Breaking news! White lady's voice hijacked by women from the DTES. Why won't they just shut up and let her help them?
I. just. can’t. even.
I am a little behind on the news here, so please accept my apologies to those who have already been angry, and have perhaps moved on since then. Just recently this story was relayed to me by a prof, who was actually in attendance at a conference called “Absence, Silence, Action, and Voice in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside” at SFU back in August.
A guest speaker at the conference was local artist, Pamela Masik. A woman who, as far as I can tell from her website….loves to look at pictures of herself.
So much so that she tends to stick herself right into shots of her artwork. In the most humble of ways. Like right in front of the faces of the women she supposedly intends to ‘make us see’.
The project she was invited to speak about was a collection called ‘The Forgotten’; described on her site as “deeply moving….with a serious social message.” Apparently Ms. Masik thought she would generously donate her time, talent, and voice, “to a greater social cause,” by creating large portraits of the missing and murdered women from the DTES, minus the permission of the women, their family, or their community.
Among acclaim, this project also garnered a significant amount of controversy and criticism. Some of which came from the actual family and friends of the women she so generously decided to capture (often graphically and violently – many of the women’s faces are bloody and battered).
From what I gather (as I was not present I can only speak from a second-hand persepective) some activists from the Dowtown Eastside attended the conference. With the intent to question and/or criticize the artist. Perhaps to create a dialogue. What Pamela wanted was not this. She wanted to speak. And she wanted everyone to shut up and listen. But alas, “these women [were] so blind and deaf to any greater perspective on the issues…..” Oh no she didn’t. ‘Greater perspective’? No stop. Don’t. Just don’t. And because they dared to criticize, they dared to speak, Pamela left. This, is “the moral distance that Masik goes.”
I think somebody missed the class on post-colonial theory. This woman has been traveling the globe, promoting her art, making her voice heard. She has all SORTS of privilege that goes, not only, unacknowledged, but denied. And when she is confronted by the very people her work impacts, by women from the community, women who knew and loved these women she has used, to a certain extent, to make a name for herself, dare to criticize, to challenge, she accuses them of (no joke) “hijacking the conference.” The conference she was invited to speak at. I mean, how DARE, anyone have a voice but her? She is the artist, isn’t she? She is the one who deserves to be heard, right? Above all others? Oh but wait, wasn’t this supposed to be about the women? Nope. no. It is about her. Her image, her voice, her comfort level, her “God-given right” to make art. Out of other peoples lives, other peoples images. Women who have had no voice, women who have been marginalized, in life and in death. Now their voice is….Pamela Masik’s?
The way in which she has imposed herself, literally and figuratively, on the lives and experiences of women and a community that she has no real understanding of and, more importantly , no desire to listen to or understand, is simply unbelievable. The way in which she places herself in front of the images for photo ops, imposing herself, her status and her privilege upon the images of the women parallels the way in which her attitude of defensiveness and self-centeredness is imposed upon the voices and experiences of those she claims to be speaking for. Did you ever ask, Pamela, if these women wanted your voice? Whether they wanted your gaze, your interpretation, your vision? From a position of power, we need to, at the very least, listen. With humility.
Instead, when confronted by criticism from the community, she claims that “the conference was hijacked” (editor’s note — Masik has since deleted the post in which she claims the conference was ‘hijacked’, providing no comments as to why she has done so; showing a complete lack of integrity or transparency. The quotes in this piece were taken from that post, found on Masik’s website in August 2010. In some circumstances I’ve been able to link to screen shots taken from her original post, though not all.) That’s right. Hijacked. By the DTES community. The community she claims to be representing. And helping. She writes: “There was so much hostility in the room by a group of women from the DTES, who, no matter what I said, or how I confronted their issues and concerns, obviously came with an agenda.” A group of women from the DTES?! How dare they speak! An agenda?! Gasp! Could they possibly have had opinions? Thoughts? Criticisms? Is it possible they came with a desire to make their voices heard? Or even to have a dialogue? With this woman who claims to be so interested in “the greater social cause” that is their lives? I suppose that cause is only attractive to her so long as those who she imagines herself to be championing for, and so long the victims, remain silent. She considers herself to be generous because she was “polite” to those scary stangers in the DTES. She seems to think that she herself was marginalized because “some of [her] collectors…wouldn’t come into the area, park their cars to visit [her] in [her] studio.” Wow. That must have been tough. So some people wouldn’t come and give you money for your art? You definitely understand what it is to be colonized, and marginalized, and oppressed, and murdered.
The thing is, that, in some ways, she is right. Her art is her art. And people have a right to create art. They do. What is wrong is not necessarily that she made it, but rather her reaction to criticism from the community. When she could have listened, she refused. When she could have made an attempt to understand, she instead was defensive. Instead of humility she showed entitlement and claimed a “God given right to create” (yes really, those words). Instead of imagining that maybe, just maybe, she did not, and could not, not ever, understand the experiences of these women, she claimed that she was them and they were her. She claimed to be a bringer of truth. ANDOHWAIT. She volunteers. Do you know what that means? It means she has the right. Because “You see, it is one thing to create a massive collection with a social message. It is another to work hands-on with people who live in the DTES.” And once you do, you have the right. You have the right to speak and not listen. To take images of others and use them as you see fit, as it is your right. You have the right to accuse those who criticize, those who might like to know why you think you have the right to speak for, represent, and depict, of being “women are so drowned in their own stories” that….That what? Won’t shut up and listen to you? Won’t shut up and shower you with praise? Won’t just shut up and realize that you are doing them a favour? Maybe they don’t want your favours, Pamela. Maybe they don’t need your ‘politeness’ on the streets. Maybe, just maybe, it’s not about you, Pamela. Oh but wait. You’re right there. In front of the portrait. We can do nothing but see you.
Update 01/12/11 — Thanks to pressure from Aboriginal women’s groups, this exhibit will not be shown at U.B.C’s Museum of Anthropology out of respect to “the families (of missing and murdered women)” who feel that “that the image of their beloved daughters, mothers, sisters and aunties has been stolen and used by this ambitious artist to further her own career.” See my post about this issue here.