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Ways of caring

AGOinsider recently sat down with artist Zun Lee to get a deeper understanding of the ideas behind his highly anticipated roundtable conversation, Ways of Caring.  

Unknown photographer, [Looking at Polaroids]

Unknown photographer, [Looking at Polaroids], around 1970s. Colour instant print (Polaroid SX-70), 10.8 x 8.8 cm. Purchase, with funds donated by Martha LA McCain, 2018. © Art Gallery of Ontario 2018/1113

In 2018, the AGO acquired the Fade Resistance collection, an extraordinary group of Polaroids documenting African American family life from the 1970s to the early 2000s, assembled by award-winning Canadian photographer, physician and educator Zun Lee.

As a lead up to the 2021 opening of the exhibition Fade Resistance, Lee will lead a roundtable conversation in Baillie Court this December entitled Ways of Caring with Dr. Fred Moten and Dr. Stefano Harney, among others. This will be the first of three events in a multi-year initiative to activate the Fade Resistance collection and give the community more insight into its photographs.

In anticipation of his talk, we sat down with Zun Lee to discuss some of the topics he’ll delve into during his conversation.

AGO: Can you give some insight about why the phrase Ways of Caring was chosen as the title of the roundtable, and what it means to you?

Lee:  In a nutshell, I’d like for us to think through how we might afford more attention and intention to the ways we engage with everyday images, particularly in this moment of rapid digital consumption. How can we understand the role these images play, not only in the visual representation of Blackness, but in how white supremacy continues to structure Black lives? Beyond looking, there are many personal and communal ways of interacting with images that may help us identify greater possibilities for agency regarding our own representation.

AGO: Why is it important for communities to document their own narratives? 

Lee:  Black visual (self-) representation has always had a political context. Since its inception, photographic technology has been used to dehumanize and surveil Black bodies. At the same time, Black communities have used the same technology to document and create genuine stories that do not center outsiders. For me, this collection is a testament to such homegrown practices of resistance which I place alongside many other past and contemporary visual strategies to control Black narratives.

 AGO: What does it mean for large art institutions to exhibit the stories of communities that have been historically underrepresented?

Lee: Many art institutions continue to grapple with their historic position as colonial enterprises and Toronto’s arts and culture landscape is no exception to this. Institutions have ample opportunity to “care” by better engaging underrepresented artists and communities in creating tangible social change, beyond holding space for meaningful dialogue, and beyond the notion of fulfilling a token “diversity mandate”. However, I also believe that underrepresented communities cannot wait for institutions to fully embrace their role as change agents. The decolonial work toward an equitable arts and culture community (and society as a whole) must continue to be generated by marginalized people.

AGO: What are some insights you hope people will gain from this December’s roundtable talk between you, Fred Moten and Sefano Harney?

Lee: I regard this event as akin to an intimate gathering of friends. Beyond the intellectual stimulation, I hope we can share personal perspectives and that the roundtable talk itself will turn out to be an act of care which will inspire the audience to think through “ways of caring” in relation to their own lives and representation.

Ways of Caring takes place on Wednesday, December 18 in Baillie Court. Tickets to this free event are available now on the AGO website

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