‘The Forgotten’ Project Cancelled at the MOA

UBC’s Museum of Anthropology has cancelled “The Forgotten Project”, an exhibition of portraits painted by Vancouver artist Pamela Masik.  In case you’re not familar with this project, from the project’s website:

THE FORGOTTEN is a large-scale, powerful series of portraits of women’s faces. Sixty-nine portraits, to be precise – the number of women from Vancouver’s downtown eastside who have been missing for more than a decade. The majority of them have now been identified, yet the public’s knowledge of them has, for the most part, consisted of small police photos aligned in a grid on a poster, showing most of them as blurred and haggard representations at their worst.

There is a justifiably scathing review of the work at FUSE Magazine.  Here’s an excerpt:

The majority of the pictures on the website for the project feature the artist in front of her creations. In the image found next to her Artist’s Statement, Masik’s fashionable attire and flawless make-up stands in stark contrast to the blood-red paint that drips from her subject’s nose. In another shot from the Press Gallery, the artist’s sophisticated pose denotes a socio-economic privilege that disconnects her from the classed and racialized likeness found in the painting behind her[image link]. It is perhaps this disconnect that makes the paintings feel so insulting (jarring is too mild a word). There seems to be a lack of connection not only between the artist and the models, but between the artist and the social conditions that frame the painful circumstances she has set out to represent.

While the intentions of the artist may very well have been sincere , I doubt that she had given much thought to the political consequences of representing a marginalized people, especially when the artist representing -and profiting from – these women’s portraits is herself not part of the group.  However, the artist tries (desperately) to present herself as a sympathetic comrade of the missing women – from her project statement (link), “I lived on the DTES/Studio around the corner from my apartment” and, “How could I contribute to something so important to me as a woman, a mother?”, and from an article in Inside Vancouver (link), “When one woman is violated, all women are. It could have been me.”  She also included an additional portrait in the show – a self-portrait – to be shown along side the other works.  While the artist may prescribe to an outdated “we are all part of one sisterhood” take on feminism, she is hardly correct in this case – I have a very hard time believing that a wealthy, white, middle class artist with a 14,000 sqft studio has much in common with the experiences and history of the women she has represented in her paintings.

Something else also comes to mind: given the sordid history of representation of aboriginal peoples by museums, it is surprising that MOA would agree in the first place to hold this exhibition.  If the museum had gone through with the show, then the artist would stand to profit considerably off of the representation of marginalized peoples as disheveled, bloody, and beaten (project image gallery here).

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Dave Semeniuk spends hours locked up in his office, thinking about the role the oceans play in controlling global climate, and unique ways of studying it. He'd also like to shamelessly plug his art practice: davidsemeniuk.com

14 Responses to “‘The Forgotten’ Project Cancelled at the MOA”

  1. Nicholas FitzGerald

    I have to take issue with the suggestion that the artist’s race and socio-economic status should be considered in the interpretation of her work. Are you saying that if we took the exact same works of art, but that they had been painted by a member of the marginalized group, that that would change the way we should interpret the works? Are you saying that being white and of the middle class disqualifies one from being able to create certain kinds of art, or express certain kinds of opinions? That seems like an obvious ad hominem attack of the worst kind, and exactly the type of reverse-discrimination that will make it even harder to create the kind of truly open and fair society we all want.

    If the works are judged to be exploitative and insensitive then fine, but that should be judged on the merits of the work itself, not on the “group” to which the artist belongs.

  2. AJ

    I feel that the artist’s identity certainly matters – especially since she figures herself so prominently alongside the portraits in many of the images that have circulated about this series of works. Doing so is very much counter to the conventions of the artworld in which one finds art works figured on their own, and occasionally one image picturing the artist at work. Here, she is very much inserting herself into the representation of these women – to the extent that she painted a 70th painting for the series – a self-portrait. The opening video to the website especially showcases Pamela Masik.

    From the materials published on that site, it seems quite evident that her feminist politics are grounded in an ethos of universal sisterhood – in a blog post on the site, she goes as far as to say “I am you and you are me” – referring to women in the DTES. That ethos has been pretty well demolished by women of colour and other marginalized women – who argued persuasively that it has enabled white women to appropriate their struggles and voices.

    The reason why this is applicable to art, such as Masik’s, is that art doesn’t exist in a vacuum – representational, financial, or otherwise. (And because she’s so clear that these works aren’t about the works themselves, but about *her* making the works). Art is produced and circulated within social and political contexts; these contexts give the work meaning and value, including $ value. If we are contextualizing the works when discerning their merits, quality, meaning and value, why would we not consider the contexts in which it is produced and circulated?

  3. Elysa Hogg

    I agree with Nick to an extent, but I don’t think her position as a white (possibly wealthy) female would be the main focus if she had made the work more about the women being betrayed, and less about her and her ability to exploit the works for her personal gain. To go as far as to say “it could have been me” is ridiculous. Your studio may be in the DTES, but these women were targeted because they were marginalized and vulnerable, not because they had a studio in the area. AJ’s mention of Masik’s faulty use of outdated feminist logic is completely accurate.

    Personally, I think if an artistic depiction of these woman’s stories was so important, she would have removed herself from the exhibit completely, and possibly even taken a more anonymous authorship of the work. She also could have avoided the completely exploitive tone by donating some/all of the profits made from these works to women’s shelters on the DTES or another related cause.

  4. Jon

    I see that you have next to nothing to say about the images themselves, and manage to make rather more of a gratuitous swipe at feminism.

    I had a look at the image gallery, and the work seems interesting to me. It is certainly an over-simplification to say that they are no more than “the representation of marginalized peoples as disheveled, bloody, and beaten.”

    I’m sorry (and rather surprised) that the MOA should have cancelled the project.

  5. Dave Semeniuk

    Jon, you’re correct that I focused more on the context in which the artwork was produced, how it is currently being circulated and the way in which the artist represents the work publicly (i.e. online). However, your comment has led me to take a closer look at the artworks themselves, as well as the source material the artist used as the basis for the portraits – the missing persons poster circulated by the VPD (link). Not a single image in that poster represents these women as beaten, broken, bloody, or tortured. Clearly Masik has taken artistic liberty in representing these women in a violent light. If these women are indeed forgotten (that is, Forgotten by whom? I sincerely doubt their friends and family have forgotten them), is this the most appropriate way of remembering them?

    Regarding your comment concerning my “gratuitous swipe at feminism”, I would be greatly appreciative if you could clarify at which point in my post that I made my “swipe”. I am certainly not an expert in feminism, but my critique of Masik’s work is informed by what is referred to as “third wave feminism” which has critiqued how feminist concerns have been dominated by women part of the powerful majority (i.e. middle class white women). My “swipe” is not at feminism at large (despite the unlikeliness that there is a “feminism at large”). I take issue with how Masik – one woman – frames her project and how, in my view, she seems to appropriate the victims’ and their communities’ experience as her own (in completing the 70th portrait of herself, and of writing of women in the DTES who oppose her work “I am you and you are me”).

    What I find particularly offensive about this project is that Masik is clearly positioning herself as an entrepreneur (link) who is profiting off of the brutal deaths of 69 vulnerable workers and marginalized women. She may not benefit monetarily from these paintings directly, but it is possible that she will gain much social capital such that the value of her subsequent (and previous) work will increase.

  6. Dave Semeniuk

    I have to take issue with the suggestion that the artist’s race and socio-economic status should be considered in the interpretation of her work

    Art production doesn’t work this way b/c the artist is not detached from art production in the same way as, for example, a scientist attempts to detach him or herself from an experiment. This is Masik’s work, and to assume that someone from the women’s community would have produced this is unfounded – we don’t know that an artist in the DTES would create the same work that Masik has produced. I think a more illuminating question to ask is not “What if someone outside the DTES produced these works?”, but rather, “What work has been produced to commemorate the missing women that has not been deemed offensive?” A perfect example is Rebecca Belmore’s “Vigil” performance (link). Lastly, my critique of Masik’s work has very little to do with her ethnicity (i.e. I am not saying that white people should not make work concerning the missing women), but rather how Masik as an individual of social and economic privilege (and who stands to profit considerably from this work), has gone about producing, distributing, and presenting her work.

  7. Dave Semeniuk

    From the Montreal Gazette (link):

    Memorial March Committee member Gloria Larocque said Wednesday the show would have made Masik the “spokesperson” for aboriginal women’s issues, denying the efforts and voice of aboriginal and Downtown Eastside women, as well as causing pain to family members of the murdered and disappeared. Larocque said she and Kelly had been meeting with museum and university faculty to get the show shut down, with no success. But when it became clear to museum officials that aboriginal women in the Downtown Eastside were unwaveringly opposed to the exhibit, the museum agreed to cancel it, Larocque said

  8. Jon

    Dave, there clearly are a series of issues here about how one should represent violence against women. But it does seem odd to criticize an artist for taking “artistic liberty.”

    As for your swipe at feminism, I think it’s odd for you to say without further qualification that what you call the “‘we are all part of one sisterhood’ take on feminism” is “outdated.” That was indeed a gratuitous comment, beyond its tendentiousness.

    Meanwhile, the notion that “the artist is not detached from art production in the same way as, for example, a scientist attempts to detach him or herself from an experiment” is doubly mistaken.

    Again, I think it’s a pity that the MOA has succumbed to this pressure to cancel the show.

  9. Elysa Hogg

    Jon- If you look at AJ’s comment there is a bit more background on why this strand of feminist belief is believed to be outdated. Namely, that women of colour who have been marginalized feel that women of privilege use the “we are all part of one sisterhood” sentiment to appropriate their struggles (in AJ’s words). There is substantial literature on this point, and it has been argued quite convincingly by women in the developing world and is generally accepted as true in the field. Daves point is not gratuitous, but actually very well founded in feminist literature (although not very well described here).

    Further, I think MOA’s decision to cancel the show was respectful given that a lot of the pressure came from the communities that these women belonged to.

  10. Jon

    Elysa, I’m aware of the various debates within feminism; but Dave’s point amounted to a dismissal of feminism with the notion that class trumps gender.

    As for the pressure from the communities that these women belonged to, or rather their representatives, well this points again precisely to the problem of a politics of representation that the show opens up rather than closes down. But the cancellation forecloses that discussion.

    It is strange indeed that anyone should suggest that “the show would have made Masik the ‘spokesperson’ for aboriginal women?s issues.” Au contraire, it is cancelling the show that seems (without much prior discussion) to establish who are supposedly the sole “legitimate” spokespeople for those issues.

  11. AJ

    ok, i can see how Jon’s interpreting dave’s critique as being one where class trumps gender. but i don’t think that was dave’s intention (yes, i know, intentions, readings, effects = all different), and i don’t think it’s a very generous reading of his words. I certainly don’t think it’s a very constructive reading, and I think it would have been more productive and constructive, Jon, had you written at the outset that your concern was that Dave’s words suggested, in your view, that class trumps gender. Then that’s something that folks can talk about, for real. all this talk about swipes and gratuitousness and tendentiousness – a word I had to look up – is, frankly, not very nice. i don’t think it’s a very respectful way of voicing concerns about the unspoken implications of someone’s words. and it’s certainly not very welcoming.

    I guess, with all due respect, as a feminist educator, I would hope for a more generous reading of each other’s perspectives and points of view. I would hope that if we take issue with each other, that we’re clear on exactly why. While I’ve been reading all of this commentary, I’ve hesitated from saying anything more on this entire topic because I’ve feared Jon’s responses – which may not be intended as caustic and intimidating, but certainly read to me that way. This troubles me most because, like Jon, I am an educator. The rights I have to academic freedom in my teaching and research are accompanied by responsibilities – foremost, the responsibility to do my best to ensure fair and high-minded discussion of issues that are controversial and that generate dissent. From my perspective, It’s my responsibility as an educator to model dissent in a respectful way, so that the other person (or people) knows why I disagree with their ideas and why.

    It’s not just me – It’s UNESCO, and the Canadian Association of University Teachers who adopted UNESCO’s official policy on academic freedom.

    From UNESCO: “Higher-education teaching personnel should recognize that the exercise of rights carries with it special duties and responsibilities, including the obligation to respect the academic freedom of other members of the academic community and to ensure the fair discussion of contrary views.”

    As an educator – and I teach some very politically sensitive material – my responsibility extends – as I see it – to ensure that my students feel free to express their views, and to set the tone for a fundamentally respectful place for them to do that in. According to UNESCO, that responsibility extends beyond the classroom to other places in the public domain, such as this blog: “it also calls for a sense of personal and institutional responsibility for the education and welfare of students and of the community at large and for a commitment to high professional standards in scholarship and research.”

  12. Paula

    I stumbled across this thread, and I find it interesting that the general public, museum elite, and DTES community are assuming she is a)white (she may be partly aboriginal) b)wealthy , and c) not worthy of having a connection to these women via her own life experiences. I’m not sure if its anyones business if we know all the reasons why she chose to create this exhibit. It seems to me, it was to encourage dialogue, and perhaps an in-your-face look at the reality of what can and does happen to women who have been forgotten by society at an early age, long before they succumb to drug addition, and loss of hope. I would think the families would prefer to have their loved ones viewed in a better light, as well as their own communities who knew them, but to attack Pamela as a person, or to assume her intent was to exploit, and profit from their way of life is ridiculous.

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