Recent Honours (2001)

Richard Fung and Jamelie Hassan speak about their recent honours
Interview with Meera Sethi
(Fuse, Vol. 24, No. 2, 2001)

It was my pleasure to speak over e-mail to video artist, writer and activist Richard Fung and to visual artist and activist Jamelie Hassan about each of their experiences of receiving the Bell Canada Award in Video art and the Governor General’s Award in Visual and Media Art respectively. Over a period of many years, both these artists have made tremendous contributions to the development of politically conscious artistic practices and communities in Canada. Richard Fung’s widely screened and collected videos have included My Mother’s Place (1990), Dirty Laundry (1996), School Fag (1998) and Sea in the Blood (2000). Jamelie Hassan is an internationally exhibited visual artist and activist whose interdisciplinary practice has included working very closely with the local arts community in London, Ontario and collaborating with artists and activists globally. Her commitment to decolonization and transnational feminist democracy is reflected in her various activities from art making, curating and organizing to speaking and writing.

Richard Fung was the recipient of the 2000 Bell Canada Award in Video Art in late March of this year. Since 1991, this honour had been awarded annually for “Exceptional contribution by a video artist or artists to the advancement of video art in Canada and to development of video languages and practices.” Also in March of this year, Jamelie Hassan was one of the recipients of the Governor General’s Awards in Visual and Media Arts, which are awarded annually for distinguished career achievement. I was interested in learning more about their thoughts surrounding this accomplishment and the impact it will have on both their own practices and the communities to which they belong.

MS: Congratulation to both of you for receiving the awards. How does it feel to win this award?

JH: Happy yet overwhelming and unsettling. I actually entered one of my inarticulate states.

RF: It feels good. Humbling, in that there are other artists who also are deserving, and because previous winners include senior artists like Colin Campbell and Zacharias Kunuk, who has just won the Camera d’Or at Cannes.

MS: Jamelie, how was it overwhelming and unsettling?

JH: Unsettling in that I found it unexpectedly affected me on many levels. Since this is a newly established award in visual and media arts, it came with some unknowns. I remember thinking that John Scott, one of my contemporaries, had received the Governor General’s award the previous year and I was reassured that life hadn’t dramatically changed for him overnight. Still this recognition for lifetime achievement and, by my peers, for my creative work, is a great feeling. In 1992, I received an award in recognition of my contributions to the community from the office of the Governor General, but that award did not reverberate in the same way. I am so conscious of the outstanding work being done in Canada that I would not allow myself to even think about the nomination. I was in Paris with my partner, artist Ron Benner, when I received the news of the award. I adjusted to that part and remained happy but silent (hard to do for an activist) not being able to share such great news with anyone and also not knowing who the other winners were. I took the whole process very seriously and it was easier for me in that I was not at home. Then, shortly after my return to Canada, came the public announcement of receiving the award, which set another series of emotions/demands into play. The public profile that came with receiving such a prestigious national award demanded another part of me just as I was returning to my studio work, leaving me feeling out of balance.

MS: Do either of you feel as if this award is long overdue?

JH: No. I was very pleased when the artist-run centre Forest City Gallery, which included another generation of artists working in London, proposed this nomination. They felt that my work and my contributions merited this nomination. This acknowledgment from my local arts community was very gratifying.

RF: No.

MS: Has receiving this award immediately changed your relationship with people in the “art world?”

JH: No, not really. I think someone said in a national newspaper report when this year’s winners were announced that it was “the usual suspects.” This struck me as bizarre as I think that I was in a most unlikely position to receive this award. If anything, I hope that high-profile cultural awards in Canada might actually give more weight in the public realm to the values and principles that many artists share.

RF: My work doesn’t really sit straightforwardly in the art world context in the first place, so I don’t foresee a huge change. Besides, the media art community is relatively small; there’s not much stratification.

MS: Jamelie, why do you think you were in a most unlikely position to receive this award?

JH: My political positions have been unpopular, and in the past, to address the issues that have been important to me in my work and life have come at some cost. It is hard to dispel a sense of struggle that is part of an activist relationship to one’s various communities.

MH: What is your relationship to marginality as an artist of colour given that you have received such an award?

JH: Hard to say. I think Richard has often spoken about the strategic relationship within the idea/position of marginality. Visibility sometimes elicits negative reactions and responses such as awkwardness, resentment and direct hostility. Having experienced this in my past, I hope I know how to recognize it and defuse it when I encounter it again. Like many, I grew up in an environment of systemic racism. I have always hoped and struggled for something other in our culture: dialogue, enlightenment, emancipation and community.

RF: I have never felt “marginal” in the art community, beyond the marginality of the kind of work that I produce. Though I have a hard time making ends meet, and will continue to do so if I continue to make video. I have never felt that my situation was worse than that of other videomakers of my generation. This isn’t to discount systemic racism, which I think is the marginality you’re referring to. But as an advocate for equity I have always been clear that my own engagement with the issue is not about getting more money or more gigs for myself. Marginality is only one form – and the crudest form, at that – in which systemic racism manifests itself. Sometimes, the problems are located not in exclusion, but in the terms of inclusion.

MS: Do you think this award is going to label your work in a particular way?

RF: CBC was very nice and did an interview on “This Morning,” but the Bell Canada Award, as far as I know, wasn’t even reported in the print media, so there’s not a lot of labeling of video art going around, period. Every time Cher farts it’s in the media, but there is scant attention paid to contemporary media and visual art in the Canadian press.

JH: If you are speaking about being labeled “establishment,” one of the congratulations I received was “how ironic that you of all artists received this award as you are so anti-establishment.”

MS: Richard, there is a sizable presence in Canada of contemporary film and video festivals, suggesting a large public interest in Canadian film and video. Why do you think there is such resistance in the Canadian press to engage with contemporary media and visual art, particularly video art?

RF: To answer this accurately I would have to do an ethnography of media institutions that goes right back into the schools and what they teach as good journalistic practice. But, for instance, the Inside Out Gay and Lesbian Film and Video Festival of Toronto has just wound up. It’s apparently the largest film festival in Toronto outside of the Toronto International, bringing out large audiences in two cinemas over a period of eleven days. Yet it’s considered an incredible success if their publicist gets more than one article in each of the mainstream papers. But last week when Pearl Harbor opened, the Toronto Star gave the movie four large articles that took up the first three pages of the Movies section, plus a picture on the back page. Geoff Pevere, whom I consider an excellent film critic, gave the film the lowest possible score in his front-page review, and even in today’s paper, three days later, there’s an article saying the film has uniformly received poor ratings from North American critics. Yet, the press is an integral part in the hype-making machine that brings the film into people’s consciousness and producers blockbusters from these third-rate movies. Why are they doing this? Well, I would say it might have something to do with Hollywood studio power and the advertising revenue papers depend on. But there’s also a populist ethic in much of the press. There’s a self-fulfilling notion that the public is not interested in critical art. It’s also curious how much reporting on art is limited to how much a certain piece fetches at Sotheby’s.

MS: Do you feel you are now role models in a different way for emerging artists of colour?

RF: I think that any practicing artist can be a role model. But it’s particularly important to have more non-white teachers in the art schools. Whenever I’ve taught, I’ve gotten a palpable hunger from the non-white students; it’s been a poignant experience, that feeling of being appreciated and the responsibility that comes with it. I was in graduate school before I had a non-white professor – and I completed two undergraduate programs, first art school, then, university!

JH: Maybe. It seems getting past the idea that an artist, after working for thirty years in this country, might cease to be thought of as the baby on the block. Does this have something to do with a perpetual state of insecurity or do Asians just always look young? I have, however, also received very heartfelt good wishes. Remarkable numbers have written from across the country to express that they felt encouraged because I have received this award. Specifically, many in the Arab Canadian community, not only artists, feel that in fact my receiving this award is a landmark.

RF: Similarly, my winning the award also received a fair bit of attention from the Chinese-language media. I’m fourth-generation Trinidadian and don’t read or understand Chinese, so it’s hard for me to assess how this is being taken up. Yet, this community obviously sees this award as significant.

MS: Are there new forms of responsibility that come with receiving this award?

RF: I’ll probably be asked to do more panels, institutional consultations and meetings, and get invited to more functions. Everyone wants to do “cultural diversity,” these days, and my responsibility will be to cut through the bullshit and make sure than these ventures really do help artists. My responsibility will be to remember when I was a young producer how terrifying the idea of contacting the Canada Council was. Now, I am on a first-name basis with many arts agency heads. It’s important to bring an insider’s knowledge together with that consciousness about being on the outside. I guess the change that I’ve felt for a while – it just didn’t arise with the Bell – is that I increasingly feel a personal responsibility toward a wider range of issues, not just race or sexuality. In the context of tremendous cutbacks and attacks on the arts, education, welfare, and the poor in general, I feel a need to link issues of equity in the context of a wider progressive and anti-philistine agenda. Today this also requires more of an international perspective.

JH: Yes. I changed back to Bell long-distance and told them it was because they supported contemporary culture in Canada by giving the Bell Award in Video Art, which my friend Richard Fung received this year! I might add to this by saying that it might be more accurate to call it an increased sense of responsibility. Besides the responsibility to continue to work and produce in my chosen field, I will always continue to work for greater representation of the voices of people with a conscience. I am reminded here of my parents’ example. Both, at different times, when faced with the possibility of slowing down, refused the concept. Don’t even mention the word “retirement!” My mom, now approaching eighty, continues to work for a non-profit organization in London that is an advocate for refugees arriving in Canada. My dad was a young pacifist in his early teens, fleeing military conscription when he arrived in Canada in 1914 from the upheavals in the regions of the Middle East and present-day Lebanon. He seized every opportunity through his life to educate us, to share his ideas of emancipation and his commitments to peaceful co-existence that helped to shape the earlier Arab and Islamic communities in Canada. Today, I’m not that connected to this community, but I am also inspired by my parents’ example. I am also very informed of the early history of Arabs in Canada, including ties with other Asians and – most neglected and unacknowledged – ties with First Nations communities to recognize their often closed mentality and narrow positioning, one that is not enforced from outside, but is self-destructive and exclusive in its self-defining. Of course, this in no way negates the very real difficulties and hostilities that immigrants and refugees often experience in Canada.

MS: What does it mean in the larger development of Canadian national arts for two artists of colour to receive such awards?

JH: I have for many years enjoyed a strong connection with First Nations artists; being recognized by my peers for my creative work, with filmmaker Alanis Obomsawin and architect Douglas Cardinal among the greats in the community, gave me enormous pleasure, but it was also very intimidating. When I received the news that Richard Fung had received the Bell Award in Video Art, I was really ecstatic – not surprised – for another rebel artist of my generation because Richard’s work is outstanding and he is most deserving of recognition.

RF: In its relatively short existence, the Bell Canada Award has already gone to Zacharius Kunuk and Paul Wong. Paul was one of the pioneers of video art in Canada, a contribution that has never been denied, so it made total sense that he should be an early recipient. Jamelie has also been a major force in the Canadian visual art scene for years, as both a practitioner and a catalyst: Why wouldn’t she receive this recognition from her peers? Juries select these awards, not administrators or corporate heads?

MS: Given that The Globe and Mail, for example, can publish an incredibly racist and biased “review” of a prominent First Nations artist – Jane Ash Poitras – how far do you think artists of colour and First Nations artists have come in terms of parity with our white peers? What sort of cultural moment are we in when, on the one hand, two Canadian artists of colour receive national recognition and, on the other hand, a First Nation artist is treated with such disrespect in a national newspaper?

JH: The key word here is “disrespect.” I was very disturbed when I read the review you are referring to, when, in fact, the source of so much of the art today that is actually reaching the public and demonstrating its power to communicate is from First Nations artists and artists of colour. Recognition, as I said earlier, does not always bring respect.

RF: I don’t think that one can say only one thing about race and Canadian culture, that it’s this way or that way. I haven’t seen the article you’re referring to. It’s important to remember that Jane Ash Poitras has received recognition and positive media at other times. She can be panned in the national press, but also exhibited at the National Gallery. It’s not a simple exclusion or inclusion. The scene is complex and contradictory, and I think the experience of individual artists is complex and contradictory, too. Mine certainly has been. Yet it’s striking how often the pans and praise have to do with readings of cultural and racial difference, how any statement of specificity gets read and dismissed as “identity,” or worse, “identity politics.”

MS: Do you think receiving a prestigious national award will open up dialogue with people interested in the arts who might otherwise not engage with the work of “rebel artists?”

JH: Yes. But I would be naive to think that this, beyond the award money itself, which has lifted some of the immediate urgency regarding my self-employed status, translates into economic turns for those of us working in culture today. What is valuable is the continued dialogue around the issues and the maintenance of a working relationship with artists, musicians, video and filmmakers, writers and curators in Canada and internationally.

RF: That would be nice, but it’s hard to say. The history of Modernism involves a fascination with “rebel” qualities. So it’s difficult to decide where it’s a genuine engagement with the issues an artist is trying to deal with or another form of commodification, and I don’t think it’s all that easy to pull the two apart in most cases. If you think of Jamelie and me as “rebel artists,” these awards might work to give the work more prominence. And they might boost the spirits of other artists working with edgy political themes. I should add that, in addition to Paul Wong, the Bell Canada Award has gone to several other activist artists including Lisa Steele and Kim Tomczak.

MS: Jamelie, is there a “perpetual state of insecurity” that shadows your practice? Why is this?

JH: Yes, in both the nature of my inquiry and in the practice of art itself.

RF: Can I answer this as well? For me there are several sources of insecurity – financial, artistic and political. The first has to do with the economic returns of doing single-channel video. Part of the appeal of video for artists in the ‘60s and ‘70s was the medium’s capacity for cheap and easy reproduction. Video was seen as intrinsically resistant to individual or corporate ownership, as opposed to painting or even film. But video artists need to live, and hence we end up working with distribution and exhibition rights and licenses that work against that quality of the medium. It’s a larger debate because I think there’s also a generalized disregard for accepting what artists do as work. In many film and video festivals, for example, everyone gets paid except the artists. I know of no single-channel video artist who survives solely on the returns from their work. Most artists struggle economically. Connecting this to the artistic and political insecurities is the fact that my work sits somewhere between video art and documentary production. Most of it is not traditionally defined video art in the sense of work by, say, Vera Frenkel, Wayne Yung and Steve Reinke, all of whom I admire. But in the documentary context it may seem too mediated, too constructed, too artsy. I’ve done what I’ve wanted to do, and I can’t say that I suffer that much for it – the award would contradict that assessment – but I do sometimes feel out on a limb artistically because of the way my work falls between the institutional categories.

MS: Jamelie and Richard, in terms of your production, this must be an exciting time for both of you. Jamelie, you have an installation in the upcoming exhibition “Museopathy: Contemporary Art in Kingston Historical Sites,” curated by Jim Drobnick and Jennifer Fisher at the Agnes Etherington Art Centre. And Richard, your recently released video Sea in the Blood has been screened at the Reel Asian Festival, Hot Docs, Inside Out, Cinematheque Ontario and the Toronto International Film Festival. How does this feel? Can you tell us something about these works?

JH: “Museopathy” is very ambitious, with several artists working in different sites in Kingston. My work is within the Museum of Health Care that was also formerly a nurse’s residence. While a young art student in Rome and Beirut in 1967 and 1968, I worked in hospitals as a nursing aid in the delivery area. I will draw on this early connection in my life and the idea of beginnings. The power of symbols also plays a part, as I will bring forward the Red Crescent in its sister relationship in medical history with the Red Cross.

RF: Sea in the Blood is hard for me to sum up as it’s about a number of interlocking events and issues. The title is the literal translation of the blood disease thalassemia, which runs in my family and killed two of my siblings. Thalassemia has been in the news these days as it’s the disease studied by Dr. Nancy Oliveri, who has been in a long ethics battle with the drug company Apotex and the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto.

MH: What is the next project you both are working on?

JH: I will participate in the first Tirana Biennial that is in the works to open in September 2001, a project with an international team of thirty curators. The Biennial was initiated by the National Museum of Art in Tirana and Flash Art International in Milan. Both see the possibilities that a cultural project – a contemporary arts Biennial – offers within the rebuilding of the nation state – Albania, a country attempting to surface after a lengthy regime of tyranny and regional wars with untold numbers of refugees.

RF: I take a long time between video projects and they always shift and reshape on the way, so I can’t really give you a good answer. Wearing my writer hat, I’m working on a book-length conversation project with Montreal-based critic and curator Monika Kin Gagnon. It’s for Editions Artextes and it revolve around issues of racial and cultural equity in the arts in Canada.

MS: What are you going to do with the money?

JH: My first acquisition… I bought gravel for our laneway.

RF: It’s going into my living/creative expenses.

MS: Thank you both very much for participating in this e-mail interview. It was a pleasure.