Poster for In Visible Colours
IN VISIBLE COLOURS
THE MAKING AND UNMAKING OF THE WOMEN OF COLOUR AND THIRD WORLD WOMEN INTERNATIONAL FILM AND VIDEO FESTIVAL AND SYMPOSIUM
I AM WRITING THIS ESSAY three decades after the actual event of the In Visible Colours Women of Colour and Third World Women International Film and Video Festival and Symposium (IVC) that took place in Vancouver, British Columbia in 1989. To understand the distinctive nature of IVC requires a nuanced view of the organizational methods, historical trajectories, and political agency that activated and animated the festival. Part auto- ethnographical and part historical, in this essay I offer a summary of the central themes of IVC, contextualizing them in intellectual, political, and institutional terms, from the perspective of my role as the co-founder and co-director.
Given the benefit of hindsight, it also offers me a critical distance as I work through my archival material on IVC and the unique position of being in the moment of history, and writing about it after the lapse of a 30-year period. For the first time, I provide the narrative of the origins of the idea behind IVC, its contestations with the institutional apparatus, and locate it in the history of decolonization. It is pertinent to note, decolonization in this context has to be seen as the period that links the colonial and the postcolonial. Thus, this essay will discuss IVC, showing how the history of the present deploys genealogical inquiry, and the uncovering of hidden conflicts and contexts, as a means of re-valuing the value of contemporary phenomena: the return of the discourse of identity politics in the post-Brexit world. It also aims to situate the historical trajectories within the contemporary political crises faced by both feminism and anti-imperialism activists. In other words, the relevance of IVC and how one can read its history today, as the dictates of the neoliberal order have become common sense by default, and we are witnessing the global turn towards populist authoritarianism.
A well-documented festival that was the precursor to a series of events in the 1990s and emerged as a rupture, In Visible Colours was historically produced and historically productive. With over 100 films and videos from 28 countries, the festival emerged amid contestations on nation building and the making of a global neoliberal order, as much as the socio-political upheaval of the late 1970s and 1980s that foregrounded race and gender and the politics of cultural difference. As much as the transnational feminist discourse and the marginalization of women of colour therein, IVC was primarily about the contested history of the modernist aesthetic and modernism in the visual arts, and the making of the contemporary condition—as a historical marker—for the decolonized world. The operative question was: Who was defining this marker?
It is virtually impossible to speak of In Visible Colours in generalities. What emerged was a remarkable sense of difference within the sexual and racial differences that have marked women of colour working in industrialized nations, and women living and working in the Third World. While the realization of this festival depended precisely on foregrounding the shared experiences of oppression, sexism and racism lived by a global range of women, what the event and the screened works finally made apparent is how these realities are determined by specific social, economic, political and cultural conditions.1
There were multiple historical forces at play as the post-war decolonization unraveled leading to new forms and sites of contestations. Anchored in the famous Bandung Conference of 1955, was the idea of new solidarity between the peoples of the new emerging nations across Asia and Africa,2 and a decade later the formation of Organization of Solidarity with the People of Asia, Africa and Latin America, (OSPAAAL).3 One primary mode of thinking that emerged out of these contestations and formation of new solidarity, was the idea of the Third World and its concomitant concept of Third Cinema.4 “The central concept for the new nations was the Third World. For them, the Third World was not a place; it was a project.”5 Thus, Third World defined the political imagination of people, and bound them together in the anti-imperialist and anti-colonial struggles.
The genealogy and discursive turns of Third Cinema, and its political import, was a contributing factor towards developing sensibilities addressing issues of “race and nation”. There is a long trajectory, in terms of its institutionalization, beginning with the Third World Cinema Committee (December 1973) in Algiers and (May 1974) in Buenos Aires.6 These committee meetings offered a framework to define the role of cinema in confronting imperialism and class struggle.
In 1974, the National Film Board of Canada came out with two key initiatives. The first was the launch of Studio D, which focused on women filmmakers, and became the first publicly funded feminist film-production unit in the world. The second initiative was the Challenge for Change/Société Nouvelle program, which led to historic conversations, coincided with the Third World Cinema movement, and underlined the consensus on the social use of film and the inherent struggles in its production and distribution.7 It was during these years that the United Nations declared 1976–1985 as the decade of women. These developments were in synch with what was going on with the world in three key areas: decolonization, women’s rights, development and social change.8 These developments were in synch with the second wave of feminism in Canada, and the founding of organizations like Women In Focus Society.9
The 1980s were defining times, which started to consolidate crucial issues around the cultural politics of race and nation, representation and identity. The Black British Art Movement10 took off post Brixton Riots (1981), and Parminder Vir11 organized the Third Eye Festival of Third World Cinema in London (1983),12 which positioned the issue of Third World Cinema front and centre in the United Kingdom. The 40th Edinburgh International Film Festival (1986), in conjunction with the British Film Institute, held a special conference on Third World Cinema, its practice and its theoretical mores, which a broad spectrum of filmmakers, critics and theorists attended. Kobena Mercer called it “a surface of emergence.”13
Festival Co-Directors Lorraine Chan and Zainub Verjee
My direct association with individuals behind these events influenced and shaped my politics, and created a nuanced understanding of the challenges of the convergence of Third World Cinema and feminist politics.
The 8th Women in the Director’s Chair Film and Video Festival in Chicago (1989) had “risk” as the festival’s theme. My presentation elicited the comment that was reported as: “one of her [Verjee’s] greatest risks as a staff member of Vancouver Women in Focus Arts and Media Center was her decision to speak out about the organization’s relative neglect of promotion of the work of women of color”.14
This was not the first time I had spoken out about this issue. Earlier in 1987, when I worked for Women In Focus (WIF), while attending Vancouver International Film Festival at the Van East Cinema on Commercial Street in Vancouver, I met Barbara Janes, an executive producer at the National Film Board (NFB). She introduced me to her colleague Lorraine Chan, publicist for Women’s films at NFB Pacific Region. At that meeting, I spoke about the issue of access to production and distribution of film and video works by women of colour, as well as about Third World Cinema. Both Lorraine and I were dismayed to discover the lack of films and videos that reflected the experiences and realities of women of all cultures. Encouraged by Barbara, Lorraine and I began a series of meetings, ultimately forming an institutional partnership between NFB and WIF, offering a common platform for producing the In Visible Colours festival.
IVC Symposium Brochure
It was in the mid 1980s that I joined Women In Focus (WIF), a feminist artists run centre which supported the creation and distribution of film and video production by women. WIF also had an exhibition mandate. The failure of the Royal Commission on the Status of Women (1967) to address the concerns raised by the National Action Committee on the Status of Women, led to a flurry of events to counter it, and to the emergence of the second wave of feminism. The mid 1970s had seen a rise in artist run centres, and women studies’ programs and centres, but clearly was largely limited to a Eurocentric and Western perspective. Formally registered as the Vancouver Women in Focus Society, but commonly known as Women in Focus, the organization had its beginnings in 1974, and was founded by Marion Barling. Since its inception, it had expanded to include “distribution of feminist video tapes and film; workshops, lectures, and presentations in the community on the theory practice of feminist art and media; the exhibition of video, film, sculpture, painting, and other visual arts.”15
As the distribution and marketing manager, it became clear to me that women of colour were largely absent in the discourse, practices, and understanding of a wider gender politics. It was apparent that the relatively few films and videos that did exist were not widely distributed or exhibited. Distribution in the educational market was dependent on fluctuating school curricula. Even when some work was shown, it was at small alternative festivals, and not mainstream festivals that would have reached bigger audiences.
Lorraine Chan (NFB) and I realized that the gap was even larger than we had imagined, and decided that a large-scale event would bring about the impact that was necessary. The result was the formal agreement between NFB and WIF to sponsor IVC as institutional partners of the festival. As co-founders, Lorraine and I were responsible for the vision and execution. We both were very concerned about international dynamics and local urgencies. Through our respective networks and associates, we were both sensitive and committed to Indigenous women’s issues, as well as the growing community of Latin American women activists and artists who were refugees escaping the authoritarian regimes in Latin America. The name of the festival ‘In Visible Colours’ was proposed by Viola Thomas, a residential school survivor, and fiery leader of Indigenous people, who was an important part of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission for seven years. The words ‘In Visible Colours’, described the invisibility of the various cultural groups in North America, and the need to assert their rights to access the media. It also reflected the lack of representation in film of women of colour and Third World women. Aimed towards fostering political, cultural, social, economic and gender awareness, this five-day, multi-venue event showcased works by women of colour and Third World Women. An accompanying symposium addressed the surrounding issues of production, distribution and economics. The successful poster for the festival was the artwork of Nora Patrich, an Argentine artist, who was based in Vancouver between 1982–2007.
An advisory board, and other infrastructure, were put into place, and this allowed for the development of IVC and its successful execution. This conversation evolved into a serious dialogue, and was joined by voices from Immigrant Services and the Vancouver Society on Immigrant Women and, two years later, a thought became a reality! In this process, Aboriginal women were included from the beginning—Loretta Todd, Joy Hall, Viola Thomas—and other women of colour were also added to the team. A huge volunteer base, terms of reference, mandate, and fundraising were put into place. But fundraising was a challenge as a request for this festival did not meet stipulations for art funding at the Canada Council for the Arts. However:
We raised almost five hundred thousand dollars for a women-of-colour event. And we form alliances with Aboriginal women and it’s within an international movement. All of our money is coming from development agencies; it’s coming from NORAD, CIDA because women’s development in the Third World is really on the agenda. Those are the people who start funding it, not the Canada Council.16
Running from 15 to19 November 1989 at the Robson Square Media Centre, Vancouver East Cinema, and Simon Fraser University’s Harbour campus, the festival brought together up to 80 international delegates from every corner of the globe:
This festival provides a unique opportunity to view the varied works and to meet the women who created them. Drawing on their present experiences, these women open the way for the future by presenting refreshing and authentic images. The festival forms a context in which women of colour and Third World women film and video makers can share their mutual experiences to form a bond of solidarity which will facilitate their pursuit of self-expression.17
I told Lynne Jorgesen, “Making something come true and realizing a vision is in itself making a statement.”18
In the last few decades of the twentieth century, many remarkable women film and video makers had emerged and contributed to the development of their national cinemas. In Visible Colours was a celebration of this diverse and rich cinema by women of colour and Third World women. According to Gagnon:
the festival, by stepping beyond the confines of a single cultural community and thematic structure, was able to articulate the complexity of racialized existence as it is differently influenced by intersecting factors such as class, politics, gender and sexuality. It successfully complicated the tendency to homogenize the racialized individual and experience within the Canadian national narrative as well as its formations abroad. While many of the international works included explored the myriad ways in which women of colour are defined, the wealth of Canadian works represented, ‘a cultural plurality’ and worked to “redress the absences of sexual and racial difference within dominant, official histories.19
An accompanying symposium addressed the surrounding issues of production, distribution and economics.
I explained, when speaking to Terri Hamazaki of Kinesis,
Within the context of imperialism and colonialism, there is a long history of silence, of not being represented, the festival will attempt to address the relationship between the dominant (white) culture and other cultures, in addition to promoting the works of women of diverse cultural and political perspectives.20
IVCTraditional Inauguration: Gloria Nahanee, elder with Terri Willie, Squamish Band performing the traditional opening. Chief Wendy Grant, Musqueam Brand was also present.
To Hamazaki’s note that cultural diversity and gender awareness in the cinematic world is highly undervalued in our society, and traditionally women have only participated as “images,” Lorraine Chan, the co-director of IVC echoed my sentiments: “The festival will … also be used as a vehicle for women of colour to see themselves as producers of culture, to give them a sense of empowerment.”21
The festival was a ground-breaking moment in the artistic and cultural history of Canada. “Almost everyone that I interviewed acknowledged that one of the most important provocations that brought the discourse around race and gender into Vancouver’s nebula was the November 15–19, 1989 Invisible Colours festival,” wrote Sara Diamond.22
THE POLITICS AND BURDEN OF REPRESENTATION
Structural and institutional exclusion and marginalization have meant that people of colour and their work must always bear the weight and burdens of race and racism. The public role for artists of colour, and their work, carries this burden of representation regardless of audience. This burden of representations, a condition of the historical marginalization, often means that questions of representation, gender, and sexuality are brought forward in reductive ways which foreclose the possibility for critical dialogue. Unfortunately, in the shadow of these responses and debates the actual work is rarely fully discussed.
Film and video production by people of colour in Canada is a recent development structured and determined by the interrelationship of political, financial and cultural factors on national, provincial and civic levels. The state of independent production in Canada has to be understood in the context of the political economy of cultural industries in Canada. The federal government’s trilateral free trade talks, the possibility of cultural devolution, funding cuts in the cultural sector and the current recession/depression means that people of colour will have to fight hard to gain space in the cultural industries. This situation also makes it necessary for people of colour to ensure that the issues of race, representation and access are on the agenda in all discussions about national, provincial and civic cultural policies.23
There was an ongoing debate within diasporic communities about whether people of colour are imitating existing media aesthetics, or are innovating and creating a new aesthetic. Are people of colour in Canada creating a new visual language? Was work being made in Canada that attempted to break away from binary conceptions of race and culture? And did this work function in opposition to mainstream, white cultural production and work? Would this work abandon the burden of representation that British writer and cultural activist Kobena Mercer identifies in describing events in black art and filmmaking? He writes: “Artists positioned in the margins of the institutional spaces of cultural production are burdened with the impossible role of speaking as ‘representative’ in the sense that they are expected to ‘speak for’ the black communities from which they come.”24
THE BRITISH BLACK ARTS MOVEMENT AND IVC
Across the Atlantic, an interesting exchange of practices and discourse was happening and defining the politics of the time. IVC broadening its remit from a Third World Feminism endeavour, to a project that had the potential to embrace all the main discourses (of colonization, decolonization and post colonialization, admittedly), and national cultures of the cinemas concerned.
People ask me why IVC happened in Vancouver: it was because I was there! I was the first woman of colour who Women in Focus hired, and very quickly I began to bring that discourse to the forefront to my work. It was my agency that offered a connecting link between Vancouver and the British Black Arts Movement. It was the mid 1980s, and my engagement with British Black Arts Movement was very much along the lines of the relationship between culture and technology, and the place of race and gender within this discourse.
It was also about how we could construct a national identity in Canada: what was that identity in post-war Canada? There were two direct influences: the emergent discourse of post-colonial theory; and, my regular travels to England, which kept me synched with the Black British Arts movement, Rasheed Areen, Black Audio Film Collective, Keith Piper, David Bailey, Stuart Hall, and Marlene Smith.25
In 2017, I spoke to Rosemary Heather about this connection.
Black as a label in Britain encompassed a broad range of non-European ethnic minority populations. Since I was from London and hooked into that scene, I closely followed Lubaina Himid’s set of three exhibitions beginning in 1983 and culminating with ‘The Thin Black Line’ at the Institute for Contemporary Arts in 1985. Another important one was the one-off Third Eye festival of Third World Cinema held in London and Birmingham in 1983. Together they addressed Black invisibility in the art world and engaged with the sociopolitical and aesthetic issues of the time.26
As I earlier mentioned, IVC was about the contested history of the modernist aesthetic and modernism. There was a great churning about not only its meaning but the future of Modernism. The 1970s witnessed a crisis in the US, which was well captured in the September issue of Artforum in 1970.27 In 1983, Vancouver hosted a conference that brought to the forefront the rethinking of the history, and debates concerning modernism and modernity.28 It challenged both the orthodoxies of Greenberg on modernism, and the reductive view of modernism then taking shape within the emerging doctrine of postmodernism. It is in this context that I was equally engaged with other articulations, especially those from a non- Western perspective.
In an essay entitled “Cruciality and the Frog’s Perspective—An Agenda of Difficulties for the Black Arts Movement in Britain,” British writer Paul Gilroy attempted to create a theoretical framework for discussing the cultural and political significance of black arts in post-colonial Britain. Gilroy’s short, dense, and challenging text raised a range of questions and issues which can be explored across different contexts and fields of cultural production.29
Gilroy adopted the term populist modernism in an attempt to force a conception of culture alternative to the one articulated in debates around postmodernism, and its legacy in European philosophy and history. Instead, Gilroy proposed considering populist modernism as “an aesthetic and political strategy that many black artists have evolved in an apparently spontaneous manner,”30 one that furthermore could be examined through specific forms of expression in the black diaspora.
While artists do assume certain audiences and create works for these imagined audiences, they cannot determine who will see their work or how an audience receives, interprets and uses it. Furthermore, all film and video makers wish to access the international festival circuit because they want their work to be seen by the largest audience possible. Film and video festivals are the major economic marketplaces where distribution and exhibition deals are arranged. Film and video makers actively seek out distribution agencies and, in fact, the distributors largely determine where a work is shown and, therefore, who will see it.
Gilroy’s essay is important in that the term populist modernism provided an alternative option for examining Black cultural practices; however, as suggested by Koena Mercer’s response to Gilroy’s text in “Black Art and the Burden of Representation,” there were some important contradictions that were not dealt with by Gilroy’s analysis.
Despite being influenced and inspired by the then emerging critical commentary from Latin America, Africa, India, the second wave of Black British cinema, and alternative cinema in the US, we recognized the need to develop our own aesthetic and critique as imperative. Such a critique had to consider our diasporic position in a specific, historical moment in Canada with respect to both the dominant culture and, as importantly, the Indigenous people. I believe that artists of colour in Canada must avoid the trap of only addressing the hegemony of the Western media and its representations of the ‘other’. We had to develop and adopt both formal and informal strategies to position the issues of class, gender, and sexual orientation within the agenda of race.
Decolonization foregrounded race, while gender got impetus as part of the second wave of feminism, subsequent to the failure of the Royal Commission on the Status of Women to address the concerns raised by the National Action Committee on the Status of Women.
The questions of race and representation are complex, and the answers are not absolute. Through critical dialogue, the questions of difference must bring forward both the power relations and the political diversity that exist within specific communities. This political diversity means taking up various positions within the spectrum of left to right within specific communities. Simplistic binary oppositions cannot deal with the complex analysis of how audiences react to certain types of work.
The post-war decolonization led to a global societal upheaval. Two competing centres— New York and Paris—gave their take on the situation in the 1984 MoMA exhibition ‘Primitivism’ in 20th Century Art: Affinities of the Tribal and the Modern. In a response that wanted to correct MoMA, the 1989 Magiciens de la Terre, curator Jean-Hubert Martin, presented works by more than 100 artists from 50 countries at the Centre Pompidou and the Grande Halle at Parc de la Villette in Paris. While in London, many of the post-war migrants from the Commonwealth (ex-colonies) believed in the UK’s project of rebuilding the nation and were finding themselves lost. Why? In the UK, the idea of Commonwealth took a back seat as it allied with the European Union! This manifested in Rasheed Araeen making claims into the modernity discourse, in his curated exhibition, The Other Story at Hayward Gallery in 1989.
The moot point of Araeen’s curatorial thesis was about multiple modernities. From within the community of colour, there was a push back to include the vernacular. For me personally, it was the set of three exhibitions by Lubaina Himid, culminating in The Think Black Line at ICA in 1985 that impacted me, because together they addressed invisibility in the art world, and engaged with the socio-political and aesthetic issues of the time. The other two exhibitions were Five Black Women (1983) and Black Women Time Now at Battersea Arts Centre, (1983–1984).
Modernity has been in crisis because of its ontology. A deeper issue was modernity and how it used the term representation. Representation is rooted in Continental philosophy, which offers representation as a frame and model of the world. Representation is indexical and makes the self an allegorical figure, demanding sovereign guarantee to allow for the illusion of autonomy. Inherently, in representation, there is a negative valence to self- definition. We have seen this in The Order of Things (Foucault) who, via Heidegger, rightfully takes on Descartes’s invocation of representation.
Since it is impossible for self to be itself outside the constraints of representation, which conditions the framework of the world, we continue to invent or quarrel over words! “Diversity” is a very homogenizing term, so is “pluralism” which conflates difference, while the template of “multicultural” emerged from the political expediency of the limits of the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism (1963–1969).
THE DOUBLE BIND
IVC foregrounded certain critical issues relevant to the general disregard of the cinema of women of colour, Third World women, and National Cinema. The problems women of colour faced in financing, producing, or distributing their film or video work, demonstrated how women of colour faced the double bind of being women as well as people of colour. The way the federal government set up multiculturalism as a concept was a politically great idea, but as a reality, as a policy, it never really worked. Often, women of colour had problems receiving funding because the work they wanted to make had not been considered art work by the Canada Council for the Arts. Within the rubric of multiculturalism, they were expected to make a certain kind of work that fit into a Eurocentric definition of art.
Even before they got to the funding stage, what was problematic was that the diaspora— in this context when I mention women of colour, it implies the immigrant population that is non-white—had not been able to take control of media, a technology developed in the Western world. Other countries have adopted and used Western media for developing their post-independence national identities; for example, India, Cuba, Latin America and West Africa have developed an interesting cinema, where cinema refers to both film and video. But the diaspora in the West has had less access to that technology. This became very clear to me during IVC when we were not able to invite all these women from all over the world who lived in Canada. The evidence is in the Canadian section of the catalogue which showcased the extent of—or lack of—the body of work made by women of colour in Canada!
Further to the problem of acquiring funding, a significant problem for women of colour was having access to technology and training. In the bigger organizations, the contradictions were obvious. Despite the NFB’s support for many co-productions, it failed to engage with local communities. Filmmakers from India, for example, have come to Canada and had access to the facilities, whilst people of colour living here have not; their proposals have not been accepted. This perpetuates myths and stereotypes of “the Other”.
In this context, in Canada, we are still a long way behind in achieving decolonization, particularly in comparison to what Britain and the United States have achieved. There has been a second wave of cinema produced in these countries by women of colour, as well as a ‘third wave’ in the US of Afro-American cinema. I feel that, in Canada, we have not addressed our work critically: are we in fact part of a system that’s developing a universal cinematic language that’s new, one that reconstructs the language and codes of Western cinema? Since IVC there have been some changes. For example, as a direct result of IVC, NFB began the “New Initiatives in Film Program” for people of colour: a pilot project started in 1990 designed to train people of colour in how to produce and direct films. They also initiated an intern program where two or three interns were coupled with a production, and worked for two years in this capacity. In the immediate aftermath of IVC, belonging to media arts organizations—such as, Cineworks Independent Filmmakers Society or Praxis Centre for Screenwriters—did not guarantee access to training. However, Video In [now known as VIVO Media arts Centre] did offer basic production workshops and courses, so there are opportunities for women of colour. I learnt about video by taking a twelve-week course at Video In.
I felt that a real problem (which I heard reiterated at an NFB pilot project in 1990), was that women of colour had a lot of ideas but did not know what to do with them. Developing a proposal for funding is a skill and you need to know how to do that. If we did not know how to apply our knowledge, we were not going to get funding. All of this was basic training, but training on many levels, including access to a certain type of language and to what institutions want. I felt that women of colour had to force their way in and say we need this, and that this was coming more and more to the forefront. So, to reiterate, one of the greatest problems women of colour faced was one of access. Once we had training, access to funding, and had learned how to use the technology, then a sustainable body of work could be produced. And once work was produced, we could actually start talking about what we were producing, its aesthetics and its politics, whether we were just imitating the language of the dominant culture or were being innovative, and in fact developing a new language. Furthermore, other cultures have a very different concept of time and space, which I think can be articulated within the cinema of women of colour.
One of the networking sessions (from left to right) Zainub Verjee, Lorraine Chan, Tracey Moffat, Pratibha Parmar, Dionne Brand, Loretta Todd
THE CROSS-CULTURAL FEMINISM OF IVC
Locating the normative underpinnings of IVC in the history of global feminism challenged many assumptions about Third World feminism. The history of women’s important role in the Afro-Asian solidarity movement is not much known. Let me list three key manifestations of their solidarities: Conference of the Women of Asia, Beijing (1949), Asian-African Conference of Women, Colombo (1958) and Afro-Asian Women’s conference in Cairo (1961). These expressions of solidarities were in tandem with other much assessed historical events of Afro-Asian solidarities, and that it offered an impetus to critical interventions during the anti-imperialist struggles of the decolonization era. These conferences define a
critical departure in the history of international women’s movement, as they allowed the women from colonized countries to fuse their well-established critique of Western feminism, and foster a feminist solidarity in alignment with a third world agenda. Elisabeth Armstrong argues that these conferences offered “a visibility to the active women’s movement in Asia and Africa that refused to be dismissed as developmentally backward in its demands or harnessed without consultation to the Western-dominated feminist agenda.”31 As Beir writes, erasure of such struggles tends to reproduce a historical trajectory of feminism that situates Europe and America as the origin and locus of feminist thought and practice and the global south as passive consumer.”32
IVC marked my presence in the international feminist community, but was not my premiere feminist event. “The project is politically perfect. It is a film and feminist coup for Vancouver, hosting representatives from dozens of nations around the world, holding panels and seminars, screening over 80 films across three venues in the city,” wrote Jeani Read in The Province, November 2, 1989. As suggested by Gagnon, the power of the festival rested in the fact that its organizers could not easily generalize the experience of gendered and racialized bodies: “While the realization of this festival depended precisely on foregrounding the shared experiences of oppression, sexism, and racism lived by a global range of women, what the event and the screened works finally made apparent is how these realities are determined by specific social, economic, political and cultural conditions.”33
In the mid 1980s I came across the work of these three feminist scholars/activists— Chandra Mohanty, Swasti Mitter,34 and Pratibha Parma—which impacted my politics on the issues of feminism. Reading the essay “Under Western Eyes: Feminist Scholarship and Colonial Discourses”35 which underlined “the importance of the particular in relation to the universal—concerns (that) drew attention to the dichotomies embraced and identified with this universalized framework, the critique of ‘white feminism’ by women of colour and the critique of western feminism’ by Third World feminists working within a paradigm of decolonization.” An essay by Valerie Amos and Pratibha Parmar36 reinforced my belief in the trajectory of my activism and praxis; they document that “the growth of the Black Feminist movement in Britain in the last decade has forced the question of the centrality of Black women’s oppression and exploitation onto the political and theoretical agendas.”
Vancouver, from the 1970s onwards, saw Chilean women from the exile community establish themselves in Vancouver. Their activism against the Pinochet dictatorship influenced multiple sites: Simon Fraser University, artist scenes and centres, literary circles, and left movements. Pinochet was the poster boy of the Neoliberal regime! It was not a coincidence that the winning poster for IVC was designed and painted by Nora Patrich. Nora’s poster announced solidarity activities for women. Exiled, Nora formed part of the wave of South Americans that escaped their situation in the 1970s. Finally, having arrived in Vancouver in 1982, she became an important part of the feminist community and Latin American activist. Even today, I can vividly recall the exhibition at WIF in 1987, Mujer, arte y periferia [Women, art and periphery], raising complex questions about the gestures of Chilean women under dictatorship, as well as placement of women’s art.
The high quality of the IVC publicity materials (the poster, brochure and catalogue) seemed to come as a surprise to many. Often, I had to explain that we were fighting assumptions.
So we did want to be really professional, we wanted a really nice catalogue and slick promotion because we were not fresh off the boat. We also wanted to draw in a large audience, so we had to make it appealing, we had to promote it, we had to market it. We wanted as many people as possible to see a large body of work that’s not shown on the big Hollywood screen! We too recognize that Canada has a continuing problem in fighting the hegemonic neighbour and its screens.37
Challenging white Eurocentric and Western discourse and practice, IVC was about non- colonizing feminist solidarity across borders. It brought forth and made visible what was being left out of feminist theorizing, something which Chandra Mohanty articulated as “the material complexity, reality and agency of Third World women’s bodies and lives”.38 It offered a discursive strategy in critiquing the false valency of the universal framework of Western feminism, and its normative imagination of women in the Third World.
Given that 1980s international women’s movement laid the political and epistemological groundwork, there was still a difficult relationship between feminist and conventional international relations, not to mention the imperative of locating gender and women in international relations. This piqued my interest in the study of international relations and the dominant realism school. I wondered: “These are all white men! Where are the women?” The international political dynamics confronted the feminist interested in the issues of culture and identity. Gender analysis was conspicuous by its absence in the emerging international relations literature. In the year of IVC the publication of Cynthia Enloe’s Bananas, Beaches, and the Bases: Making Feminist Sense of International Relations, offered an impetus to this engagement of Feminist International Relations discourse.39 Having been born into the Mau Mau movement in Kenya (1952-60), violent guerrilla insurgency in rebellion against the British rule in colonial Kenya, I witnessed the unfolding of the decolonization process. It was the same time period when a new Afro-Asian solidarity emerged in the form of the Bandung Conference40—a counter to the West, and a non- Western basis for organizing a non-alignment front to counter the Cold War.
In 1989 Francis Fukuyama proclaimed “the end of history”41, referring to the end of the Cold War. The same year saw the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Tiananmen Square protests as part of the 1989 Democracy Movement, and the withdrawal of the Soviet forces from Afghanistan. But for me it is equally significant that 1989 is the year in which IVC marked another iteration into that long arc of history of decolonization, as the moment of the Afro- Asian-Latin American solidarity.
THE UNMAKING OF THE IVC
“Like some other attempts to bring race politics to predominantly white organizations in the 1990s, there was not a happy ending, resulting in a rupture between In Visible Colours and Women in Focus, with both organizations dissolving.”42 By June 1991, Vancouver’s WIF, was tangled in a mesh of legal and ethical battles that threatened its existence, and threatened to deepen division between women of colour and white women. The dispute was the outcome of a complicated mix of financial crisis, racism, organizational and personal exhaustion— and troubled histories.
IVC had raised about half a million Canadian dollars in 1989 and showed a surplus of $50,000 after the conclusion of the Festival. IVC had by then gained legal status as a society in its own right.43 The crisis erupted when IVC accused the Board of Directors of WIF of improperly seizing IVC funds.44 I must point out that towards the end of IVC festival, the board of directors at WIF took a controversial decision to dissolve itself as a society given its dire financial status. However, to do so they they believed that they were legally bound to secure the $50,000 surplus brought in by IVC, in order to act in good faith towards their creditors.
Although the tensions between women of colour organizing IVC and the sponsor WIF, largely a white women-led organization, had been endured since the beginning of the idea of IVC, it was not foreseen that the end would bring us to such a dramatic endpoint in the relationship between these two organizations. “During the Festival planning, there was an ongoing struggle between IVC and WIF,”45 says Yasmin Jiwani of IVC’s original board of directors, referring to a range of problems including sharing space (for instance, IVC worked out of WIF’s offices) and money problems. “These weren’t personalized incidents,” says Jiwani. “But [they] had their prejudices backed by power, and thus racist underpinnings to their acts.” To me, “the actual act of taking the IVC money wasn’t necessarily a racist act— they were desperate. But the way they’ve dealt with us since has been racist.”46
It is unfortunate that the case between IVC and WIF escalated to the heights that it did. Contrary to the statements of specific individuals acting in the capacity of board members of WIF, IVC attempted to negotiate a way out of this situation many times in the period between the initial seizure of the funds by WIF, and the summary trial held on September 9. These attempts at negotiation are documented in IVC records, but were frustrated by the board members of WIF refusing to budge from their position that all funds generated by IVC were in fact “owned” by WIF, and that IVC was a “group of women claiming to represent the festival.”47 The matters went to court. On September 9, 1991, Mr. Justice Preston ruled that in the case between IVC and WIF, IVC be awarded 75 percent and WIF be awarded 25 percent of the profits generated by the festival. Mr. Justice Preston further affirmed that WIF was wrong to have seized the funds and withheld it from IVC, at least as to the 75 percent of it.48
So, what did WIF achieve by pushing this litigation so far? Even the 25 percent that was awarded was used to pay Kim Roberts’ (the lawyer) fees. And why didn’t the WIF board state that they were willing to settle for 25 percent at the outset, and thereby avoided the expense of litigation? On numerous occasions, the IVC board had stated that it was willing to help WIF out of the financial quagmire surrounding it. All that was required was an acknowledgement that the funds painstakingly generated by IVC belonged to In Visible Colours. Needless to say, that acknowledgment never came.
But even after the successful execution of IVC, the initiative was not widely welcomed, and I told Sara Diamond in an interview: “I went to Satellite [Video Exchange Society, now called VIVO Media Arts Centre] and [the men] teased me, “What do you think, should we do a festival for men of colour?” I never responded because I felt this is not my fight, I am talking about the whole country’s [historical narrative].”49
The litigation took an emotional toll on the key members of the board, and the two founding directors. Under legal directives, WIF closed down. Despite the critical and financial success of IVC, litigation really took the wind out of my sails! Such dissipation was not healthy either to the cause or to my future. Along with others, I quit IVC and moved to working on other concomitant issues of cultural trade policy. This marked an end to the Vancouver’s women’s art community era. Though IVC collapsed, my work in media arts distribution and dissemination had not cease: in 1991, I had taken up the position for Executive Director at the Western Front Society, one of the oldest artist-run Centre in Vancouver. More interestingly, IVC emerged as harbinger of set of series of events in the 1990s which addressed the issues of diversity, access, and representation.50
Image of Nancy Pollock reportage on the issue between Women In Focus and In Visible Colours in Kinesis, June 1991, p.5.
What categories of scholarly and political identification have changed since 1989? What has remained the same? These were some of the questions that gave an impetus to my assessment of IVC. What I discovered was:
IVC was made, not found; it was historically produced and was historically productive. Post-war decolonization led to a global societal upheaval. It emerged amid contestations on nation building and the making of a global neoliberal order, as much as the social and political upheavals of the 1970s and 1980s that foregrounded race, gender and the politics of cultural difference.51
The peculiar conditions of the collapse, and it was often the case that events of solidarity ended in collapse, led to the erasure of the history of IVC, despite the impact IVC had on Canadian institutions. NFB’s Studio D began a special program for showcasing the works of women of colour in 1991, and it opened the floodgates of the politics of racial equality discourse in the Canadian art world. From a global perspective, IVC was the first gender- based solidarity event of women of colour that responded to the attempts made in the meetings following the Third World Filmmakers Meeting, sponsored by the national Office of Cinematographic Commerce and Industry (ONCIC), in Algiers in 1973.52 Those meetings established the groundwork for an organization of Third World filmmakers. Despite being a truly Canadian event, the registers of IVC have gone missing from Canadian cultural history. Over decades, in the inter-generational transfer of IVC’s history, the process of forgetting dominated various apparatus of memory. The elision of such struggles, both the one between memory and forgetting, as well as the one between IVC and WIF as a representative site for the contestation of Third World feminism and Western-dominated feminist agenda, produces a particular “historical trajectory of feminism that situates Europe and America as the origin and locus of feminist thought and practice and the global south as passive consumer”.53 As Lynne Fernie, programmer emeritus at Hot Docs observed: “In Visible Colours remains one of the foundational film events in Canada, and its history is critical to our conversations today as we continue to struggle with post-colonial aesthetics, identity politics and power.”54
IVC has etched three defining markers: first, it foregrounded the histories of struggle of the women of colour and third world filmmakers; second, it brought forth the issue of race to the second wave of feminism; and third, it created a new alignment in the emergent global politics of the third cinema. Having established the coherent narrative of IVC, it now becomes possible to open up new lines of inquiries into IVC and its legacy.
All images courtesy of Zainub Verjee.
This essay would not have been possible without the challenging and careful reading, and editorial suggestions that Narendra Pachkhede provided. I thank him for his insights into the Third World Solidarity Movements and Third Cinema.
1 Monika Gagnon, “In Light of Difference – In Visible Colours Film/Video Festival And Symposium,” CineAction no.24/25 (1991).
2 Lee, C., Making a World after Empire: The Bandung Moment and Its Political Afterlives. (Athens: Ohio University Press. 2010).
3 Vijay Prashad, The Darker Nations: A People’s History of the Third World (New York: The New Press, 2007)
4 The 1969 manifesto “Towards a Third Cinema” by Octavio Getino and Fernando Solanas brought forth the political rubric to situate the Latin American political struggles. I must make it clear that there is a distinction between this normative construction of the category of Third Cinema, and film making in the Third World, which has a longer history in some cases going back to the first decade of the 20th Century.
5 Vijay Prashad, “The Third World Idea,” The Nation, Editorial, 4 June 2007 https://www.thenation.com/ article/third-world-idea/
6 See Mariano Mestman, “From Algiers to Buenos Aires – The Third World Cinema Committee (1973-1974)” New Cinemas, Journal of Contemporary Film, Vol. 1, Number 1, London, 2002; p.40-53.
7 For more on this meeting in Montreal in 1974 see Mestman, Mariano, Estados Generales del Tercer Cine. Los Documentos de Montreal, 1974; Rehime número 3 (Cuaderno de la Red de Historia de los Medios- Universidad de Buenos Aires), Buenos Aires, 2013-2014; pp. 18-79.
8 1971-80 marked the second development decade by UN and 1973-82 marked the first UN decade for Action to Combat Racism and Racial Discrimination. These focused activities under the international agencies had a direct impact on the funding of In Visible Colours, which saw overwhelming support by various international organizations as well as national development agencies like CIDA.
9 RBSC-ARC-1586, Vancouver Women in Focus Society fonds, RBSC-ARC-1586, University of British Columbia Library Rare Books and Special Collections, http://rbscarchives.library.ubc.ca/downloads/vancouver-women-in-focus-society-fonds.pdf . Also, see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Women_in_Focus_Society
10 See the interview in Canadian Art Magazine which speaks to my association with the British Black Arts Movement post 1980s Brixton Riots, which shared similar impulses to that in US, responding to the period of Thatcherism. https://canadianart.ca/interviews/in-visible-colours/
12 Catalogue, Third Eye: Struggle for Black and Third World Cinema, 31 October-4 November 1983, National
Film Theatre published by G Published by the GLC Race Equality Unit, 69 pages, 1986.
13 Kobena Mercer, “Third Cinema at Edinburgh,” Screen, Volume 27, Issue 6, November-December 1986,
14 Elfrieda M. Pantoga, “A Festival of One’s Own: 1989 Women in the Director’s Chair,” The Independent Film
& Video Monthly, New York, June 1989; p.26-31. http://independent-magazine.org/
15 RBSC-ARC-1586, Vancouver Women in Focus Society fonds, pp.3-4, RBSC-ARC-1586, University of British Columbia Library Rare Books and Special Collections, http://rbscarchives.library.ubc.ca/downloads/vancouver-women-in-focus-society-fonds.pdf
16 Interview by Sara Diamond July 2015 and quoted in “Sara Diamond (2018), Action Agenda: Vancouver’s Prescient Media Arts, Keynote Address, ISEA 2015.”
17 Yasmin Jiwani, “In Visible Colours: A Critical Perspective,: Catalogue essay, In Visible Colours, Vancouver, 1989, p.11.
18 Lynne Jorgesen, “In Visible Colours: We don’t have to be passive viewers,” Kinesis, October 1989.
19 Monika Kin Gagnon, Other Conundrums: Race, Culture, and Canadian Art, (Vancouver: Arsenal Pulp
Press, 2000), p.56.
20 Terri Hamzaki, “In Visible Colours: International Buffet,” Kinesis, April 1989, p.20.
22 “Sara Diamond (2018), Action Agenda: Vancouver’s Prescient Media Arts, Keynote Address, ISEA 2015.”
23 Zainub Verjee, “Colours of Culture,” Parallelogramme, Vol 17, No.4, 1992 p.42.
24 Kobena Mercer, “Black Art and the Burden of representation,” Third Text 10 (Spring 1990): p.62
25 Interview by Sara Diamond July 2015 and quoted in “Sara Diamond (2018), Action Agenda: Vancouver’s Prescient Media Arts, Keynote Address, ISEA 2015.”
26 Rosemary Heather, “In Visible Colours, a feature Interview with Zainub Verjee,” Canadian Art, 25 September 25 2017, https://canadianart.ca/interviews/in-visible-colours/
27 Artforum, “The artist and politics: a symposium,” vol. IX, no.1, 1970, p.35.
28 Benjamin H.D.Buchloh, Serge Guibaut and David Solkin (ed), Modernism and Modernity: The Vancouver
Conference Papers, (1983), (NSCAD University Press 2004).
29 I have elaborated on these normative attempts by Paul Gilroy and Kobena Mercer in my essay “Colours of
Culture,” Parallelogramme Vol.17, No.4, 1992, pp.38-46.
30 Paul Gilroy, “Cruciality and the Frog’s Perspective—An Agenda of Difficulties for the Black Arts Movement In Britain,” in Third Text 31 Elisabeth Armstrong, “Before Bandung: The Anti-Imperialist Women’s Movement in Asia and the Women’s International Democratic Federation,” Signs, 2016, vol. 41, no.2, Chicago, p.306.
32 Laura Bier, Revolutionary Womanhood: Feminisms, Modernity, and the State in Nasser’s Egypt. (Stanford, CA: Stanford Press), p.161.
33 Monika Kin Gagnon, Other Conundrums: Race, Culture, and Canadian Art, (Vancouver: Arsenal Pulp Press, 2000) p.58.
34 A feminist scholar based in Brighton, UK who worked in the area of gender, technology and development.
35 Chandra T. Mohanty, “Under Western Eyes: Feminist Scholarship and Colonial Discourses,” boundary 2, Vol. 12, No.3, “On Humanism and the University 1: The Discourses of Humanism.” (Spring-Autumn, 1984), pp.333-358
36 Valerie Amos and Pratibha Parmar, “Challenging Imperial Feminism,” Feminist Review, No.17 Many Voices, One Chant: Black Feminist Perspectives. (Autumn, 1984), pp.3-19.
37 Feature Interview by John Cole, 1992, unpublished.
38 Chandra T. Mohanty, “Under Western Eyes” Revisited: Feminist Solidarity through Anticapitalist Struggles.
Signs, 28(2), 499-535, p.510.
39 At Simon Fraser University, towards the end of 1970s, I came across that famous book by Hedley Bull, The
Anarchical Society– A Study of Order in World Politics.
40 C. Lee, Making a World after Empire: The Bandung Moment and Its Political Afterlives. (Athens: Ohio
University Press. 2010).
41 Francis Fukuyama, “The End of History?” The National Interest, No.16 (summer 1989), Center for the National Interest, pp.3-18.
42 “Sara Diamond (2018), Action Agenda: Vancouver’s Prescient Media Arts, Keynote Address, ISEA 2015.”
44 For more detailed reportage please see Nancy Pollak, “Women in Focus, In Visible Colours – Visibly far out of focus,” Kinesis, June 1991, p.5.
48 IVC Statement in Kinesis, Nov 91, p.19.
50 Monika Kin Gagnon, Other Conundrums: Race, Culture, and Canadian Art, (Vancouver: Arsenal Pulp Press, 2000), pp. 56-60.
51 Rosemary Heather, “In Visible Colours, a feature Interview with Zainub Verjee,” Canadian Art, 25 September 2017 https://canadianart.ca/interviews/in-visible-colours/
52 Kay Dickinson, “Cinematic Third Worldism: “Resolutions of the Third World Filmmakers Meeting” (Algeria 1973),” Arab Film and Video Manifestos: Forty-Five Years of the Moving Image Amid Revolution, (Springer, 2018), p.48-80.
53 Laura Bier, Revolutionary Womanhood: Feminisms, Modernity, and the State in Nasser’s Egypt. (Stanford, CA: Stanford Press), p.162.
54 Ismailimail, New Canadian Film Records the Work of Zainub Verjee, https://ismailimail.blog/2019/07/02/new-canadian-film-records-the-work-of-zainub-verjee/ (Accessed 2 July 2019).