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Reblog: One of the world’s most influential climate scientists is a Concordian

Damon Matthews ranks 266th out of 1,000 on the Reuters Hot List

May 18, 2021 By Amy Sharaf

Concordia’s Damon Matthews has landed on the Reuters Hot List, ranking him among the world’s most influential climate scientists.

Matthews, professor and Concordia Research Chair in Climate Science and Sustainability, Geography, Planning and Environment, placed fifth among Canadians and 266th globally in the Reuters list of top 1,000 climate scientists in the world. In all, only 37 Canadians made the cut.

“I recognize a lot of the names of colleagues that I know and have worked with, so it’s good company to be in,” Matthews says. “I am very happy to be recognized.”

Reuters notes the Hot List is not a measure of the “best” or “most important” climate scientists internationally but rather of influence. It ranks researchers based on a combination of factors: the number of research papers they have published on climate change–related topics, how often other researchers in similar fields of study cite those papers and how often their papers are referenced in the media, policy papers, social media and other sources.

The list’s data is provided through Dimensions, British-based technology company Digital Science’s academic research portal. The database includes hundreds of thousands of climate science–related papers, most published since 1988.

‘Not a complete list’

Matthews runs Concordia’s Climate Scenarios, Impacts and Modelling Lab and also heads the Leadership in Environmental and Digital Innovation for Sustainability (LEADS) program funded by a $1.65-million Collaborative Research and Training Experience (CREATE) program grant from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC). He says that although it’s great to be recognized, other researchers were left off the list, and he was struck by how male-dominated it was.

“This is a nice measure of science influence, but it’s certainly not a complete list,” he points out. “There are lots of really excellent scientists in Canada who were not picked up, and of the 37 Canadians on the list, only four are women. There is obviously still work to be done to equalize opportunities for female scientists and have their research be recognized and influential.”

Matthews’s distinction comes after Concordia placed 62nd out of 1,115 institutions worldwide in the newly released 2021 Times Higher Education (THE) Impact Rankings for its institutional commitment to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Craig Townsend, associate professor and chair of the Department of Geography, Planning and Environment, is thrilled by Matthews’s growing catalogue of accomplishments, which are drawing students and researchers to his work.

“Damon has been incredibly successful in attracting students to the department’s graduate programs, as well as overseeing numerous postdoctoral researchers from around the world,” Townsend says. “His work is impressive, and we really look forward to seeing how it evolves.”]

See original article post here: https://www.concordia.ca/news/stories/2021/05/18/concordia-professor-named-among-worlds-most-influential-climate-scientists.html

Congratulation to duo Dimo and Sonya!

Concordia University’s MFA graduate students have recently been invited to the Arctic Circle Residency as participants of the Leadership in Environmental and Digital Innovation for Sustainability (LEADS) program.

The collaborative work of Dimo Ivanov and Sonya Stoeva took shape in 2010 as the duo IvanovStoeva following several collaborative projects in Canada and Europe. Currently they are completing their Master’s in Intermedia (Video, Performance and Electronic Arts).

During their participation in the Leadership in Environmental and Digital Innovation for Sustainability (LEADS) program, they hope to reach out to a large collaborative sphere in order to contribute to actions towards climate change and sustainability solutions. LEADS will give them the opportunity to develop their knowledge for interdisciplinary collaboration, with the goal of creating a bridge between science and society using art and digital technology.

Their proposed project will evolve during a research residency. The Arctic Circle Residency, which brings together international artists and scientists on an exploratory journey. It will start with a departure from Longyearbyen, Svalbard, and will be carried out on a sailboat travelling to the Arctic Circle. The objective of the residency program is to offer to the participants a common experience to stimulate exchange and collaboration. IvanovStoeva’s goal as researchers-artists is to inform, inspire and stimulate actions. For them, the combination of technology, science and art has great potential, and they are eager to contribute to this field. The project will help build a broader understanding of the many positive effects that the natural environment provides for us as natural beings.

Congratulations to Haema Sivanesan!

The Glenbow Museum in Calgary, AB has recently announced that Haema Sivanesan has joined the museum as Chief Curator. Sivanesan has extensive experience across a range of sectors in the visual arts in Canada and abroad, most recently serving as a Curator at the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria (2015-2021). www.glenbow.org

Camouflaged Screams at Optica- Centre D’art Contemporain

MFA alumni and current Elastic Spaces’ visiting scholar, Santiago Tavera, along his collaborator, Laura Acosta (MFA alumni) are currently exhibiting their new work, The Novels of Elsgüer (Episode 4); Camouflaged Screams at OPTICA – Centre D’art Contemporain in Montreal.

Exhibition : April 17th – June 12th, 2021

Episode 4: Camouflaged Screams is is an interactive installation exploring the (a)symbiotic relationship between humans and the natural environment. This augmented experience incorporates large scale panoramic video projections of a recorded performance with textile pieces, along with motion sensors, enveloping soundscapes, lighting setups and sculptural elements. As the audience moves around the installation, their movements have the capacity to alter the images and sounds in the space, asking viewers to reflect on how their presence and actions have a direct effect on the environments that surround them. This project was done with the support of the Canada Council for the Arts and the Elastic Spaces lab at Concordia University. http://www.optica.ca/

Click here for the Press Release text by Shauna Janssen, Associate Professor from the Theatre Department at Concordia University.

“The Breadth of” Symposium

“The Breadth of” is a free, public symposium that investigates and responds to the living archive of the Canadian Filmmakers Distribution Centre (CFMDC). 

This critical inquiry uses the CFMDC collection as a launching point, where we will engage, agitate and take stock, bring new ideas into consideration, and react through creative and critical dialogue. “The Breadth Of” grapples with themes of re-contextualizing and challenging the predominant historic narratives of media art and activism, while looking at what present and futures we wish to build. 

Facebook Event Here, and cfmdc.tv launches on March 25th.

SuperWomen: Conversations with Real Action Figures 

SCHEDULE FOR “THE BREADTH OF” March 27 – April 30

AVAILABLE ON https://www.cfmdc.tv/

SuperWomen: Conversations with the Real Action Figures is a collection of interviews with seven astounding women who have an extensive history of working in film and video. Interviews will feature: Marjorie Beaucage, Christene Browne, Sylvia Hamilton, Maria Teresa Larrain, Michelle Mohabeer, Leila Sujir, and Zainub Verjee in conversation with Midi Onodera. 

-6pm – 8pm EST Thurs April 1 Film: “Nevis To” (limited period)

8pm EST Thurs April 1 CHRISTENE BROWNE INTERVIEW – up for month of April

6pm – 8pm EST Monday April 5 Film: “Dreams of the Night Cleaners” (limited period)

8pm EST Monday April 5 LEILA SUJIR INTERVIEW– up for month of April

6pm – 8pm Thurs. April 8 EST Film: “Dolores” (limited period)

8pm EST Thurs. April 8 MARIA TERESA LARRAIN INTERVIEW– up for month of April

6pm – 8pm EST Monday April 12 Film: “Bingo” (limited period)

8pm EST Monday April 12 MARJORIE BEAUCAGE INTERVIEW– up for month of April

6pm – 8pm EST Thursday April 15 Film: “Exposure” (limited period)

8pm EST Thursday April 15 MICHELLE MOHABEER INTERVIEW– up for month of April

Film – “Black Mother Black Daughter”

Source: NFB link to https://www.nfb.ca/film/black_mother_black_daughter/

8pm EST Monday April 19 SYLVIA HAMILTON INTERVIEW– up for month of April

6pm – 8pm EST Film: Ecoute, S’il Pleut limited period)

8pm EST Thursday April 22 ZAINUB VERJEE INTERVIEW– up for month of April

The Journal of Transcultural Studies

“UNSETTLING” THE FOREST AS A CANADIAN NATIONALIST IMAGINARY: CONSENT, CONSULTATION, AND (RE)CONCILIATION IN LEILA SUJIR’S FOREST!

By Haema Sivanesan (Author)

DOI: https://doi.org/10.17885/heiup.jts.2020.2.24248

Published: 2021-03-05

Issue: Vol. 11 No. 2 (2020)

Abstract

Leila Sujir’s ongoing stereoscopic 3D and Virtual Reality media art project, Forest! is situated in the old growth rainforests of the South Walbran Valley of Vancouver Island, on the traditional and ancestral lands of the Pacheedaht First Nation. Taking place more than a century and a half since the settling of Vancouver Island by British colonizers, which was soon followed by successive waves of immigration by Chinese, Japanese, South Asian, and other laborers, Sujir’s project comes up against the effects and consequences of settler colonialism in the forests of Vancouver Island, and reveals the complexities and paradoxes of Canada’s mandate for (re)conciliation with Indigenous peoples.

This paper explores Sujir’s process of artistic collaboration, works with a range of Indigenous, community, and artworld stakeholders, and draws on a heuristic methodology to navigate complex community and inter-racial dynamics. Sujir adopts a methodology of person-to-person conciliation as a means to mitigate Indigenous–settler tensions, developing this approach into a methodology of friendship as a means by which to secure a transparent working process that is accountable to the Pacheedaht First Nation. This in turn enables the artist to develop new transcultural understandings and a new picturing of the forest. This paper closely examines Sujir’s process in the development of two works—Forest Breath (2018) and Aerial (2019)—detailing both the difficulty and the importance of artistic collaboration in working towards an ideology of (re)conciliation with Indigenous peoples in Canada.

Reblog: In the Land of Lost Gardens

Tireless in her quest, ethnobotanist Nancy Turner works with indigenous elders to preserve plant knowledge dating back to the First People in the New World.

by Heather Pringle

For decades, ethnobotanist Nancy Turner has roamed Canada’s west coast, recording how First Nations elders dug roots, picked berries, and prepared ancient foods. Photo by UVic Photo Services

Original Article: https://www.hakaimagazine.com/features/land-lost-gardens/

The neatness, the orderliness, the sheer scientific preciseness of the death lying at our feet is impressive. It is a sunny spring day near the mouth of the Big Qualicum River on British Columbia’s Vancouver Island; Nancy Turner is hard at work. With long, straight, graying hair tucked behind her ears, brow slightly furrowed, the 69-year-old ethnobotanist arranges hundreds of newly cut plants, 20 to a bunch, into two neat green lines along a gravel lane. Turner straightens, satisfied. The greenery arrayed below is death camas. Its teardrop-shaped bulb contains enough poison to kill a child, maybe even a small adult.

For centuries, indigenous people here carefully cultivated meadows like the one where we are standing. Among the grasses, they tended a host of edible plants—from field strawberries and chocolate lilies to one of the staples of Northwest coast life, a starchy root vegetable called common camas. These wild-looking gardens yielded food in abundance, but a century and a half ago, government officials began pressuring the local First Nations to adopt European agriculture. Reluctantly, they complied, grazing cattle and growing hay in their gardens, until weeds invaded the meadows, and knowledge of their valuable plants began fading.

Today, some want to reclaim their traditional foods. A few days ago, elders from Qualicum First Nation asked Turner for advice on restoring one of these lost gardens. She was happy to oblige. This afternoon, she and two old friends, Kwaxsistalla (Clan Chief Adam Dick) and Kim Recalma-Clutesi, have combed the meadow, searching for the remnants of the edible plants that once thrived here and halting the spread of a lethal intruder, death camas. After flowering, death camas looks almost identical to the edible variety; harvesters could easily make a fatal error. The fruiting stalks at our feet contain more than 55,000 death camas seeds—thousands of averted possibilities for further dispersing the toxic plant.

For Turner, it is an afternoon well spent, the kind of afternoon that she has prepared for nearly all her adult life. For more than 40 years now, driven by a kind of steady, unwavering zeal, the ethnobotanist has worked closely with coastal First Nations to preserve their traditional knowledge of native plants. Journeying in small planes and boats, by horseback and in her trusty old Volvo, Turner, a professor emerita at the University of Victoria, has logged hundreds of thousands of kilometers on this quiet quest, sitting down with elders in remote kitchens and recording their ancient learning. She has helped them dig roots, pick berries, prepare ancient foods; laughed with their grandchildren; attended their celebrations; made lifelong friends. Many have come to see her as one of them, even a sister.

“She so deeply understands and respects the culture,” says Leigh Joseph, an ethnobotanist and a member of the Skxwú7mesh (Squamish) Nation.

To preserve indigenous botanical knowledge, Turner has written dozens of books with titles such as Food Plants of Coastal First Peoples or Plants of Haida Gwaii, and published nearly 100 refereed scientific articles, many coauthored with elders. She has given public demonstrations of pit cooking, led guided forest walks and field trips, taught an entire generation of university students—an increasing number of whom are indigenous—and served as an expert witness in land rights trials. Her curriculum vitae, updated in 2016, is a hefty 90 pages long. “Nancy,” says Cecil Brown, an anthropological linguist and professor emeritus at Northern Illinois University, “is an incredibly productive person.”

For Turner, conserving this traditional knowledge has become a deeply personal act of reconciliation. In a country where government officials once scooped up indigenous children and placed them in residential schools to “take the Indian out of the child,” she has spent her career trying to reverse that process, gathering essential knowledge from elders who are now gone, and passing it on to their descendants. At a recent celebration of her work in Victoria, many indigenous leaders stepped forward to publicly thank her for the vital role she has played.

Turner, said Tsawout elder Belinda Claxton, is “a big knowledge keeper for all of us.”

In her second floor office at the University of Victoria, Turner swivels in her chair and welcomes a visitor with a radiant smile. Warm and sunny in manner, open and plain-spoken, the scientist is quick to put people at ease. And she never forgets a friend. As comfortable as she is in the modern scientific world, her office is a memory room. On tall shelves are cherished gifts and mementos: birchbark baskets, a yellow cedar hat woven by the renowned Haida artist Florence Davidson, a traditional baby cradle, a child’s bow, digging sticks, a framed copy of a saskatoon specimen. Every object, she says, has a story, a kind of voice that speaks to her, often from the dead.

Take the saskatoon specimen. “It’s a collection that I made in 1973, up in the Fountain Valley,” Turner says. An elder named Sam Mitchell from the Stl’atl’imx people had begun teaching her about the edible plants that grow on the British Columbia plateau; as she listened, she marveled at the richness of his knowledge. University-trained botanists had identified and named just one or two species of saskatoon, a shrub that produces edible berries. But Mitchell had a more intimate lore. He recognized and named not just species, but five or six different varieties of saskatoon shrubs, each with subtly different characteristics.

Turner’s fascination with plants began at a tender age. As a child in Montana, she loved exploring the woods and picking wild strawberries. She came from a family of distinguished scientists. Her entomologist grandfather was an expert on the ants of the Philippines, collecting data that would later assist renowned Harvard University biologist E. O. Wilson and his colleague Robert MacArthur in formulating a theory on species diversity on islands. Turner’s father, also an entomologist, studied bark beetles and the role of chemicals known as pheromones in insect communication. “He predicted the mountain pine beetle epidemic before it even happened,” says Turner. By the time she was nine, she was following in their scientific footsteps. In Victoria, where her family had moved, Turner joined a natural history club for children. “I was interested in edible plants and how to make dyes,” she says.

As a young university student, she elected to write her honor’s thesis on the effects of air pollution on lichens. But her heart wasn’t in it. She wanted to focus on ethnobotany—the scientific study of a culture’s relationships with plants. So in the late 1960s, she contacted a local elder, Christopher Paul, who agreed to teach her about the edible and medicinal plants of the Coast Salish people: she paid him $2 an hour for his time. The resulting paper was published in 1971 in the prestigious journal Economic Botany. Turner had discovered her calling. She enrolled in a PhD program in ethnobotany and began contacting linguists working in First Nation communities to preserve their indigenous languages. The linguists assisted Turner with introductions, and soon she was paying regular visits to many elders’ homes. “The people who still speak their language tend to know a lot about the culture,” she says.

From the start, the work was a race against time. On one memorable trip in 1977, Sam Mitchell took her to a small stand of sandbar willows growing along the side of a highway. As a child, Mitchell had learned how to twist the willow stems into a tough, springy rope used to build pit houses or construct suspension bridges across rivers. Mitchell showed her how to do it. “The bark breaks up longitudinally, and it becomes more flexible,” says Turner. A decade later, when she returned to the spot, the entire stand was gone: heavy machinery had taken out all the shrubs to widen the road. Today, she says, few people in the region know anything about sandbar willow rope.

For Turner, it was an object lesson. When a community loses a culturally important wild habitat, critical information about its plants can be lost swiftly, too. Even if someone comes along a few decades later to restore the habitat, no one who remembers how a plant was once prepared or processed may be left.

On a bright March afternoon, Turner leads the way through a small woodland just a short walk from her campus office. She ambles contentedly along the trail, peering down into the green tangle of the forest floor and scanning the treetops. She gazes with delight at the deep-rose-colored flowers of salmonberry, whose green shoots can be peeled and eaten as a springtime vegetable, then scoops up a fallen cottonwood branch. Its buds, she says, are filled with a sticky resin and can be made into a salve or a brilliant yellow paint. “I usually come and collect the buds every spring, after a storm,” she confides.

But Turner’s deep interest in coastal flora goes far beyond practical matters. An avid reader, she has long scoured archaeological reports and linguistic studies for clues to the antiquity of plant knowledge along the coast. Shedding light on ancient plant use can be difficult, but Turner’s research now links a remarkable shrub known as soapberry to one of humanity’s greatest adventures—the southward migration of Paleoamericans along the Pacific coast near the end of the last ice age, a time known to geologists as the late Pleistocene.

Soapberry, Turner explains, has a natural affinity for rocky shorelines. It is one of the first plants to follow lichens and mosses in colonizing the moraines left by melting glaciers, and studies show that it took root along the Northwest coast soon after the great ice sheets retreated. At one of the oldest known archaeological sites in North America, the Manis site in northwestern Washington State, researchers detected the pollen and seeds of soapberry and several other plants near the remains of a mastodon hunted by humans nearly 13,800 years ago.

Did these early migrants take an interest in soapberry? The shrub, which reaches up to two meters in height, produces clusters of sour-tasting red or orange berries. These can be eaten fresh, as a snack, Turner says. But soapberry is prized for something else today. The berries contain trace levels of natural detergents known as saponins, and when squeezed, they produce a sudsy foam. If the berries are added to water and sweetened with other fruit, they can be whipped like egg whites to make a frothy, rose-colored confection. Today in some First Nations, families serve this dish at parties and celebrations: many call it “Indian ice cream.”

Linguistic studies suggest that this popular dish has been around for a very long time. The evidence comes from a large family of endangered languages, Salishan, that once extended from southwestern British Columbia to Oregon. Among the 23 languages in this family, 19 contain names for soapberry, and all these names derive from a root word meaning “to foam or froth.” Intensive analysis has revealed that the oldest name was part of the earliest Salishan language, which was likely spoken in southwestern British Columbia some 5,000 to 7,000 years ago. But from there, the linguistic trail goes cold.

Other evidence, however, hints at an even earlier date for this “ice cream.” As Turner points out, indigenous people along the coast developed an elaborate culture based on the soapberry plant. They told origin stories about it and discovered a unique way of gathering the berries—not by slow, individual picking, as they did with other berries, but by spreading a mat below the shrub and beating it with a stick to collect the fallen fruit. They also developed a wide range of special artifacts linked to soapberry: picking baskets for children, birchbark vessels for whipping the berries; sturdy whisks; elegantly carved or painted wooden spoons that people carried to festive gatherings; and cylindrical baskets for carrying these spoons.

All this dessert culture may well have taken millennia to develop. “I suspect that it is indeed an ancient food going back thousands [of years],” Turner says in an email, and “maybe right back to the Pleistocene arrivals of people.” Along a rugged coast newly freed from an icy prison, brightly colored soapberries may have welcomed Paleoamericans as they explored a new world.

In the meadow along the Big Qualicum River, the afternoon cloud begins to roll in and thicken. Turner gathers up the bunches of death camas and packs away her notes. She walks over to say goodbye to Kwaxsistalla, who is sitting in a walker in the meadow. Now in his late 80s, the clan chief has been Turner’s teacher and friend for more than two decades. Never forcibly separated from his family, never hauled off to residential school like many indigenous children of his generation, the elder was hidden away and raised from a young age to be a leader of his clan. Today he commands the floor at potlatches.

And it was Kwaxsistalla who led Turner to a major turning point in her studies. During a conversation between the two in 1996, the elder reminisced about traveling as a young boy with his mother and grandmother to Kingcome Inlet on British Columbia’s central coast. In a tidal marsh there, his family and other high-ranking lineages owned plots of land, which they marked out with wooden posts. With traditional digging sticks, Kwaxsistalla and his relatives gathered edible roots from several species of plants, including northern rice root. He told Turner that harvesting these roots helped the plant “grow better every year,” and described what took place as “fertilizing” and “cultivating.”

At first Turner was a bit baffled by his description. “I couldn’t figure out what he was talking about,” she says with a grin. But eventually the elder took her on a trip to Kingcome Inlet. As she watched, he drove his digging stick into the ground and pried back the moist earth around a mature rice root plant. In the soil, she saw not only the plant’s bulbous root, but also dozens of small sprouts and bulblets. Each of these could grow into a full plant, he told her. So the clan chief and his family gathered the roots, but left behind the bulblets and replanted the sprouts elsewhere in their plot, allowing them to mature in the newly tilled soil. It was a clear example of selective harvesting and sustainable horticulture.

Kingcome Inlet was a revelation for Turner. She had never heard of such systematic planting and cultivation of a root garden before. Fascinated, she began asking elders elsewhere about ancient gardens. In the BC interior, Secwepemc elder Mary Thomas recalled watching her mother and other women harvesting yellow glacier lily. After digging the plant’s edible bulb, the women broke off small attached nodules, known as corms, and replanted them for a future harvest. “That brought me to a whole new way of thinking,” says Turner. Anthropologists had long described British Columbia’s indigenous inhabitants as hunters and gatherers. But these groups were the owners and stewards of gardens. “So I started calling it cultivation,” Turner says.

Today, more than 20 years later, she has found traces of many other horticultural techniques employed by ancient indigenous gardeners in the region. Some tilled and weeded their plots, and fertilized and mulched the soil with rotten wood. Others pruned hazelnut trees, cleared chokecherries of destructive tent caterpillars, and transplanted important plants such as the potato-like wapato from the mainland to the coastal islands.

What is remarkable now is how little notice early European colonists took of all this sophisticated horticulture taking place around them—the seeding, the digging, the pruning, the harvesting of crops. They didn’t really see—or perhaps they didn’t want to see—how carefully the continent’s earliest people were tending the land and its many valuable resources. They had no idea that the wilderness they saw—the meadows, marshes, and forest clearings of the coast—was in fact a giant patchwork of gardens.

On the car ride back from the Big Qualicum River, Turner seems quietly elated by the thought that another camas meadow could be restored along the coast. Increasingly, she says, First Nation leaders are breathing new life into traditional cultures in the Pacific Northwest, teaching their children to speak ancestral languages, perform ancient dances, and prepare traditional foods from native plants.

Now edging close to her eighth decade, Turner sees all this cultural renaissance through the eyes of a naturalist and botanist. Just like the biological refugia that preserve small relict populations of plants and animals until the return of conditions favorable to spreading, she says, the elders have preserved an encyclopedic knowledge of North American plants, passing it down from one generation to the next. Serving as a kind of cultural refugia, they waited out “times of disturbance,” she says, and now are spreading their knowledge again.

Wrapped in thought, Turner keeps her eyes on the road. Like the elders she clearly loves, she is part of this ecology of hope, this ecology of rebirth.

Reblog: Art, Culture, and Healing the World: A Conversation with Haema Sivanesan

By Raymond Lam | Buddhistdoor Global  |  2021-02-01 

Direct Link to Article


Driftwood (Heart Sutra). Tsai, Charwei. 2019.
Photo by Laura Gildner

Haema Sivanesan is a curator at the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria (AGGV), British Columbia. She has held leadership and curatorial positions in public galleries and visual art centers across Canada, as well as in Australia and South Asia. Her curatorial work typically focuses on art from South and Southeast Asia and its diasporas, with an interest in non-Western post-colonial and trans-national histories, world views, and practices. Recent exhibitions include: Imagining Fusang: Exploring Chinese and Indigenous Encounters (2019), Fiona Tan: Ascent (2019)and Supernatural: Art, Technology and the Forest (2018).

In 2018, Sivanesan was a recipient of an Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, New York, Curatorial Research Fellowship (2018–19); and in 2016, she was a recipient of a Robert H. N. Ho Family Foundation, Hong Kong, multi-year research and exhibition development grant for the project In the Present Moment: Buddhism, Contemporary Art and Social Practice (forthcoming). 

Buddhistdoor Global: How did you first become interested in the intersection between religion and art, and how did you find yourself working on spiritual themes in the secular context of a place like AGGV?

Haema Sivanesan: My background is in Asian art history, which requires a solid understanding of Asian religions, since a great deal of historical Asian art was commissioned for religious purposes. Prior to working at the AGGV, I had worked on a number of exhibition projects related to art and Buddhism. As a curator at the Art Gallery of New South Wales [Sydney, Australia] I worked on the major exhibition Buddha: Radiant Awakening, which opened in 2002. A few years later, I commissioned and curated a project titled دل كه سوز نوز ندارد, دل نيست (the heart that has no love/pain/generosity is not a heart), by artists Jayce Salloum [Canada] and Khadim Ali [Afghanistan/Pakistan/Australia], which opened at the Royal Ontario Museum [Toronto, Canada] in 2010 and subsequently toured internationally. This project looked at the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas in Afghanistan by the Taliban in March 2001. The project considered the impact of this horrific event on the local Shia Muslim Hazara community, exploring how these monumental images shaped the distinctive Hazara identity.

With my current project, In the Present Moment: Buddhism Contemporary Art and Social Practice, I’ve found myself working on Buddhism in the context of contemporary art because I wanted to examine the impact of Asian ideas in the contemporary West; and also find a way to think about Asian cultures outside of the limiting frame of “geographic” art histories. The tendency to historicize and orientalize Asia and Asian cultures in Western museums can limit how we understand Asian cultures as vital social and political forces in the contemporary world. In my work, I have become interested in finding ways to explore this, to address a long history of Asian-North American cross-cultural encounter, and to update how we understand the concept of Asia.

<i>Rose Mirror Mandala</i>, Stathacos, Chrysanne. 2013. Photo by Matthias HerrmannRose Mirror Mandala, Stathacos, Chrysanne. 2013. Photo by Matthias Herrmann

BDGAny discussion would feel perhaps a bit out of touch without addressing the impact of COVID-19 on the art world. While the AGGV held a research convening from 25–27 October 2019, the exhibition’s exact date is not as certain as the upcoming book that you’re writing and editing. As a gallery curator and researcher, do you foresee any changes to the delivery of exhibits as they’re currently structured, or will things proceed as they used to with minor adjustments such as the compulsory use of face masks?

HS: The AGGV re-opened to the public relatively early, in May 2020, with strict COVID-19 safety protocols, and exhibitions drawn from the gallery’s permanent collection. But that said, there is a lot of uncertainty, especially for a project like this, which firstly requires the loan of art works from collections in the US, and which, secondly, looks at ideas of “social practice” in contemporary art. At this point in time, Canada’s border with the US remains closed; and social practice, which refers to collaborative or participatory forms of art, proves difficult given COVID-19. I have been using this lockdown period to revise and find ways to adapt some artists’ projects with relation to this exhibition, but the rest will need to be worked out once we know the state of things post-COVID. In the meantime, I have been focusing on a book that will accompany the exhibition. I’m very excited about the potential of the book, and the writers that I have been able to commission, including scholars, cultural theorists, and artists. 


Learning Diamond Sutra. Zheng, Michael. 2013.
Photo by Julia Baier

BDGYoure presently working on your curatorial thesis for the exhibition, which uncovers a long history of Buddhist influence in contemporary art in North America. Sutras such as the Avatamsaka, Vimalakirti Nirdesha, and the Diamond Sutra influenced several well-known artists in the West. Can you give a few of your favourite examples?

My research for this project has been very exciting, examining how Buddhism comprises a methodology of art practice. I have been very interested to understand how artists draw on their various art forms to explore Buddhist ideas—as a form of inquiry into various Buddhist concepts and teachings. These artists are not looking for ways to “illustrate” Buddhist teachings, but rather they use their art practice as a site where they can test ideas and verify their truth. So, artists’ expressions of Buddhist ideas are often quite personal, idiosyncratic, and perhaps misunderstood. In other words, the Buddhist underpinnings have been overlooked in mainstream discussions about their work. 

For example, the well known American experimental composer John Cage created his famous work 4’ 33” (1952) as a response to his study of the Avatamsaka Sutra, and the American art critic and writer, Kay Larson has written extensively on this in a book titled, Where the Heart Beats (The Penguin Press 2012)which provides an important perspective toward the understanding of this work. Or Yoko Ono’s well-known performance artwork called Cut Piece (1966), which drew on the Jataka story of the Hungry Tigress, illustrated at one of the shrines at the temple of Horyu-ji, [Nara, Japan] to express ideas of selflessness and pacifism. Or the Taiwan-based artist Charwei Tsai, who has spent 15 years making work concerned with the Heart Sutra with great international success. Or the Chinese-born, San Francisco-based artist Michael Zheng, who has been making work that is deeply informed by his mother’s practice of the southern tradition of Buddhism in China, and his own practice of a more syncretic, modern Buddhism. The Diamond Sutra and the Platform Sutra have been important in his work. Zheng has commented:

My first exposure to Buddhism was when I was very little, when my mother “found” a master for me. I didn’t know what that meant. The only thing she said was, “I found a master for you. He said you had 慧根 (Buddha-nature).” But I didn’t really understand and perhaps didn’t care. So I had no actual relationship with my master until after I came to the United States, and even then, the only connection that I had with him was when I sent money to him, because my mother told me to. That was very early on, and I had no real understanding of Buddhism at all. Now I can kinda [sic] guess what that was all about. It probably had to do with accumulating merit via giving. My own contact with Buddhism was more intellectual. It was actually after I became an artist, and it was almost contrary to how my mother practiced her Buddhism, which was more as a religion. For me, I came to Buddhism through scriptures like the Diamond Sutra and the Platform Sutra. And they remain two of the most important writings in my life. I keep going back to them because I always feel like I don’t really get it. Maybe it is because they have this expansive wisdom that encompasses a lot of things. My actual practice comes through Westernized versions of Buddhism, including yoga, meditation, and so on. These are the practices that I do daily. Buddhism came into my art through these practices of yoga and meditation and rumination on the scriptures. (Ch’an Buddhism, being the confluence of the Buddhism from India and the various traditions rooted in Chinese culture such as Taoism, influences me most directly.) So, the way it manifests in my art tends to have a meditative quality, and I try to consciously incorporate the form of meditation in my art.

 There are so many examples, even concerning art works that are very well known. Bringing an Asian cultural and theoretical perspective to the consideration of these works is important in order to have a more complete understanding of what some of these works are about.  


Learning Diamond Sutra. Zheng, Michael. 2013. 
Photo by Julia Baier

BDGThese artists work with Buddhist philosophy and concepts such as interdependence, causality, and oneness seem to blend with preoccupations of the Canadian experience, from colonization, immigration, and multiculturalism and First Nations life. What can Buddhist ideas contribute to the experience of Canadian statehood, culture, and literature?

HS: Unlike the US, Canada is a very secular society, and perhaps even a little nervous or anxious about spiritual, let alone religious, ideas having a place in contemporary art. So I am not sure that I have an easy answer to your question!

The AGGV hosted an artist-centred research convening in October 2019 to better understand artistic positions around some of these issues, and to consider why Buddhism has such a persistent influence in the practice of art. The responses and discussions were insightful and diverse. For example, the Toronto-based artist Chrysanne Stathacos talks about her introduction to Buddhism as coinciding with the death of her friends to AIDS in the 1990s, and how the Buddhist concept of impermanence gave her an important perspective. She reflects:

Looking back at my art practice . . . all the projects interlock with Buddhism, but it’s all based on the notion of understanding impermanence and understanding the feminine in Buddhism . . . it’s important to note that Buddhism came to me through a woman teacher. Not that I haven’t attended teachings by His Holiness, and not that I haven’t had male teachers, but I came to it from Jetsunma [Tenzin Palmo]. And that is also connected to my practice as an artist—being a feminist, and the exploration of the feminine through the work . . .

Or in another instance, the West Coast Indigenous (Coast Salish) artist, Qwul’thilum Dylan Thomas, says:

I started meditating, at first just for the mental health benefits, I tend to be a pretty anxious person by nature. So, I got into meditation and was enjoying the daily practice of observing my breath and eventually I wanted to go deeper with it, but I had this kind of aversion to religions. So at the start I avoided the Buddhist books, and I would only read the secular more contemporary books. Eventually I just started reading some of the Buddhist books and I realized really quickly that more than just soothing my anxiety; they dealt with real questions, like how to die peacefully and how to live a life with purpose. It went way deeper than my original meditation practice. So I ended up practicing with a local Zen Center for a bit, and I’ve practiced with a few other Sanghas through the years, more formally at times and less formally at other times, but I’ve continued to meditate almost every day since I started. It’s been a huge part of my life, I can’t imagine living without it now. Even when I am not as involved with a sangha, like at the moment, the philosophy guides me through, minute by minute.


Dharma Wheel, ink on paper. Qwul’thilum (Dylan Thomas), 2016.
Image courtesy of the artist

I asked Dylan how his study and practice of Buddhism sits alongside his Indigenous identity. He responded:

In regards to the community’s reaction to my Buddhist practice, nobody seems very interested in it at all. So I’m glad that it doesn’t evoke a negative response, but I don’t think I’ve inspired anyone to investigate Eastern thought.

On a philosophical level, I found that Buddhist and Salish worldviews compliment each other. . . . For example, in Zen, they use the concept of “Shin,” and Salish culture has the concept of “skwalawyun.” These words both roughly translated to “heart-mind” in English. Because the heart (emotions) and mind (logic) are seen as distinct in contemporary Western culture, they don’t have a word that encompasses both. And when I began exploring Tibetan Buddhism, some of the parallels were stunning. For example, their masked dances were remarkably similar to the types of dances here on the coast. These are just a couple parallels I’ve found in my experience with Buddhism.

Another Vancouver-based artist, Tomoyo Ihaya, discussed how she came to the practice of Buddhism in relation to her art:

I grew up in Japan around conservative Buddhist grandparents who belonged to a very particular sect of Buddhism that was more concerned with formally following customs and rituals than it was concerned with the teachings. . . . So, I actually rejected Buddhism, and it was not until I went to university in Tokyo that I learned that Eastern philosophies talk about “emptiness” and “sense of order,” that I started becoming more curious about the actual teachings. When I came to Canada in 1994 . . . I met a soul sister, who is still a wonderful artist, and she directed me to Dharma talks and meditations, where I started inquiring inside myself. . . . This friend also introduced me to meditation, and that’s when I encountered the teachings of Buddhism that were rooted in a transient nature, in loving-kindness, and in beliefs of past and future lives. All of this opened me up to new ideas about how to live. And as it is in Tibetan Buddhism, or in my practice of Mahayana, this friend introduced me to a way of being personal in prayer, to always include the words, “May we get enlightened, for the sake of all other beings.” It’s not about one person’s refuge, but a way of thinking of every sentient being, because we are all interconnected.

So, this has really helped me to make art, not only philosophically, but also in terms of an attitude, because there’s lots of competition, ego, and self-expression in art, and I didn’t feel comfortable to push myself as an artist because this competition didn’t feel good. So making art, along with learning all of this, really helped me to keep my mind rather sane.

So there are a very diverse range of positions. Each artist is reflecting on what Buddhist studies scholars describe as modern Buddhism, considering Buddhism as a form of practice having relevance for issues in the contemporary world. And what I am exploring has to do with the cultural expressions of modern Buddhism, which is prevalent in Canada. But I’m not sure that Buddhism has had an impact in terms of shaping national culture.   


Bodhi Tree, acrylic on canvas. Qwul’thilum (Dylan Thomas), 2016.
Image courtesy of the artist

That said, the Buddhist studies scholar Melissa Anne Marie Curley has discussed Canada’s artist-run culture in terms of Buddhist influences, describing some of its ideologies as “culturally Buddhist.” Curley refers to the work of artist collectives such as General Idea, Image Bank, and artists associated with Intermedia. Some members of these groups did in fact have Buddhist practices, although Curley’s essay does not necessarily get into that. However, she does refer to the influence of the French Fluxus artist Robert Filliou, who had a significant impact on the development of artist-run culture in Canada. In his artistic work, Filliou drew on the language of Zen, which has been widely commented upon, but he was a Dzogchen practitioner who found analogies between his practice of Buddhism and practice of art. He was interested in the analogy between art and Buddhist tantra. This wasn’t always explicit in the way that he talked about his artistic work, but a practitioner might recognize the correspondences, for example in his concept of the Eternal Network, which referred to a conceptual network of artists and creative practitioners as a means to activate a concept of inter-connection. The Eternal Network was an imaginative social architecture, a “mandala” we could say, in which each creative practitioner, absorbed in their own creative world, was concerned with processes of self and social transformation. The Eternal Network was as much real as it was illusory, as a “mind-object” perceptible through mind-transmission or telepathy, an analogy with the mind-direct practices of Dzogchen. 

What Buddhism contributed to avant-garde forms of visual art practice was the possibility of an alternate social vision that recognized the potential of art and creativity as a means and an end in itself. This refers to the non-dualism of art and life, but also the non-dualism of art and society, even the non-duality of art and Buddhism. To generalize, I would say that for Canadian artists, as with artists around the world engaged with Buddhism, art and Buddhism coincide as forms of practice concerned with self- and social- transformation. Artists consider themselves as having a role to play in actualizing the creative potential of society, but also a role to play in creatively actualizing the potential of society.<i>MA No.1 – The Space Between Objects</i> (<i>Mu/Wu</i>), Lam, Wong. 2019. Photo by Mei Wong” width=”715″ height=”533″><em>MA No.1 – The Space Between Objects</em> (<em>Mu/Wu</em>), Lam, Wong. 2019. Photo by Mei Wong</p>



<p><strong>BDG: Referring back to the AGGV’s research convening last October, one of the highlights of a keynote conversation between Suzanne Lacy and Jodie Evans was discussing </strong><strong>“culture jamming, peaceful troublemaking, service, and witnessing”</strong><strong> in a context where public and visual culture allow art, activism, and Buddhism to converge. For you, do activism and art inform Buddhist practice, or vice versa? Are they more of a three-way channel providing mutually reinforcing ideas?</strong></p>



<p><strong>HS</strong>: It’s definitely a three-way channel providing mutually reinforcing ideas. <a href=The conversation between Suzanne Lacy and Jodie Evans was very interesting as they have different but not entirely unrelated approaches to art, activism, and Buddhism, and I think this is in part to do with the US political context, where Buddhism has contributed to various forms of “disruptive” or “interruptive” protest towards issues such as race and civil rights, feminism, peace activism, and so on. This has a historical context related to the history and culture of protest in the US. But it is a little bit different in Canada, where this relationship between art, activism, and Buddhism tends to take a more personal form, as a kind of moral responsibility toward social change, so that personal change as expressed through art can be a catalyst for inter-personal change that may then impact on the social.

The Vancouver-based artist and educator Susan Stewart commented in relation to her own practice of art, activism and Buddhism:

When you start studying Dharma, in the beginning the whole first wheel of Dharma, the foundational teachings are about teaching you how to not cling to yourself and your ego. We cling with a tight fist, and one finger at a time they pry open, until our clinging lessens a little bit. You have to start with yourself in Buddhism. I did that for quite a long time and I was practicing and meditating on my own non-existence, on non-self, and the non-existence of my ego, and a contradiction starts popping up. How can I be happy when I’m empty, when I have no ego, when I have no self? Why would one make a truly existent artwork? There was a contradiction there because my understanding of art up until that point was that it was a “sign of self” at a certain point in your life. In my case I was an angry activist, so my signs were very political, but in my mind, they were still signs of myself.

I was having this contradictory experience of selflessness, egolessness, and emptiness, while dealing with art which was demanding presence, production, and action. During my foundational study of Buddhism, I couldn’t deal with the fact that art was always demanding something of me. Ten years later when I moved onto Mahayanathankfully I got that far, this opened up a crack of emptiness. When you get to that space, if you open up a little bit of emptiness within yourself, what starts to happen is that you get more in touch with your heart again. . . . For the next 10 years I started making art that didn’t even look like art. I don’t think it was even readable to people, it was incoherent and illegible as art, but for me I was entering back into art and into social practice—a stream that was coming onto the scene as a discourse and with which I felt aligned. I started reading a lot of social practice material . . . identified with Fluxus, with happenings, and with performance art. Then for the next 10 years, I took on projects that were invisible, but to me they were art projects.

Activism can take the form of quiet, sometimes solitary, interventionist gestures regarding, for example, how one chooses to live one’s life against the grain of dominant social values as a practice of living. Or it can provide a counterpoint, as in the case of a social practice/installation work by Vancouver-based artist Lam Wong, who has created a work titled MA No.1 – The Space Between Objects Mu/Wu, which reconsiders the form and symbolism of traditional Chinese and Japanese tea ceremonies as social and performative intervention, as an antidote to the emotional and political charge of our time. In this case, the power of the work is in the artist’s capacity to situate or host a profound exchange between strangers in the midst of chaos, and for a moment to effect a moment of stillness, a glimpse of empty awareness.

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