With new exhibit Montreal artist Karen Tam conjures the city’s historic Chinatown
Montreal artist Karen Tam has mounted an exhibition at the McCord Stewart Museum entitled Swallowing Mountains. Drawing on the McCord’s archives as well as donations from the community, it features photographs and documents from the city’s historic Chinatown as well as Tam’s own creations inspired by traditional Chinese art forms such as shadow puppets and western Chinoiserie. The Globe and Mail spoke with Tam about the exhibit.
Tell me how your family came to Canada.
The first person to come was my great-grandfather on my dad’s side in 1907. He came to find work: You could make more money in two months in Canada than you would in two to three years in China. He went back twice to China, first to get married, the second time for my grandfather’s birth, but after my grandfather was born, he never went back. He was based in Montreal and separated from the family from 1923 until my grandparents and my dad and his siblings came in 1967. The family was reunited then.
So, your great-grandmother, his wife, always remained in China. You describe the Chinese immigrant community in Montreal as a bachelor society. Why?
Because of the disproportionate number of men in the first waves of Chinese immigration; migrants came to work for the gold rush and then for the construction of the railway. Once the railway was completed in 1885, the government imposed a head tax.
It went up to $500 by the early 1900s. It was exorbitant, only the wealthy could afford to bring their wives or their children.
And those are your great-grandfather’s real head tax documents in the show?
I believe it was a replacement for the original that he lost. But yes, he had paid the head tax.
How did you find it?
When I was in high school, it was a history class assignment to find something related to Canadian history. I just started asking my family and asking my grandfather. He produced it and eventually he let me have the document because I was the only grandchild who was interested in these things.
Where did you find the other people’s documents?
The other ones were lent to me. The other gentleman is the father-in-law of a friend of my mom. And the third certificate I find absolutely fascinating: It’s very rare because it’s a head tax for a woman. She came in August, 1923. So, the Chinese Exclusion Act that banned virtually all forms of Chinese immigration was passed July 1, 1923. She was probably one of the last Chinese immigrants that were allowed into the country. It’s actually the certificate of the grandmother of a museum member who read about my project and got in touch.
And the portraits, those are your great-grandparents? That’s the man who came to Canada?
Yes. They are ancestral portraits that were hung in the family home in China, in a village now on the outskirts of the city of Taishan.
It hung there until 2004 when my dad finally sold the restaurant and had his first vacation. (It was called Restaurant aux septs bonheurs, it was a typical chop suey kind of restaurant in the east end just behind the botanical gardens. He ran it from 1976 to 2004.) So, we went back to China with my mom to the village and we saw it and we thought we should bring this back home.
First there was this head tax and then a period of complete exclusion that coincided with the revolution in China. The later documents you found are the citizenship papers for the generation in the 1960s. Did it isolate the community in Montreal, the lack of new members?
Well, it’s definitely small, but I think that the community here was very much in contact with Chinatown communities across the country and in the States too. When I talked to some of the lenders of the photographs and other materials, they all knew each other, they all grew up together.
Was it different from the Chinatown in Toronto or Vancouver?
There are very similar experiences, but the Chinatowns in Vancouver and Victoria are much older and more established. Everything that we’re experiencing now in Montreal, such as gentrification and real estate development, it’s a little behind what Toronto or Vancouver have experienced. Another thing that’s unique is that it’s a minority within a minority, factoring in the French language. In the photos that I borrowed, you’ll see the Saint-Jean-Baptiste celebrations in Chinatown. It’s one example of a kind of hybridization.
You straddle curation and making your own art. How did that come about?
It comes out of my own installation practice. The first exhibition I did, With wings like clouds hung from the sky, in 2017 at the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria, I didn’t really see as curating. I looked at the Chinese immigrant artist named Lee Nam who worked in the 1930s in Victoria’s Chinatown. We only know about him through the journals of Emily Carr.
I wanted to talk about what is Canadian art history and Chinese art history and who gets to be included. There are ink-brush art communities that are really vibrant, but they have their own networks different from the contemporary western-based art ecosystem. I wanted to parallel some of the experiences of those ink brush painters now with Lee Nam. I started inviting local community artists to show their works next to Emily Carr paintings and Chinese masters. Kind of putting everyone on this equal standing. That’s where the curatorial aspects started creeping in.
At the McCord, you’ve placed some of your own work in alcoves around the gallery, as though they were mini storefronts. Tell me about the installation.
I love playing with architectural features of a given space; that gallery space has these four alcoves or niches. I was thinking about Chinese diaspora spaces, and thinking about how in the ‘70s and ‘80s the government expropriated acres of land from Chinatown to build the Montreal Convention Centre and the Complexe Guy-Favreau. This is something that occurred in other Chinatowns too: The first Chinatown in Toronto was razed to construct Nathan Phillips Square. In Vancouver, parts of Chinatown were torn down for the Georgia Viaduct. So, I was thinking that this exhibition, even though it’s temporary, could be one way of reclaiming that diaspora space.
Swallowing Mountains continues at the McCord-Stewart Museum in Montreal to August 13.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
N.S. government got duped buying 3 Maud Lewis paintings. Here's how they learned the truth – CBC.ca
Months before the Nova Scotia government received confirmation that three Maud Lewis paintings it owned were fakes and admitted it publicly, the province had good reason to believe they were not painted by the famous Nova Scotia folk artist.
“These do look like fakes,” an official with the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia wrote in an email to an official with Arts Nova Scotia, the organization that oversees the Nova Scotia Art Bank.
That program has purchased 2,400 works by Nova Scotia artists since its inception in the mid-1970s, including what it believed to be three Lewis paintings.
These paintings were purchased from the Herring Gull Gallery in Chester, N.S., in 1982, for $300 each, which was below the market rate of $500.
The province became aware the paintings might be fake last September because of CBC News.
The broadcaster had learned of the potential forgeries while doing research for a Lewis story. The potential fakes included two hanging in the premier’s office.
CBC requested to view the paintings in the company of an art expert, but the province declined. That expert, Alan Deacon, would later be part of the process that determined three paintings the province owns were “not by the hand of Maud Lewis,” whose works sell for as much as $350,000 today.
While the province received official word in January 2023 the three paintings were fake, an Art Gallery of Nova Scotia official wrote in September 2022 that she thought they were forgeries.
“I speculate that they’re possibly done by [name redacted] they’re not bad and in person it would be easier to tell based on the paint and brushstrokes, as they are clearly derived from specific Maud paintings,” Shannon Parker, the Laufer Curator of Collections with the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, wrote in a Sept. 12, 2022, email to an official from the Nova Scotia Art Bank.
In a separate email from the same day, Parker saw the paintings as a teaching tool.
“If nothing else, they’re still quite charming and if they’re fakes, they’re a great educational tool,” Shannon Parker wrote in another email to Lauren Williams.
CBC News obtained the emails through an access-to-information request to find out more about what the province knew about the potential fakes.
When the CBC story published on Oct. 21, 2022, the article noted there were concerns around the authenticity of the Lewis paintings.
While the authenticity evaluation hadn’t taken place, Williams seemed resigned to the fact they were fake.
“It’s going to be so expensive to replace these with real ones!” she wrote in an email to Briony Carros and Christopher Shore, who both worked for Arts Nova Scotia, the organization that oversees the art bank program.
Paintings were taken for authentication in December
A Dec. 14, 2022, email from Williams to Parker with the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, said the paintings were dropped off to Zwicker’s Gallery earlier in the week for authentication.
The Halifax gallery charged $175 per painting for the authentication. With taxes, the total came to $603.75 — roughly two-thirds the amount the province originally paid for the fakes.
One day before the province received official confirmation on Jan. 6, 2023, of the forgeries, CBC News learned the results of the examination and contacted the province for comment.
Officials weren’t impressed.
“It’s so unprofessional for Alan Deacon to reach out to the reporter. We haven’t even received report back from Ian Muncaster at Zwickers, but I assume he reached out to Alan for an opinion,” said an email from Carros to Shore.
When the province received the findings on Jan. 6, 2023, the owner of Zwicker’s Gallery, Muncaster, noted Deacon was consulted as part of the authentication process.
New fakes may be coming from Hungary
“While they are plausible images, they do not bear the features that one looks for in authentic paintings by Maud Lewis,” Muncaster wrote.
“As you are probably aware, there has been a forger of Maud Lewis’s work who has been working since shortly after her death in the summer of 1970. We estimate that he has produced somewhere in the order of 1,500 forgeries, which have been distributed over the years, mostly through auction houses in many parts of Canada.
It is interesting to note that recently several very good forgeries of Maud Lewis paintings have turned up in the United States, that we believe are being produced in Hungary.”
In a Jan. 9, 2023, email to CBC Radio’s Information Morning, the province declined an interview to discuss the fakes. Instead, it sent along a statement, noting the paintings “were deemed likely not to have been painted by Maud Lewis” and have been removed from circulation.
You can visit Toronto’s best contemporary art museum for free every month
The beauty of living in Toronto is that it grants you multiple opportunities to visit its major art galleries for the low, low price of FREE.
The Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) Toronto offers free admission on Fridays at 5-9 p.m. and on the first Sunday of every month.
You can spend an evening at the art exhibitions like Remediation by Kapwani Kiwanga, or an outdoor augmented reality experince Seeing the Invisible.
Until the end of April, MOCA has Susan For Susan’s piece Trade Show and Athena Papadopoulsos’ The New Alphabet.
One fascinating and immersive installation is ni4ni (v.3) by Serkin Özkaya, which uses reflections to turn a human-sized sphere into an eyeball, and projections to to the same on the entire surrounding walls.
Visit MOCA.ca to book your tickets in advance.
The Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) also offers select free evenings to its collections. Every Wednesday from 6 to 9 p.m. you can visit for free.
AGO’s current exhibition Leonard Cohen: Everybody Knows is on now and only until Apr. 10.
Until June 11, you can view the collection You Look Beautiful Like That: Studio Photography in West and Central Africa.
General admission tickets are released on Mondays at 10 a.m. for only the following Wednesday night. You need a valid email address to book up to four tickets for the select evening. Get your free AGO tickets on their website.
Colour Crusader: How the ‘Robin Hood’ of the art world is liberating colour for everyone
Stepping into Stuart Semple’s world is like entering a Willy Wonka-esque fantasyland. Only instead of chocolate and candy, everywhere you look there are bags of bright powdered paint pigments, colour-mixing machines, paint-spattered canvases, sculptures, brushes and of course, brightly coloured bottles of paint.
The man himself bustles around with a giddy sort of energy, clad in furry animal slippers, with long hair and perpetually paint-stained fingers, a visual reminder of his love affair with colour.
“I would explain colour as something that can change our emotions and our state and way of being as we interact with that. And it is a way, really, of feeling the world inside us visually.”
To see him, you’d never think Semple is anything other than a creative type. You certainly wouldn’t peg him as a political crusader. But when someone threatens what he sees as a universal right to artistic self-expression, a different picture emerges.
Sitting in his studio on England’s south coast, Semple is looking at a popup message on his computer screen, brow furrowed.
“Some Pantone colours may no longer be available due to changes in Pantone’s licensing with Adobe.”
In November, creators saw a similar message pop up in their Adobe software, meaning colours they’d previously been able to access were no longer available. Adobe is the industry standard for digital artists all over the world, and Pantone supplies many of the digital colour palettes.
Semple immediately saw red.
“I couldn’t believe it,” he says. “I think they’re (Pantone) just trying to milk the creators that use their tools for more money.”
Pantone’s palettes are the international language of colour. The company’s colour coding system is nearly universally used to match shades and allow printers to accurately reproduce computerized artwork across the globe. But all of a sudden, many of the colours artists rely on were jailed behind an additional paywall.
“I think that there’s a difference between being a business and being commercially minded and paying your staff and keeping the lights on, to actually just seeing how much you can squeeze out of people, and it feels like that’s what they’re doing.”
Semple’s reverence for colour and art goes back to his childhood. He grew up in a modest, working-class family. A high achiever in school, he was destined for a high-paying career as a doctor or lawyer. But a trip to the National Gallery in London when he was eight years old lit a creative fire.
“I came in contact with Van Gogh’s Sunflowers and it made a huge impact on my whole life and it sort of burned into my head,” he says.
“And my mum said I was in a state of almost awe, like I was shaking in front of this thing.”
The young Semple got home and immediately started creating. He couldn’t afford professional paints, so he made them himself with household materials.
“We didn’t have art materials. I mean, that was a luxury. So I started, like most kids do, going into the kitchen and mixing food colouring with, you know, beetroot and cooking oil and making these colours and slapping them on things.”
Today, Semple is a successful artist, and he hasn’t lost his passion for producing pigment. He still makes his own shades of paint. Mixing up an extremely bright shade of pink — he calls it the Pinkest Pink — the childlike wonder is still there.
“Aww! There’s something so satisfying about it,” he giggles, dumping in the powdered paint pigment and watching it swirl around the mixer.
He knows the science, obsessing over details to make his paints pop.
“By using resins that can hold a lot of ingredients, you can put a lot more ingredients in, which means you can actually put more pigment in,” he says. “And it’s all to do with the shape of the pigment because a spherical shape will reflect light in a very direct angle from one small bit of surface area, whereas a flatter pigment will do the opposite.”
But there’s something much larger at play here. What makes Semple’s studio truly special is the philosophy behind the operation. Art is an expensive endeavour, often only open to the wealthy. Semple’s own experience is one factor that drives him to help make art affordable to both patrons and creators. He makes high-quality paints he sells at reasonable prices.
“So it’s more than, how do I make money? It’s actually more, how do I make art accessible and give people, you know, the chance to interact with it?”
That’s just one part of the operation. Semple employs 20 people, all of whom are artists. He gives them free access to materials, studio space, tools and mentorship to support them to create their own works of art. Semple also founded the “Giant” art gallery in his hometown of Bournemouth, which offers free admission, and the online VOMA gallery (Virtual Online Museum of Art). Just as he believes art should be for everyone, he says that the colours all around us should be free to enjoy and inspire creativity.
That’s what made him so mad about Adobe and Pantone restricting access to colours that had been free for years.
“We all consume colour all day long, so we’re all invested in it,” Semple says. “So it actually does really, really matter. And as these corporations get big and become mega-corporations, the idea that we have a culture that is being dominated by the richest and most powerful and they can actually control the colours that we see is outrageous.”
Across the Atlantic ocean in Toronto, graphic artist Daryl Woods got the same message Adobe users everywhere were seeing: if he wanted access to the same range of Pantone colours he’d had for years, he’d have to pay extra, over and above the $80 per month he already pays for his Adobe software subscription.
“I think this is pretty much a cash grab by Pantone. This is something that’s been available for probably a couple of decades at least,” Woods says.
Woods has a graphic design business, creating art for advertisements and for packaging on brands, like wine labels. And he says most digital artists rely on Adobe software and Pantone’s colour palettes.
“I can’t do my work without the Adobe products. They are just part of my everyday life. And I think that pretty much goes for anybody who works in visual communication.”
Semple decided to do something about the new fee. In just a few hours, he created a software plug-in for Adobe that had colour palettes that he describes as “indistinguishable” from Pantone’s. He calls his “Sempletones.”
“One of the things that people don’t know is that I learned how to program a computer when I was eight,” he says casually. “So coding and computers are a huge part of my life. And yeah, I can do things like that.”
So why did he do it?
“I hate the idea that art or colour or materials are sort of gate-kept, in any way, shape or form,” Semple says. “I really think it’s important that people have that permission to kind of do their thing with the stuff they need to do it.”
Woods was impressed Semple was able to come up with a workaround so quickly. “I was very surprised at how easy it was to work with how complete it was. It’s no different than when I used Pantone colours.”
Global News reached out to Adobe and Pantone for comment. Adobe responded that it was Pantone’s decision to charge an additional fee to access its complete range of colours, and that “the Adobe team continues to find ways to lessen the impact on our customers.”
Pantone did not directly address the question of who was responsible for pulling some of its colour palettes, but the company is now selling a separate plug-in with the missing colours directly on its website at a cost of $19.99 per month or $119.99 per year.
For Semple, the Adobe-Pantone affair was just the latest battle in a long-running colour crusade.
In 2016, he got into a very public feud with Anish Kapoor. He’s the British artist perhaps best known for “Cloud Gate,” sometimes better known as “The Bean,” a public art installation at Chicago’s Millennium Park.
In 2016, Kapoor bought the exclusive artistic rights to Vantablack, a material then known as the world’s blackest black. Vantablack absorbs 99.965 per cent of visible light, creating the impression of complete dark, flatness.
Semple criticized Kapoor for keeping the material for himself, and in response, decided to sell a special shade he made called “The Pinkest Pink.” He made it available for purchase on his website, with one caveat: “By adding this product to your cart you confirm that you are not Anish Kapoor, you are in no way affiliated to Anish Kapoor, you are not purchasing this item on behalf of Anish Kapoor or an associate of Anish Kapoor. To the best of your knowledge, information and belief this paint will not make its way into the hands of Anish Kapoor.”
Semple’s efforts to keep colour accessible during the Adobe/Pantone episode, as well as his response to Kapoor’s attempts to keep Vantablack for himself, have earned him comparisons to Robin Hood.
“People say that. It’s a weird thing,” Semple says self-consciously, before adding: “Maybe it’s just a weird, geeky thing that only I’m interested in, which is why no one’s doing it. But I really enjoy doing it. It’s something I love to do.”
Kapoor’s response was, perhaps, a little less than collegial. He posted a simple, terse retort on his Instagram, a middle finger, dipped in Semple’s pink paint.
But that episode wasn’t just a petty slap fight between two rivals within the narrow confines of the art world. Just as charging Adobe users extra to access some of Pantone’s range of colours wasn’t just a small extra charge. It’s all part of a larger trend to commodify colour.
In 2019, Canada’s trademark laws were updated to allow businesses to trademark colours closely associated with their brands. Tiffany & Co, the jeweller known for its iconic robin’s egg blue box, is often cited as an example.
“So historically, you could claim a Tiffany blue box,” says Toronto intellectual property lawyer Sebastian Beck-Watt. “So you would say the colour blue, as applied to the surface of a box. And then you would say, I’m claiming this trademark in association with jewellery, for example.”
But in 2019, Canada followed other countries and updated its trademark law, allowing brands to trademark colour “per se.” That allows businesses to trademark shades associated with their brand across a more general range of products and services they offer, and stop industry competitors from using similar hues.
TD Bank has applied for the trademark for the green colour associated with its brand, Pantone 361. TD lists a range of products and services, and nobody knows how far companies might go to protect a colour trademark. But we have a hint from other countries.
In 2019, the parent company of mobile giant T-Mobile sued Lemonade, a small insurance company which had just launched in Germany. The parent company, Deutsche Telekom, claimed Lemonade used a shade of pink that was too close to its familiar magenta, or Pantone Rhodamine Red U, and that its trademark over similar shades extended to Lemonade’s insurance business. European countries have allowed businesses to trademark colours before Canada, and Lemonade was forced to remove the pink from its branding in Germany.
In 2020, however, Lemonade won a court challenge in France, when a court ruled “there is no evidence of genuine use of this mark for the contested services.” But the case provides a cautionary tale, because it shows large corporations can drag smaller parties through costly court proceedings, even when they don’t have a valid claim.
It is also illustrative of the subjectivity of colour. How will courts determine when two shades of the same colour are too close to tell the difference? Beck-Watt says there’s no way of knowing how far it will go until the laws are tested in court.
“Something like colour might be an instance where you take a survey of the public and see how close they think these are.”
Determining matters of law so subjectively raises another issue: people’s brains do not process colour in the same way.
“I’m colour blind,” Semple says, without a hint of irony.
“Yeah, actually. Colour blind. Blue and purple. Which is a rare one.”
In spite of his inability to distinguish between some colours, Semple is fearless in his opposition to any attempt to control and restrict them. Tiffany has had a trademark for Pantone 1837 in the US since 1998. Semple responded by creating “Tiff,” a very similar shade of blue.
It all makes his lawyers nervous.
“They always say the same thing, which is that what I’m doing is risky. And I should be aware of that, you know.” But he has no intention of stopping
It could be called a principled stand, or perhaps brazen, almost reckless. But for Semple, it’s worth it. Art, he says, saved his life when he was in his late teens, when a sandwich triggered a severe allergic reaction and landed him in hospital.
“I kind of died for a few seconds, in the middle of the night. And I said goodbye to my mom and my sister, and my nana had been in. My whole body went into hives and I completely flatlined and kind of died for a bit. And then I came back and everything was different after.”
Art, he says, became a way of coping with the reality that everything could be taken away at any moment.
“It changed everything. So the first thing that happened, which is a bit of a cliche and a bit weird to say, is that I decided I wanted to be an artist. I was like, ‘If I live, I’m going to make art every day, all day.’”
That’s a big reason why Semple is so steadfast in his efforts to stop anyone from trying to “own” or restrict colours.
“No one can own colour,” he says pointedly. “Colour exists. It’s just a phenomenon of nature. How can you own an experience that your eyes have when they see something?”
N.S. government got duped buying 3 Maud Lewis paintings. Here's how they learned the truth – CBC.ca
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