It started with a found photograph, then another, and another. This discovery would later give way to a would-be thesis paper. But the confines of a single essay just didn't do it. Instead, curiosity and ambition grew to allow the initial inquiry to spider out, creating this new labyrinthine collection of writing. It precedes a work of visual art, and although this textual work does not necessarily speak for the artwork in any direct way, it enriches it. Together the written and visual works culminate in the still-evolving project titled Yours to Discover.
The title of this project, which centers around the province of Ontario, aptly takes its name from the former Ontario license plate slogan. The found photographs in question are from the author and artist Zinnia Naqvi's family album. They depict the touristic moments from the late 80s when Naqvi's family first visited Canada from Pakistan with the possibility of migrating permanently from their country’s social and political precarity. They visited a number of Ontario's landmark attractions: Niagara Falls, CN Towers, and Cullen Gardens to name a few. Naqvi’s family were sold on the utopic possibility and seemingly pristine landscapes they were met with. It was all very attractive and soon enough they moved to Canada. Not long after, Naqvi was born in the suburbs of Pickering where she was also raised.
This is not the first time Naqvi has dug up pieces of her own family history for close analysis. In 2017, she began her ongoing series Dear Nani. In that work, she responds to portraits of her maternal grandmother that date back to the 1940s. In these images, her grandmother is clad in the conventional male attire of the time, and in some of the images she even completes the whole look with pulled-back hair and trimmed facial hair as if to see what being a dapper gentleman was like. Family images have also cropped up in Naqvi’s earlier works, like the home video footage in Heart-shaped Box (2016) and in the series Past and Present (2012). In all these instances Naqvi has gone back in time, often to a period during which she was not yet alive. The multidirectional ventures made by Yours to Discover seem to shade the personal into broader cultural and political spheres. Perhaps more importantly, it's a way of thinking against one's own present and immediate self, to query your own thoughts, and to explore how you have come to be in the places where you are being, and what that has to do with the broader past. It is a pursuit of bringing the particularities of private experience and the infinity of the public into dialogue with one another.
After moving through the nine chapters of Naqvi's book, it only comes to me in retrospect that it is essentially autobiographical. Naqvi narrates in the first person, but the "I"s that come up throughout the book don't feel singular or exclusively pointing inwards. She deepens her individual anecdotes by threading them with those of other critical thinkers, storytellers, scholars, and historical accounts. The book opens with a felt acknowledgement of the various first peoples whose stolen lands the project (and the original family photos) are in reference to. This is not declared without her own contradicting feelings and thoughts of the very nature of land acknowledgments. It's also the first of many instances where we see Naqvi, processing and excavating complexities inside her and her family's experiences of migration, while also looking outward to conditions that made their life in Canada comfortable. Naqvi also incorporates events unfolding while the book was still in progress, namely the peaceful protesters fighting to protect Wet’suwet’en lands who were facing encroaching violence by the RCMP. The causes of this resistance (like several others in the country’s history) and the authorities’ reaction to it are visible manifestations of the stagnant, grim notions of nationhood and mythmaking that undergirds the grand manicured facade Canada presents to the rest of the world. In the middle of these protests, the Chinese Canadian National Council publicly showed solidarity and acknowledged their complex histories of Indigenous-Chinese relations and like them, Naqvi refuses to relax into the fantasy bubble of non-complicity in the displacement of the First Nations communities of this country.
Towards the closing of the chapter titled ‘On performance, and including the body of the artist’, Naqvi bracingly hangs this thought in the air: “I myself, don't participate in most of my cultural traditions and speak my mother tongue as a novice. If I choose to have children, I know their relationship to my heritage will be much further strained. It is difficult to be critical when my own identity is becoming more assimilated into the dominant white culture.” As she spills these unflinching truths to readers, Naqvi creates a way of working to reduce her own blind spots as an artist in a brown body deciding between an exhibition opportunity versus feeding into exploitative inclusionary tactics or as a lover who’s proximity to whiteness will likely get her off the hook, or as a hyphenated second-generation settler whose parents have worked tirelessly to build a privileged path to flourishing. In the end, she leaves us with one final tugging question to ponder over: “Once we do learn about this problematic history and erasure, what is to be done? Can we as setter migrants of colour still make work about our experiences of disenfranchisement, while also talking about the history of genocide of Indigenous people on this continent?”
Extending oneself is the obstacle of empathy and what the idea of care tests us with. But for Naqvi, if she is talking about too many things all at once (something she’s been faulted for doing in the past), it is because as she sees it, everything feels connected. Your exterior life will inevitably be internalized and seep into the crevices of your personhood, so how can you not step up to the work of empathy? Here, through this mosaic of words and ruminations, Naqvi explores the nuances of absorbing what extends beyond yourself.
It is a true delight to have this chance to help welcome this book into the world and see what it does through its existence. Read my brief conversation with the author/artist below and find more information on how to get a copy through Naqvi’s website.
...race, class, language, education, and policy have a huge impact on the position I find myself in, and yet those same factors have also been used to suppress others.
You opened the book with a land acknowledgment. You talk about your complicated feelings of the very nature of the acknowledgment yet find your own purpose in declaring it. As a visual artist of colour, what does making this acknowledgment mean to you beyond 'Yours to Discover' as a project?
I think, especially right now, it’s important to consider certain actions and interrogate what we are expected to do versus what they actually mean to us. Originally I had included a very formal land acknowledgment and in the footnote added more of my opinion of what this act meant to me, how I am aware that it can be seen as performative but can act as a necessary disruption. My editor suggested making the footnote the main acknowledgment and I think it works well, bringing up themes that I am addressing throughout the text, of home, displacement, land, and belonging right away. I’m happy this is addressed right in the beginning because it sets a certain tone of what’s to come in the rest of the writing, as well as being a more meaningful way for me to engage with the format of the land acknowledgment.
Throughout the book, you point out your position as an immigrant settler as a way to think about yourself and perhaps many families like yours' privileges on this land and how you are also implicated in the ongoing cycle of colonialism.
How did you come into a critical awareness of this position?
Themes of migration and displacement have been part of my practice since I first started making art. However, it became clear early on that the reality of being an immigrant is much more complicated than just leaving one place and making a home in another. As I continued my practice and my research, I started to think more about the intricacies of my position, factors that hold me back, and others that have allowed me to pursue art-making and find opportunities at a young age.
I also realized that the work that I was making when I was younger was embraced by certain institutions because it contributed to a certain image of Canada that fit into national ideals. Growing up I was fed the myth of Canada being a “promised land” or land of multiculturalism and opportunities for all, and it’s only been in the last few years that this façade was lifted for me. I learned this narrative at public school, but also from my own family who left a country torn apart from war, poverty, and religion to find middle-class safety and comfort in Canada. Lately, I’ve been thinking about the factors that allowed that to be possible for us. Things like race, class, language, education, and policy have a huge impact on the position I find myself in, and yet those same factors have also been used to suppress others.
Have you fully embraced that position?
I don’t know if I’ve embraced it, but I think it’s important to acknowledge it. I think it’s important for everyone to acknowledge the intersectionality of their position in the world, their setbacks, and privileges. It makes for a more dynamic conversation if we expose the nuance of the issues we are trying to bring to the forefront.
I think it’s possible to talk about the struggles of immigrant settlers while also acknowledging that we are benefiting from the colonial project, and I’ve attempted to do that here.
Why was this important to address in this book?
The writings in this book are adjacent to a body of work I am making, and thoughts around my art practice in general. I am very preoccupied with how my work is perceived by audiences. I have a tendency to want to talk about many things within the same project, and I’m aware that some themes might appear more obvious than others. This book was a way for me to make clear all of these ideas and draw connections between them, and that includes my position as an immigrant settler in relation to tourism, language, class, and art.
You go fairly far-reaching into minutia beyond your visual practice. There's even a section that brings up the very idea of ephemeral happenings in the studio and their broader contributing support to a visual practice as a whole. What was the editorial process like in terms of knowing what to include, and how to be discursive without being perhaps needlessly superfluous?
It was hard! I knew I had many ideas of what I wanted to cover in these writings. While it all seemed relevant to me, I had a hard time bringing the ideas together in such a way that they complimented one another and made it clear that they were related. I hired editors Mick Hennessy and Elliott Elliott to help me with this process. It was very helpful to have two people to call me out on what was working and what wasn’t and challenge me to find different formats of how to express my thoughts. My art practice is very much in relation to who I am, the community I am part of, the land I occupy, and the images I consume, and I wanted to find a way to draw ties between all these things in my writing.
Do you feel like you said everything you wanted to say?
Hopefully not! Writing is a big part of my art practice, but I wanted to write these essays as a way for me to explore my writing practice on its own. It’s been great to be able to share these ideas with friends and colleagues, and it has given me more confidence in my writing. I’ve just started reading Ken Lum’s new book Everything is Relevant: Writings on Art and Life, 1991-2018. It’s inspiring to see how he has had a writing practice adjacent to his art practice for most of his career. I think it’s important to have these records of what I’m thinking about in relation to my practice and art in general, and to keep doing that as I move forward.
Did you learn anything unexpected from this extended process of writing?
I think the actual writing process wasn’t as hard and didn’t take as long as the editing, and with that I think it’s super important to get external help but to also make sure to listen to your gut. I also realized how important it is to keep records of your ideas even when they seem insignificant, because you never know when you’ll be able to build on them later.
As a visual artist, did you have any hesitations using language to such an extent to explore this project? This is partly my own projection as a visual artist myself but I mean this both in terms of your own abilities to articulate through text and the possibilities that language might somehow dilute or cage in the visual work.
I didn’t hesitate because I enjoy and appreciate writing, but I think it’s important that the two things exist separately. These writings are adjacent to a new body of work that I am exploring, also called Yours to Discover, which consists mostly of photographs. However I knew from the beginning that I did not want to have images in this book, nor is the book necessary for you to understand the images. The two complement and inform each other, but they are separate pieces.
I mention this one of my essays as well, but I’m also very conscious of the fact that at times I feel writing and research can be used as a crutch in contemporary art. If there’s no entry point to the work without having read the book in advance, then I think you are demanding a lot of your audience. I have used writing within my artwork in the past, but I try my best to keep it fairly minimal. Here I’m using writing to expand and clarify ideas I am having while making my work, but ultimately they are separate practices.