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A cat hates Mondays; a large dog causes large dog problems; kids say darned things. Comic strips have rarely been funny for those outside the ages of 9, 10, or 71, and even more rarely do they come with something to say. But Toronto art pranksters Life of a Craphead, the duo consisting of Amy Lam and Jon McCurley, whose past work includes a faux 50-year retrospective at the Art Gallery of Ontario and the live performance art TV show Doored , have used the unassuming medium to tackle more pressing subject matter with their comical touch.
Influenced by the casual and abhorrent racism they witnessed at artist residencies and lectures around the world, they've memorialized their experiences within the seemingly banal doodles and frames of their poster-sized comic strips. We got caught the artists on the phone while on tour in New Brunswick to discuss institutionalized racism in art, their encounters with it, and using a format as unremarkable as a comic strip to showcase it.
So talk to me about the initial concept for the comic.
Amy Lam: Both of them are based on our real life experience and the idea of putting these experiences in a comic format. What we thought is unique about the comic format is they're pointing at things that aren't even that funny or even that remarkable. It's not really anything anyone might notice, but in our experience, in each of those instances, it felt important. So the posters are sort of memorializing that, trying to do it in a way that's a little bit funny. And the magnets that we made are cute, but not really for cute situations.
How did you discover that these artist residencies and institutions actually support and reinforce the hierarchical concentration of power and specifically white privilege in arts?
Jon McCurley: In the first comic—the one with the university professors—that actually happened two times in one week. Both of these comments were made by people who teach in universities or colleges in the states. These comments were kind of flying around and it seemed a little consistent.
Lam: It's kind of like these places want to invite people of colour and be inclusive and have these things as their mandate. They want to have people of colour as their public face, but then inside these institutions every level is filled with white people who don't necessarily see how when they talk about things that are non-white cultured, they're reinforcing this violent system. There's also a sense of liberal people, progressive people being more sure of themselves in the sense that they think they're not racists, so therefore everything they say is fine.
Why do you think that we're not having more overt conversations about that disparity of power between the people making work and the people deciding what works are showed and funded?
Lam: Part of the problem is if you have boards of directors that are all white, and your executive director is white, and all the staff are white, then you're not really invested in a way that will bring about real change.
McCurley: This isn't in the comics, but it's in the reality that inspired it, the comic about the durian fruit. That lecturer—he's a photographer—is the expert on this part of the world, as far as the university he teaches at is concerned. He had won all three grants from that university to study in that part of the world, and his photo-book was the first ever published of work from that country. It's all the same guy; there's no opposition stopping this person from studying or going to this part of the world as often as he does and getting this reputation. And when we see him, everything he says is problematic and racist.
Lam: I feel like, there's not a real reckoning of how western colonialism or imperialism has affected other parts of the world and continues to affect those parts of the world. There's this obvious problem with a white American going to Southeast Asia, and studying all their art forms and being the expert on it. It matches up with how people don't understand the historical implications of colonialism.
McCurley: In the comics, the details aren't there. But these people are teaching these subjects. Like a white composer teaching Korean Opera. They are who get to say what the history is, they're opinion is what's taught, and that was kind of this reoccurring thing that inspired our comics.
What do you think is the beginning of the deconstruction of that system?
Lam: Universities and all these places need people that aren't white to be in positions of decision making. Not only on the level of inclusivity, it needs to go all the way to the top. Thats a long process. Like white people being ready to give up the positions that they have, or give up the power that they have.
Do you think in Canada, people often hide behind the multicultural dream? Given the grant system, do you think it's better or worse here, or is it not really a comparison?
Lam: It's hard to make a comparison in that way. I think that in many ways it's the same. When I'm in the States and I'm at a residency and things like this are happening, it feels the same as when I'm in Toronto and I see the same thing happening. I just have the same experience anywhere I go in North America.
McCurley: It's not a multicultural wonderland. I haven't lived in another country and I can't compare it, but what we can see is that it says multicultural in the marketing and advertising and then in the real experience, you run into all kinds of racism in different shades. I'm half Asian, but all of the places we travel all over the world, I've noticed people treat Amy or react to Amy in ways that they don't treat me. Thats consistent, from mean border guards in Iceland, to a five year old girl on the sidewalk yesterday. It's so unequal, the way that people will react and treat somebody who looks asian versus someone who doesn't look asian. And it happens everywhere we've gone, it's not like Canada's not like that.