Art

An Unsung Hero Who Has Been Decolonizing the Toronto Artworld Gets a Solo Show

Pamila Matharu’s work connects to the anti-racist work of the Black and Indigenous People/Person(s) of Color (BIPOC) led Desh Pardesh movement of the 90s.

Pamila Matharu, “Invited To The Party, But Never Asked To Dance” (2019), neon, dimensions variable (all images by the author for Hyperallergic)

TORONTO — Pamila Matharu’s solo exhibition, One of These Things is Not Like the Other, at the beloved and well-regarded contemporary art venue A Space Gallery, invites viewers to learn about connections between activism and art.

This is Matharu’s first solo exhibition in a career that spans more than twenty years. Much of the work on view connects to the anti-racist work of the Black and Indigenous People/Person(s) of Color (BIPOC)-led Desh Pardesh movement of the 90s. A groundbreaking multidisciplinary South Asian Arts Festival that operated in Toronto from 1988 to 2001. This exhibition tells a story written over the past twenty years that is rich in scope and heavy knuckled.

Grounded in the cultural history of the 1990s, specifically conversations about institutional in/exclusion, One of These Things is Not Like the Other opens with the dimly-lit Vergangenheitsbewältigung (2019): an installation made up of  discarded footage from the Art Gallery of Ontario’s “diversity programming” and found materials in the form of exhibition reviews highlighting Euro-American contradictory tastes for and tolerance of racial difference. Clustered together, these artifacts of Canadian art history remind us of the world Matharu inherited as a young artist and the one she has striven to dismantle for future generations artists and cultural producers.

Pamila Matharu, “Dear Amrita: How can I forget history when I was just starting to remember?” (2019), installation view at A Space Gallery

As expressed by Vergangenheitsbewältigung and the other works in the first gallery room, Matharu has been chipping away at colonialism for two decades, and seemingly, in solitude. Her isolation the result of being semi-peripheral in the local art scene. What follows in the second gallery moves the viewer into a contemporary period, where the distinction between the center and its peripheries is melted away.

There are moments in the period being considered when Matharu is afforded space to present her work. When this occurs, she swiftly draws in others who share her vision, but speak from their own positions. She creates space for community, demonstrating that her commitments are not discrete, but shared. In the de-colonial art salon, the artist installs her work in constellation with work by twenty-five other artists from her personal collection, including Sarindar Dhaliwal, Misbah Ahmed, SAD ART STORE, and Bonerkill. With her crew of Girls, Girls, Girls (queer, BIPOC, and feminist artists who share Matharu’s artist fee), Matharu resets the tone of the exhibition from resistance to that of survivance, of being in limbo, between life and death, like a ghost.

An aesthetic pendulum swings through the show, between the past, present, and furtively into the future. I wonder, how the past becomes audible in this space? Can we hear it crash into our baithak, where we are invited to sit over the course of the exhibition, and during community-organized, and chai-flavored programming every Saturday? Can we hear the past and think collectively? There is ecstasy in coming together across communities, but what words do we have to name this ensemble? Can we think of this community-focused and collectively-realized space as a move towards a practice decolonial art, because in its constellated approach it disrupts the kind of exhibitionary hierarchies brought to critique in the first gallery room?

Drifting against the backdrop of inter-generational and cross-cultural care paid to art, described in this exhibition, you hear Claudia Rankine who writes as we find it in Citizen: An American Lyric: “Yesterday called to say we were together.” At A Space, yesterday is not invoked with nostalgia, to recreate the past, a fiction without hurt or exclusion. Instead, Matharu unspools the Canadian art historical archive, leaving little to recover and build a future upon. Instead, this exhibition imagines, perhaps recovers, community as a project worth moving towards.

One of These Things is Not Like the Other is on view at A Space Gallery (401 Richmond St W, Toronto, ON M5V 3A8) until April 20, 2019.

 

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