I’m very excited about an upcoming exhibit at the McCord Stewart Museum here in Montreal. Karen Tam, who you may remember from my documentary, is currently the museum’s artist-in-residence. Her solo show, Swallowing Mountains, will open to the public starting Friday, February 17th until August 13, 2023. The exhibit focuses on Montreal’s Chinese Community and I’m honored that a small part of my family’s history will be included in the exhibit.
Here is an introduction and a very short Q&A with Karen about the exhibit.
The year 2023 marks the 100th anniversary of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1923, which banned virtually all forms of Chinese immigration to Canada. This legislation, along with the head tax levied only on Chinese immigrants and previous patterns of Chinese migration to Canada, resulted in a disproportionately low number of women in Chinese Canadian communities, creating what were known as ‘bachelor societies.’ During the dark period between 1923 and 1947, when the Act was repealed, and up to 1967, when Canadian immigration policy was liberalized, families were separated for decades.
This exhibition offers a counterpoint to the relative silence in public archives and historical narratives regarding Chinese women in Montreal’s Chinatown. An immersive installation, it honours the many women who have lived, worked, and contributed to the neighbourhood over the past 150 years and who, as a group, have been targeted by anti-Asian attacks during the COVID-19 pandemic. The work takes inspiration from objects and materials in the McCord Stewart Museum’s collection, ranging from historical photographs and family albums, to evening coats, restaurant menus, furniture, and Eaton’s ads.
In the 1970s, six acres of Chinatown were expropriated and razed to construct the Complexe Guy-Favreau and Montréal Convention Centre. This exhibition is a way to carve out and reclaim (albeit temporarily) a Chinese space. The alcoves in the gallery function as smaller installations that recall Chinese storefront displays or stage settings, incorporating my sculptures, shadow-puppets, drawings, and textile works. Swallowing Mountains also looks at the disconnect between the bygone popularity of chinoiserie and Japonisme among white women and the reality experienced by Chinese women in Canada since the late 19th century. By including Cantonese opera recordings, collected treasures and photographs lent by family members, elders and friends in the Chinatown community, the exhibition aims to open up conversations around collections and present a model for a future Montreal Chinese Archive.
1) How did you choose what to include in the exhibit?
At the beginning of my residency, I visited the museum’s reserves and collection (from ceramics to textiles to wallpaper samples to toys to furniture, etc.), and also spent a lot of time in the archives/documentation centre, looking through many photographs, family albums, prints, slides, documents, menus, and books. There were quite a number of objects and photographs that I knew had to be in the show. As I developed the project further and conceived of how I wanted the space to look like and be divided, this helped me in deciding what other objects (like the museum’s vases, tables), would work in the space, formally and conceptually. But it was especially difficult to decide which of the photographs from the family albums to include, as they were so fascinating and were taken from the perspectives of the Chinese individuals and families themselves and showed how they saw and presented themselves.
I knew that I wanted to involve the Chinese community in this exhibition and started contacting elders, family members, friends (such as yourself), residents in Chinatown, and through their invaluable help was able to connect with more people and community organizations in and outside Chinatown. They contributed to the project and lent their photographs and artefacts, which supplement items from my own collection, my artworks, and items from the McCord. As I mentioned above this is my proposal for an eventual building of a community archive that also could have a digitized component.
People were so generous and while I tried to include everything that they offered to lend, due to space constraints a number of photographs didn’t make into the physical exhibit (but I made sure to include at least one item per lender in the vitrines). The lenders graciously allowed the museum to digitize or they provided digitized versions of their images and these are viewable on an iPad/tablet next to the community photo vitrines. For many of the lenders, they felt that they never really saw the Chinese Canadian community, themselves, their families, histories and stories reflected in institutions such as the McCord Stewart Museum, and they wanted to support a project that highlights their experiences, especially an exhibition that focuses on Montreal Chinatown and Chinese women.
2) This exhibit, like your other installations, centers on the Chinese-Canadian experience. What does this one mean to you?
Much of my artwork comes out of my research in archives and museum collections. Certain pieces are inspired by specific historical or archival connections, and sometimes it is the materiality and imagery in the collections. At the McCord Stewart, I recognized that there was a gap or underrepresentation of the Montreal Chinese community in the museum’s collections and archives. Not to say there wasn’t any materials, but it made me think about how I could amplify and highlight stories, histories, contributions that did involve this community, especially the women. This exhibit is quite meaningful for me because it is in my hometown and provides an opportunity to do so. Through the exhibition, I hope that visitors will start thinking about the hidden stories and artifacts in their own family and community.
As part of the exhibit, on April 5th at 6pm, there will be a screening of Big Fight in Little Chinatown by local filmmaker, Karen Cho. It is a must-see film about how Chinatowns across Canada and in the U.S. are fighting for their survival. There will be a conversation in English between Karen Tam and Karen Cho after the screening. It is free but you must register on the museum’s website. Click on this link and scroll to the bottom of the page.