How queer artists of colour are turning away from institutional spaces
By Vanessa Quon, Illustrations by Cleopatria Peterson
Featured in our fall 2019 issue
Community is important to Cleopatria Peterson, a queer Black artist, who has never felt quite right in predominantly white, cisgender and heterosexual spaces. In their first class at OCAD University three years ago, they walked into their nano publishing class taught by Sheila Sampath.
Peterson sought her out as a professor, primarily because Sampath is a queer woman of colour. Seated in a round circle, Sampath had each student tell the class their pronouns — something Peterson had to do themselves in their other classes. Sampath and her students then created the classroom with each other. That is, they made rules for how to navigate it together and vocalized their needs for accessibility, safety and whatever else they needed in order to be their whole, authentic selves.
Sampath set the bar high for Peterson, one that no one has been able to reach since. Her class was a safe space within a heavily white art institution. It was somewhere that students could grow together and one that helped Peterson on the path to finding their non-binary identity.
For many marginalized artists like Peterson, it’s rare to feel welcome in spaces that weren’t explicitly made for them. Many feel pressured to showcase their identities and traumas through their art in order to be recognized by predominantly white art institutions.
Large-scale art institutions have a track record of showcasing art disproportionately made by white male artists. In Canadian galleries, only three per cent of women of colour had their own solo exhibitions compared to 56 per cent of all solo exhibitions being held by white male artists between 2013 and 2015, according to the Canadian Art Foundation. The National Gallery of Canada had no solo exhibitions by female artists of colour. In permanent collections of 18 U.S. art museums, 85 per cent of artists displayed are white and 87 per cent are men, according to a Public Library of Science study.
Many marginalized artists have turned to create art spaces that celebrate the work of their own communities and their own stories, rather than applying for mainstream art spaces that aren’t welcoming to artists of colour or that expect them to display art that is solely about their marginalized perspectives.
As a fourth-year publications student at OCAD, Peterson mainly focuses on illustration-based work. The student creates hand-drawn comics, artwork and zines — like magazines but smaller, self-published and usually focusing on amplifying the voices and talents of those outside the mainstream. They focus on detailed nature scenes and queer imagery. Sometimes, they write narratives that deal with healing from trauma and the concept of home and belonging, especially in the colonial, settler landscape.
Peterson knows they’re considered an “other” in institutionalized art spaces. They don’t really care. They know these institutions aren’t there to support them and won't recognize their work the same way they do of white artists. Instead, they focus on finding other ways to get their art out there and finding community among other queer artists of colour.
Peterson co-founded Old Growth Press, a Toronto-based publisher that aims to elevate the artistic works of people in BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and people of colour) and 2SLGBTQ+ communities. They want artists to draw from their personal histories and their connections to their environment and community.
For Peterson, BIPOC spaces are especially meaningful. They feel these spaces navigate things differently and are more focused on community than individual ego or specific art styles.
“There’s a lot of people who make art at zine fairs who are allowed to get away with certain styles, which I don’t think BIPOC are allotted the ability to because they have to work that much harder to showcase work that is at a level that people will notice. It’s systemic,” Peterson says.
“It’s not fair. We should be allowed to be mediocre and work less and be lazy. It's something I must learn myself. I am just one person and I'm tired.”
Sampath, who comes from a community activist background, has also experienced dismissal from institutions because of her marginalized identity as a queer woman of colour. While Sampath knows the importance of interrogating these spaces and fighting within them, she values supportive BIPOC spaces that undo systems of oppression. As the editorial and art director of Shameless magazine, she aims to do the same.
Run by a team of volunteer staff members, Shameless is an independent, grassroots publication that aims to uplift the voices of young women and trans youth. They also work to support and empower young artists and writers that are from communities underrepresented in mainstream media.
They focus on practicing intersectional feminism, an inclusive form of feminism that takes the various intersecting issues of oppression into consideration — race, class, ability, immigration status, sexual orientation and gender identity. Their narratives are centred around community, with stories about mental health; experiences with racism and misogyny; Indigenous representation and fat positivity.
When Sampath found mainstream gallery spaces to be alienating, she created her own. She is the principal and creative director at The Public, a community-centred activist design studio. Its street-facing gallery at Lansdowne Ave and Seaforth Ave features art that explores issues of social justice and anti-oppression.
Its team believes art should be accessible and should inspire social change. The gallery’s mission is to redefine who gets to call themselves an “artist” and to blur the lines between art, design and community practice. Sampath has created these two spaces — Shameless and The Public —to be loving and supportive.
“It’s the way we communicate,” she says. “We check in with each other, we ask each other what we think. We honour intuition as a very valid and critical way of knowing."
Institutional art spaces should be sharing their power and giving space to BIPOC and queer artists, says Peterson.
“Am I talking too much?” they ask. “Am I taking up too much space? It’s fucked up, because you’re never taking up enough space because the space was never yours to begin with. You should take as much as you need.”