July 18, 2019

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Art critic grapples with Canadian colonialism

Amy Fung’s debut collection of creative non-fiction, Before I Was a Critic I Was a Human Being, is ambitious and deeply challenging. Rooted in her experience as a first-generation immigrant to Canada from Hong Kong, her travels in Canada and abroad, as well as her experiences as an art critic, the essays in Fung’s collection take on the myth of genteel multiculturalism, so central to the Canadian settler-colonial identity.

From the start, Fung sets herself a daunting project: “I wanted to find the history and present-day relationship of racialized people to Indigenous nations, but I have found only the controlling hand of colonialism as the central spectre in every narrative I came across.”

Colonialism, she demonstrates in the essays that follow, is not merely an inevitability, not only an anonymous system that has passed into distant history. Rather, it is perpetuated in a series of actions and attitudes from an anonymous middle-aged white man from Manitoba who “wanted to know if Mi’kmaq people had existed for so long, then why hadn’t he heard of them” to the to the white-saviour narrative that she observes in the response to the suicide crises among Indigenous youth: “Intergenerational guilt and shame co-mingling with continual invisible entitlement rendering an impotent desire to right to white all that has been passed.”

In this frame, the myth of multiculturalism is a convenient fiction, used to assuage white people’s consciences. In this collection, Fung does not leave us that particular alibi for the harms we cause, whether inadvertently or belligerently.

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Amy Fung’s debut collection of creative non-fiction, Before I Was a Critic I Was a Human Being, is ambitious and deeply challenging. Rooted in her experience as a first-generation immigrant to Canada from Hong Kong, her travels in Canada and abroad, as well as her experiences as an art critic, the essays in Fung’s collection take on the myth of genteel multiculturalism, so central to the Canadian settler-colonial identity.

From the start, Fung sets herself a daunting project: "I wanted to find the history and present-day relationship of racialized people to Indigenous nations, but I have found only the controlling hand of colonialism as the central spectre in every narrative I came across."

Colonialism, she demonstrates in the essays that follow, is not merely an inevitability, not only an anonymous system that has passed into distant history. Rather, it is perpetuated in a series of actions and attitudes from an anonymous middle-aged white man from Manitoba who "wanted to know if Mi’kmaq people had existed for so long, then why hadn’t he heard of them" to the to the white-saviour narrative that she observes in the response to the suicide crises among Indigenous youth: "Intergenerational guilt and shame co-mingling with continual invisible entitlement rendering an impotent desire to right to white all that has been passed."

In this frame, the myth of multiculturalism is a convenient fiction, used to assuage white people’s consciences. In this collection, Fung does not leave us that particular alibi for the harms we cause, whether inadvertently or belligerently.

Those manifestations of white settler colonialism are, to varying degrees, easy to criticize. Fung is equally exacting when she examines her own complicity. Among the most effective threads that weave in and out of all these essays is her own struggle against the assimilation that she embraced early in her life.

The essays in the collection each wrestle with the various ways in which, "(f)rom simply trying to fit in as the new kid in what was always a majority-white student body, to the structures of whiteness, including academia, corporate culture, and non-profit culture, I have always had to choose between naming myself within the silo of diversity or having the privilege of s(l)iding into whiteness as default."

The whiteness of the Canadian art and non-profit scenes is all the more pernicious for its inadequate gestures toward diversity.

Early in the book, Fung recalls going to see the Face the Nation exhibit at the Art Gallery of Alberta, where she saw an Indigenous man turned away from seeing that same exhibit.

She observes that this was a space that "could cover its walls with images of contemporary Indigenous perspectives, but exclude their physical bodies from entering and experiencing" those images.

In its totality, Before I Was a Critic I Was a Human Being functions as a challenge to white settlers and to other immigrants to really consider the land acknowledgments that are offered by our institutions and at our events.

Melanie Brannagan Frederiksen is a Winnipeg writer and critic.

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