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A journal for storytelling, arguments, and discovery through tangential conversations.
Personal archives, public imperatives : in conversation with Zinnia Naqvi
Thursday, February 15, 2024 | Kalina Nedelcheva

Lens-based artist and filmmaker Zinnia Naqvi and I met by chance during the 2023 Mayworks Festival where she presented The Professor’s Desk (2023), a project that told the stories of four cases of discrimination in Canadian universities. At the time, I was a Teaching Assistant at OCAD University and the outgoing Executive Director of Graduate Studies for the OCAD Student Union; the name of Naqvi’s exhibition piqued my interest due to my political involvement with the institution and my desire to research and work toward better futures for students and faculty. Part of my job was to navigate and mediate conflict, to anticipate and strategize campaigns, and to work toward building a more equitable academic and workplace environment. To do my job effectively meant that I needed to nurture 360-degree awareness—to analyze present conditions, to acknowledge the past, to plan for the future. Naqvi’s The Professor’s Desk looked at the past but projected into the future. 

The exhibition, hosted by Whippersnapper Gallery, was built on documents and images sourced from the Asian Canadian Labour Alliance’s (ACLA) archives. Naqvi curated, staged, and photographed archival materials as fictitious desk settings. The depictions were quite realistic and carried a sense of dynamism, as if someone was working with those materials in real-time while the spectator got a secret glimpse into their intimate research process. I imagined that Naqvi drew from her personal experience as she has held positions as a sessional instructor at the University of Toronto’s Daniels Faculty and the School of Image Arts at Toronto Metropolitan University. The Professor’s Desk related stories about four cases of discrimination in Canada’s higher education system—the W5 Campus Giveaway TV Special from 1979, MacLean Magazine’s Too Asian article from 2010, the current inhospitable environment for international students in Canadian Universities, and Professor Kin-Yip Chun’s case of racial discrimination against the University of Toronto. It is this last gut-wrenching story that was the focal point of one of the accompanying Mayworks Festival programs—the conversation was riveting, at times unbelievable, and it kept me at the edge of my seat. The Professor’s Desk prompted me to dive deeper into Naqvi’s oeuvre. She was an artist, my senses told me, with deep reserves of compassion and respect for the people and materials she works with; I also sensed a strong moral compass and a desire to work toward better futures. I was not far off the mark. 

Naqvi’s approach to image-making is consistent. I discovered she often works with archival materials, predominantly her own or ones that belong to her family. Recently, the artist has expanded her archival focus by participating in the Mayworks Labour Catalyst which pairs artists and writers with local labour organizations and which culminated in The Professor’s Desk, as well as joining in on Rungh’s Archive Creation Residency where she reflected on memory, archive, and intergenerational knowledge exchange with fellow artists. Naqvi’s relation to archival materials is intentional, critical, and deeply generative. One recurring theme in Naqvi’s work is her direct and indirect commentary on the immigrant experience. While I share the artist’s passion for the archive—or more precisely of contesting and reimagining archival practices in more critical and embodied ways—I’ve also spent a lot of time reflecting on what it means to be an Eastern European immigrant in Canada.


What’s Behind the Diversity Numbers?, Inkjet Print, 2023 by Zinnia Naqvi


In many ways, immigrant identities in so-called Canada are misunderstood, overlooked, and suppressed. I found this out the hard way. Assimilation is masked as adaptability. Discrimination is shrouded by the promise of opportunity. The severity of these dramatically fluctuates depending on your skin tone, your gender identity, your age, your social class, proficiency in English, and so on. These conversations should and are taken up by scholars, writers, artists, community organizers, activists, and many more individuals who come from different perspectives. One way in which Naqvi approaches these conversations is through her thoughtful staging and archiving philosophy. While in The Professor’s Desk Naqvi re-contextualizes archival materials to stir up the past in order to look toward the future of academic freedom, integrity, diversity, and respect, the artist also undertakes immigrant experiences in other spheres—such as the domestic—to think through cultural adaptation, assimilation, and interpersonal behaviors based on class, gender, and race. This foray into the domestic can be glimpsed in Naqvi’s short narrative film Farzana (2021) and the photo-based project Yours to Discover (2019-2022). I wanted to speak to Naqvi about these two ambitious projects, as well, because they bring forth an important balance between the professional (public) and the private of the immigrant experience. 

Farzana (2021), a short narrative film inspired by a true story, sees the artist stepping into the role of a documentarian to dissect the relationship between two women—the work-from-home psychotherapist Charmaine and her housekeeper, Nasreen, who is a recent migrant and very financially precarious. Naqvi’s ever-so-slightly obscured presence in Farzana raises questions about documenting/archiving domestic work as an artistic practice and the ethics therein. Through the work, the artist hopes to “[address] the burden of bearing witness and documenting.”  Naqvi’s solo exhibition at YYZ Artists’ Outlet in 401 Richmond, Toronto names and expands on this burden. Titled the person you don’t see in this image is me, the camera-person, the video installation showcases Farzana, alongside the related experimental documentary The Translation is Approximate (2021) which provides insight into the artist’s approach to the oscillation between fiction and documentary. The exhibition prompts viewers to consider the role of the camera-person and the authority contained therein. Yours to Discover (2019-2022), on the other hand, sees the artist working with  family photographs. In this series, which has been exhibited in Brampton (ON), Vancouver (BC), Winnipeg (MB), and Montreal (QC), Naqvi seeks to understand how the immigrant status of her family has shaped her experience both as an individual, as well as within the Canadian context. In dissecting the experience of her family as tourists and later as immigrants, Naqvi challenges the status of Canadian ideals—both within and outside the country. It is here that Naqvi most boldly touches upon the potential of personal archives to counter forces of assimilation and to contribute to broader cultural conversation. Building immigrant archives—and by this, I mean idiosyncratic collections  of materials that critically embody the experience of immigration, the culture, history, social relations, and so on of particular groups—are paramount to the flourishing of diverse communities in so-called Canada, and maybe even for facilitating respect and awareness of the stolen land to which many of us have immigrated without prior knowledge.  In his paper, Intercultural Public Spaces in Multicultural Toronto, Professor Michail Galanakis—a specialist in urbanism and the built environment—argues that interculturalism (as opposed to multiculturalism) can provide lucrative ground in exploring the possibilities of coexisting peacefully with one another. At its core, interculturalism stakes claims to the right to “[recognize] the legitimacy and specific needs of minority or subaltern cultures.''1 In contrast, multiculturalism—that which I think is practiced in Canada—is more concerned with aesthetic presentations of inclusivity. While the latter silently promotes cultural assimilation, the former contests it. Interculturalism responds with kindness to difference, but it is also rooted in learning about other cultures and adjusting social habits in public spaces to facilitate coexistence in productive ways. To do the work of interculturalism means to build diverse and meaningful community archives as a means to connect, build, relate, teach, and unlearn. Naqvi's diverse methodology of engaging with the archive grants her valuable insight into the delicate balance of re-contextualizing archival materials while preserving their authenticity and stimulating productive cultural dialogue. I hope you enjoy our conversation. 

Thinking about my history and the history of my family helps me understand my place in the world, and how I function in it in the present moment—from the decisions I make to where I work. By looking at the past, I am really just trying to understand my reality.



In recent years, critiques by artists and cultural workers about the state of archives have grown louder. Many point out the exclusionist and harmful practices of curating memory and exercising authority over what is remembered. What is your position on the archive and what do you hope the archive to become? 

Part of the reason I haven’t worked with any public archives is because of the harmful dynamics you point out in your question. My artistic practice involves using my personal archive and other vernacular archives because I find a lot of power in them. With The Professor’s Desk project, for instance, I worked with the Asian Canadian Labour Alliance (ACLA) archive which was put together by the members of the organization—it wasn’t an institutional archive. 

Recently, I attended a conference hosted by Mapping Ontario's Black Archives (MOBA) and there was an [emphasis] on how we use archival materials. The discussion revolved around how creating accessible archives opens the possibility for artists to be invited to activate those archives. There’s a lot of responsibility in that, especially if we as artists don’t know who the people in the images are or what the history of the material is. I’ve always been super wary of these dynamics between myself, the subjects represented in the material, and its historical significance. This is one reason why I haven’t engaged with any institutional archives, even though most of my work features archival materials.

We often find ourselves seeking validation from big institutions but how do we trust that the institution is going to take care of and treat the materials we surrender to it with respect? How do we decide whether it is appropriate for the history of a community to be in the hands of that community or whether it should be in an institutional archive? I haven’t figured these questions out yet, but they motivate me to continue working with people and their histories as opposed to the history as presented through the institution. 

Your view on how everyone should be the custodian of their own archive is a seemingly more fragmented approach to archiving than the institutional approach. By what means can the fragmented archives interact? And what happens to a personal archive when the person passes?

The state of the archive today is already a fragmented one. There is no universal or complete archive. I’ve worked at archives in the past and have found the disconnect between people, as well as institutions, fascinating. They often don’t speak to one another at all! In this sense, the histories and materials they safekeep are already fragmented. Taking the materials out from the community context to which they belong risks further fragmentation.  

Of course, it is not always possible for a personal and/or familial archive to stay within the family and there can be various reasons for this. I don’t think there is a perfect solution but I do think that whenever possible, it is best for archives to stay with the community that they're from. Space can be an issue here, of course, and it is also a challenge for institutions who cannot accept materials because they don’t have the physical capacity or the funds to preserve things properly—but that’s a different conversation. I am not saying that I will never work with a public archive but I haven’t felt the need to thus far. 

When people surrender material to the institutional archive, they sever, on some level, their intimate connection to the material and also risk being overlooked as connected to the material by the researcher. Have you ever given much thought to what transpires during this process of surrender? 

This question reminds me of a review I wrote about Khandakar Ohida’s film Dream Your Own Museum (2022), exhibited at the Berlin Biennial in 2022. In it, the artist’s uncle who is a compulsive hoarder is collecting a lot of vernacular objects and he develops his collection to such an extent that he decides it’s time to give it to the Indian Museum in Kolkata. Towards the end, however, Ohida’s uncle decides against it and sets on a path to create his own museum for his beautiful objects on the moon. This realization, to me, signals that the best place for his objects is at home, with his family. This is a very real choice people have to make and I have no idea what the decision process is like because I’ve never had to make it. Making art is how I validate my family history. I don't think I would ever give my archives to the institution, because I know that I also have the capacity and ability to preserve them. 

It is important to say that by giving artifacts to institutions, we are seeking validation from it—as in “oh, my history is worth preserving and worth studying.” Until recently, the history that was worth preserving and worth studying from the point of view of the institution was usually wealthy people’s. 

I love that—resistance archiving through fragmentation. I hope someday, institutions can have a repository of personal archives where the materials are still in the custody of the individual but researchers and the public can browse and contact the owners for permission to view them. How do you view the act of archival research as a means to uncover and preserve the immigrant or refugee experiences in Canada? 

For me, it always comes back to “the personal is political”. The family album, for example, is a medium that is full of potential. Thinking about my history and the history of my family helps me understand my place in the world, and how I function in it in the present moment—from the decisions I make to where I work. By looking at the past, I am really just trying to understand my reality. My practice has allowed me to evolve my understanding in different ways. When I've been asked to make work, especially work that I know will be public, I really strive to make its contents relatable to people. Going back to the idea of the personal, there is always an entry point there—that when people see my family photos they feel drawn in because this medium is visually familiar to them; they likely have images like that at home too. At the same time, I also strive to tease out things that are not necessarily noticeable at first glance—something in the background or an action portrayed in a photograph. Why do we gather at certain places to take pictures? How does the site influence our behaviour?   What are the larger implications of what we're doing in the image?


Before the Settlement – Professor Chun’s Desk, Inkjet Print, 2023 by Zinnia Naqvi


I can totally see how archival research can contribute to better understanding of your own identity, as well as your family’s roots. This is especially important for immigrant families who come to this land for many reasons. How does an immigrant archive contribute to broader conversations about cultural memory and historical representation, and is such an archive useful and necessary to be built in Canada?

Immigrant archives are definitely necessary in Canada. We started this whole conversation hinting at who isn’t visible in the public archives and the answer to that question is a lot of racialized people. I once had a school teacher reach out to me because they were leading a workshop in an art class. They were attempting to visualize what it means to be Canadian to a class with many immigrant kids. She told me that she used Yours to Discover because the images I was working with offered a representation of being Canadian that was not centered around hockey, beavers, and other quintessential tropes. I continue this work with images, reminiscent of the ones in Yours to Discover, even today in my studio.

When I was in elementary school, I remember also being asked to do assignments about where I was from—even though I grew up in Canada. In retrospect, I wonder why I was asked that and why it was part of the school curriculum. Everything is connected; although this assignment felt like a minor moment, it certainly points to something bigger. Many students were probably tasked with this same assignment. It probably influenced our way of thinking. I am drawn to these micro-moments and interested in thinking about how they connect to broader cultural contexts. Even though we may not remember them well, I am sure they’ve had some effect on forming our consciousness as adults. That’s why I am especially drawn to my childhood. 

Yours to Discover re-examines family photographs as a means of understanding Canadian culture and identity. How do these images help convey the complexities of the immigrant experience and the process of assimilation or adaptation to a new cultural context?

For Yours to Discover, I chose a specific set of photos from the time when my parents came to Canada as tourists. In these images they are visiting and really looking at popular tourist sites like Niagara Falls but they are not necessarily thinking, what does this site tell me about Canada and the Canadian identity. But understanding the country and its identity is a big part of why we visit these places, right? 

It is really important to ask ourselves what are the values that we’re supposed to adhere to and how are they different from where we come from? [author’s note: When we initially chatted about doing this interview, I told Naqvi about my Citizenship Test in Canada and how the judge told me that I am now Canadian first and Bulgarian second in a joking tone.] I didn't go through the citizenship test as I was born here but my family did. Maybe they were told something similar. This mentality was definitely encouraged in our house. In retrospect, what values were we trying to encourage and hold onto? What were we trying to let go of?

Yes, Canada presents as such a good-guy country to immigrants until you learn about its colonial history. 

The neighborhood I grew up in was a diverse immigrant community and the narrative I was told was that we all came to Canada to live happily ever after. I didn’t question it until I was older. There was no mention of Indigenous history or residential school when I was growing up and I didn’t know anything about it until I was in university. These days, I feel like these crucial topics are a bit more integrated into the school system but there is still work to be done. 

We met at The Professor’s Desk conversation and I feel very fortunate to have witnessed the magnitude of this exhibition which was hosted by the Mayworks Festival. The programming that followed and the conversation with Professor Kin-Yip Chun, in particular, was gut-churning. A lot of skeletons fell out of the closet that day. I thought the conversation added a very powerful dimension to your work and exhibition. How do you feel the conversation related to your work in The Professor’s Desk?

The Professor’s Desk was a very challenging project for many reasons. It was my first time not making work about my own personal experience. I mentioned earlier that ACLA invited me to work with their archives. As I sifted through the materials, Professor Kin-Yip Chun's story deeply resonated with me. It was after I had started making the work that I decided to reach out to him—mostly because I didn’t know where he was and whether he would want to be part of the project. He responded to my e-mail and luckily, he was interested in the project. He requested to be part of the conversation and originally, it was going to be over Zoom but then, later he said he wanted to come in person. He hadn't been back to the University of Toronto since the closing of his case in the early 2000s.

It was a pretty momentous conversation. I began with a very short artist talk and then gave Professor Chun the floor to say what he wanted and needed to say. He spoke about his experience for about forty minutes. I wanted to create space for him and to pay homage to the people who have struggled in teaching positions before me. He had to deal with such overt racism and was very vocal about it. He was openly challenging institutional racism before that became a widely used term. In the end, the most important aspect of The Professor’s Desk was for Professor Chun to say his peace and to share the truth with a new generation of students and professors. 




I am interested in the potential of fiction as a form of truth-telling.



This decision to invite Professor Chun really works in tandem with what you said before about giving people agency over their own experiences and archival materials. At the talk, which is available online, it really felt like he was giving us an archive of his memory. How do you see his legacy impacting the experiences of Black, Indigenous, and racialized workers in academia today? What's the role of keeping an archive when it comes to such experiences?

Professor Chun was wrongfully denied tenure four times and each time, there was a white man who took the job he applied for. Now, we are in a very different moment. I’ve applied to academic jobs that are specifically looking for BIPOC hires. Institutions seem to be trying to recognize that they’ve made mistakes in the past and to create spaces for different perspectives. Don’t get me wrong, targeted hires have their problems—for example, institutions hire BIPOC academics and then expect them to single-handedly change the whiteness of the institution while also being obedient to the original structure. You see a lot of these diversity hires leaving institutions because they feel overworked and unsupported. If you are inviting people in for face value but are not willing to do the work to make them feel comfortable or that they can actually implement change, then they are going to leave and change won’t happen in the end. There is a really great interview in Hyperallergic with eunice bélidor, the first Black curator at the Montreal Museum of Fine Art, and the challenges she faced. Back to the question though, I don't think there is any perfect solution. Diversity hires are just one way the institution is trying to make up for the harm it has done. Maybe we have to fumble our way through to make progress. 

Art can be a palatable way for people to navigate and talk about these difficult issues. Professor Chun’s case carries fighting implications for that progress. We have to witness and make space for the struggles he and other individuals experiencing institutional racism went through. For a young academic such as myself, it was really important to think about who has come before me, who has made space for me, and to commemorate those people. This type of history goes under the radar. I didn’t know about it until I started digging. And it is very interesting that these days we hear about racism in academia but in a different way—sometimes it is more theoretical, other times it is micro-aggressions, and so on. Telling Professor Chun’s story and the overt aggression he experienced in a more tangible way really helps understand the ripples of what we are dealing with today. I have since had a lot of conversations with students and colleagues about The Professor’s Desk and more often than not, his story comes as a shock to many. 

It’s worth noting that the University of Toronto has never apologized or even acknowledged what happened to Professor Chun. I still think an apology would be meaningful, especially as institutions seek to right their wrongs. It is not too late as Professor Chun is still around!

Many of your projects engage with themes of social justice, advocacy, and representation. How do you see your role as an artist/archivist intersecting with your role as an advocate for change?

I don't really see myself as an activist per se because I am not always on the ground. One of the roles of the artist is to be reflecting on what’s happening.  How do I reflect on issues that are important to me in my artwork? How do I archive them? This reminds me of something migrant rights organizer Chris Ramsaroop, who was also on The Professor’s Desk panel, hinted to—activists have all these archival materials like posters, flyers, correspondences, and so on but they are always on the front lines and therefore, too busy to actually preserve this ephemera. That’s where I come in as an artist. I preserve these things so that we can remember, reflect and have these conversations in the future. Public memory, after all, is very short.


Zinnia Naqvi, installation view from the exhibition the Translation is Approximate, Dazibao, 2021. Photo: Marilou Crispin.



“Farzana” captures moments of hostility and conflict between Charmaine and Nasreen, a psychotherapist and a domestic worker. I imagine “Farzana” to be a truthful representation of an immigrant experience and the division of labor in North America. How do you think it fits into an archive of immigrant experiences?

I always aim to complicate the immigrant experience in my work and challenge the narrative that you come from a place of conflict and live happily ever after in a place like Canada. The world is way more multifaceted and complicated than that. 

I started my practice in the documentary world; I wanted to be a documentary photographer but I also saw the potential of fiction in leading to the truth. Farzana is based on a true story, but it uses a fictional script that I wrote. Some scenes are based on things that directly happened, others on experiences that are taken out of context but that I witnessed between family members at one point or another. I am interested in the potential of fiction as a form of truth-telling. 

Farzana is coming from my lens and my own bias. I am complicating the immigrant experience by highlighting dynamics of class and gender. Experiences of immigration differ, of course, for people who come from privilege and those who come as refugees. When I was young, I was really taken with the difference between the so-called First World and Third World. I’d reflect on this dichotomy when I’d visit Pakistan. The dynamics between these two worlds felt so large to me when I was young and it was hard to reconcile it as a kid. I felt like there wasn’t necessarily space for me to talk about what I was seeing or feeling. 

Farzana is based on a situation I witnessed between my aunt and a domestic worker in Pakistan. I felt it was very indicative of the structure of Pakistani society but that it also had deep similarities to the North American context. I wanted to bring this situation home, to Canada, and interpret it. I wanted people to question what they would do if this was happening in their household. How would they react? The intention of casting two racially ambiguous women was also a conscious decision as I didn’t want to tie it to one specific ethnic community. I wanted to specifically highlight the marker of class.

Throughout “Farzana,” we catch glimpses of you. Why did you choose to insert yourself in the film? 

At first, I wasn’t even sure if it was going to be a film. It took me eight years to figure out how I should shoot and present this film. As the person trying to digest and understand the dynamic that was unfolding in front of me, my point of view was a key part of the work. As the story continued to get more complicated, I decided to not insert myself in the film. But then, I was working with an awesome Director of Photography and filmmaker, his name is Haad Bakshi and he suggested we make the film from a child’s perspective. I felt kinship with this proposed character because it was my younger self trying to figure out the dynamics I was sensing. So, it made sense at that point to shoot it from my perspective. It also gives the audience a character to identify with as they try to understand what they are seeing.  


We often find ourselves seeking validation from big institutions but how do we trust that the institution is going to take care of and treat the materials we surrender to it with respect? How do we decide whether it is appropriate for the history of a community to be in the hands of that community or whether it should be in an institutional archive?


Your projects often incorporate personal experiences and narratives. How do you manage the emotional weight of these subjects while maintaining a critical perspective and engaging the audience effectively?

I find myself trying to figure this out for each project I embark on. This balance was much more difficult for me to achieve with The Professor’s Desk when I was working with someone else’s history. I didn’t know Professor Chun or whether they wanted me to make the work. I was using public materials—newspapers, magazines, and things like that—but if Professor Chun wanted me to stop and not make this work, then I would have felt terrible and unsure of what to do. It was very anxiety-inducing for me. Luckily, he was supportive of the project. I find that working with my own family stories is a bit less nerve-wracking because I can talk to my family about the materials and they can tell me directly if they don’t like something. 

I also balance this anxiety through my decision-making processes. I didn’t have to reach out to Professor Chun but I did and I think the project is richer for it. Also, the decision to reach out to Professor Chun after I had made some progress was intentional. I do this when I work with my family’s archive too. I check in with my parents at different times but I also need some distance in order to make something and stay true to my vision. 

Ethics are really important, especially as I think through how to display and present the archival materials I am working with. How do I create space for them? How do I navigate between the historic life of these materials and my resolve to make something new with them? This is why I often jump around the formats I engage in as an artist. Figuring out the format of presentation is crucial—is it still life or is it video? This is the role of the artist. 

Throughout your artistic journey, how have your personal beliefs evolved and shaped the direction of your work? Can you provide specific instances where your perspective has shifted through your creative process?

I don't know if there's been a specific instance where my perspective has shifted but my work has helped heal certain things. I feel a sense of resolve when I tackle things about my identity and think through to understand things that have preoccupied me for a long time. Farzana, for example, preoccupied me for almost 10 years and now, I’ve finally made the work. The conversations stemming from my work often fuel the next project. I find this cycle to be a gratifying experience.

The above conversation was conducted by Kalina Nedelcheva a multi-media artist-researcher, writer, and curator based in Tkaronto, Canada. 

Special thanks to Zinnia Naqvi for her generous participation in this conversation.

Cover image: Zinnia Naqvi, from The Professor's Desk series. 


1Michail Galanakis, 2013, Intercultural Public Spaces in Multicultural Toronto in Canadian Journal of Urban Research 22, 67-89.