Bringing more diverse voices to the social justice conversation

What we can learn from South Asian Canadian artists

Tazeen Qayyum, A Holding Pattern, 2013, site-specific, mixed media installation at the Toronto Pearson International Airport.

Photo: ©Faisal Anwar

Writers and filmmakers of South Asian background have made great contributions to Canadian arts and culture for decades. Yet while several are well known to Canadians and have won major national and international awards—Deepa Mehta, Rohinton Mistry, Michael Ondaatje and M G Vassanji, for example—many others who do not work in either English or French are often overlooked.

Asma Sayed, Canada Research Chair in South Asian Literary and Cultural Studies at Kwantlen Polytechnic University in British Columbia, is working to change that. Through her research, she wants to raise the profile of these artists, including visual artists, and make their works more accessible so more Canadians can learn from them, particularly on social justice issues, which benefit from a diversity of voices and perspectives.

“Literature and visual art can be tools for advancing justice in our society,” she says. “They offer us a window into understanding the world that we inhabit.”

An underexamined area of the arts in Canada

Panchal Mansaram, India Movie Poster at Bombay Bus Stand 1976-1983, gelatin silver print. Gift of the artist.

Courtesy of the Royal Ontario Museum, ©ROM.

When Sayed first moved to Canada more than two decades ago, she found that not much attention was given to artists of South Asian heritage, with only a select few who were producing works in Canada’s official languages being discussed in academic and literary settings. Yet, she knew there was a much wider pool of South Asian Canadian writers and filmmakers who had been contributing to the country’s cultural scene for well over a century. But, because their works were produced in languages such as Punjabi, Urdu, Hindi or Gujarati, or were published in small community newspapers and magazines in Canada or overseas, most had not been translated or made available to the wider Canadian population.

Sayed believes these artists have important messages and stories to tell, especially on issues such as refugeeism, intergenerational trauma, and domestic and sexual violence—and their work deserves to be studied more broadly.

Shifting the discussion

Sayed is raising the profile of these artists through three distinct projects. First, she will be taking on the monumental task of ensuring their works are translated into English—in some cases, doing the translations herself—to create a published anthology. She is also conducting a narrative analysis of selected works, starting with a group of six to eight women authors, to explore what they are saying about issues of violence and migration and how their work may contribute to activism or social change.

In addition, Sayed is creating a digital database that will not only list South Asian Canadian artists and their works created between 1910 and 2010, but also profile some of them through interviews in which they share their personal stories and reflections on their art.

Panchal Mansaram, Image India #63, 1994, paper, ink. Gift of the artist.

Courtesy of the Royal Ontario Museum, ©ROM.

“When I contact authors who write in non-official languages, they’re often surprised and excited that someone is interested in their work,” Sayed says. “It will be interesting to see how making these works accessible will shift the discussions in Canadian cultural and academic scenes.”

She has completed the profiles of roughly 50 writers and artists so far (including some who do work in English but may be not as well known, such as Jenna Butler, Farzana Doctor, Oliver Husain and Tazeen Qayyum) and hopes to have the database online by early 2023. Sayed plans to expand the database, eventually, to include information on as many as 500 South Asian Canadian writers, filmmakers and visual artists.

Art for social justice

Sayed believes the online database will help educators in various fields, such as literature, film or gender studies, shine a greater spotlight on South Asian Canadian artists. It will also help make these works more accessible to the public. She adds that the creative contributions of South Asian artists in Canada are integral to understanding this country’s literary and social cultural history—and that their work can be important “tools of resistance” in addressing global issues of social justice.

“The stories and art by South Asian artists showcase issues of displacement, violence, racism, sexism, colonization and ableism,” she says. “By analyzing their work, I aim to explore what role art can play in raising awareness of injustices and in fostering a just and equitable Canadian society.”

Want to learn more?

To learn more about Asma Sayed’s work, follow @DrAsmaSayed on Twitter or read her interview in The Runner.