watching She’s Gotta Have It until I fell asleep on the couch.
I woke up the next day still confused. My mom suggested we write a letter. She sent me a video of Meghan Markle who, as a child, wrote letters to influential women (including First Lady Hillary Clinton) about an advertisement that was sexist. Letters are powerful; the ad changed within the following years.
My friends reached out to me via social media, saying they couldn't believe what had happened and offering me support (a million times thank you.)
I do think that letters are powerful. And in a way, this is my letter.
But I'm an artist. What made the most sense to me was to make something to fill the space that had been taken. I drove to a favourite cafe, fed myself, and messaged trustworthy friends some of my thoughts.
When I decided what to say, I pulled out my tent from the back of my car and lay it face down on the road in an empty parking spot as a backdrop. I ripped a section of paper from the same roll I had used to paint "Figure of Speech," which I just happened to have in my trunk along with spray paints and a paint pen. I used the last spurts of paint I had left and wrote what I felt like was a worthy response to what had happened, but also something that could stand on its own AND compliment the other work/messages in the show. Something seemingly simple, messy, true, torn, and full of feeling.
I talked to one of my best friends, whose writing and opinion I respect, over the phone telling her everything while the new painting dried on the roof of my car. I still am not used to hearing my voice in that tone and shaking with emotion, as it happens so rarely. I've always been more likely to stay silent than to let that out. I told her that I wondered what I would have done if I had been there to face the people who ridiculed my work. I confessed that part of me wonders if I would have buckled and taken it down myself. I hated myself for that thought. I hated wondering if at 25, part of me was still unable to stand up for what I believe.
I hated that I was worried about asking what the complaints had been about, for fear that there was something I had overlooked in my privilege and ignorance. But I, of course, asked anyway... because my wanting to be accountable to that privilege and ignorance is stronger than my fear of being called out for being stupid or racist or sexist or _____. With my whole heart, I do not want to be part of the problem, and so I have made a promise to actively listen.
I admitted I was scared to make this new work, scared to go back to that place and put it up. It reminded me of that feeling of avoiding a place where a trauma happened.
I was scared, but I knew in my gut that if I were to ignore, suppress, or run away, that would be even scarier. So to those of you who think what I did was brave, know that I did what I did because after years of experience, research, listening, and thought, I saw no other option but to face the situation. Is it really bravery when you’ve come to the point when doing something is less scary than doing nothing?
When my friend and I finished talking over the phone, the paint had dried. I rolled it up and drove downtown, not realizing that there was a huge Xmas parade happening. I parked far away and waded through the thousands of people to the VPL with my work over my shoulder. I walked straight down to the gallery to find that the chains where my last piece hung were still in place. Using the nearby table, I climbed up and hung my work. My hands were trembling—I wasn't sure if from the cold outside or the nerves of me imagining someone getting angry with me. I went over in my head, on a loop, what I would respectfully say to that person.
One person stopped to watch what I was doing for a few seconds. Everyone else just strolled by, my actions largely unnoticed. No one got angry at me... "yet" (my mind talking).
I took pictures. I made an Instagram story trying to somewhat articulate myself. Leaving the building, I felt some sense of stability for the first time since I realized my art had been taken down. I bought a hat on the street, and chatted briefly with the lady when she asked how my weekend had been. I told her. She tried to figure out what could be wrong with my original painting, and concluded by saying that perhaps in that context a woman lifting her skirt "might not go over well. But it's beautiful, and you are talented." I said that was a good point, and thanked her, letting her get back to the other customers that had just arrived.
This whole experience has made me think about who I am and the art I have and will make. It's made me think about how so much of my life has been spent considering all the ways I "could" upset or anger someone, and avoiding doing any of those things. On the one hand, I am happy to say that I actively try to live in a way that isn't harmful. Bringing joy, laughter, and support to the people in my life is something I genuinely enjoy and take pride in doing.
But there have been a lot of instances in my life where I have said no. Often my "no" has not been listened to, despite it taking everything I had to say it and enforce it.
Expressing myself, having a voice, an opinion, and expecting to be treated with respect, is (to some people) controversial. I acknowledge that these things, such as critiquing Freud, make me a radical to certain people. I am excited to keep creating, to make work that I'm ready to stand with, and to accept that people will respond to art the way that they will respond to it. For often, their reactions have nothing to do with me.