Uproot YYC – Uprooting Systemic Racism in the Arts, Centering Ourselves

By Mel Vee X

At a spoken word event I performed at over three years ago for International Women’s Month, I saw an unassuming Desi woman at a table, her brow furrowed in deep concentration. I noticed she was folding leaflets for something called Uproot YYC. Being the sucker that I am for things printed on leaflets regardless of content, I picked one up. “Uproot YYC is a grassroots collective dedicated to Artists of Colour in the city.” It took me a moment to process what I just read. An art collective for Artists of Colour? In Calgary? In my still developing arts practice, I had never seen any group or organization explicitly supporting racialized artists locally. It was a completely foreign and contentious concept to create a collective that was only for racialized artists. I decided in that moment there was no way I could not be a part of it. I had no idea then that the simple action of picking up a leaflet with a catchy logo would change my life and my artistic practice in complex and deeply profound ways.

Origins

Photo Credit: Mel Vee X

Uproot YYC was founded in 2016 by Skye Louis, a Desi jeweller and interdisciplinary artist of Goan descent. With over a decade of experience in the arts and particularly arts administration, Skye was acutely aware of the challenges facing racialized artists, from structural barriers in how professionalism in the arts is conceived to individual and targeted acts of racism and everything in between.

When Skye Louis moved to Calgary over three years ago, she was struck by the complete absence of support for Artists of Colour in the city. Coming from Toronto, where collectives and organizations specifically for racialized people were in abundance, it was a form of culture shock for Louis to arrive in a large, urban center without organized support for POC art. At first, she chalked it up to her unfamiliarity with the arts scene in the city but after a few months, it became painfully clear that no such support existed. 

Calgary, Mohkinstsis in the language of the Blackfoot people, is located in the province of Alberta (Treaty 7) in Canada. Mohkinstsis is Blackfoot for ‘where the Elbow (river) meets the Bow’ and has functioned as a meeting place for various Indigenous nations for centuries prior to colonization. Fort Calgary, located alongside this confluence, was established by the North-West Mounted Police in 1875 and arguably functioned to closely monitor the activities of the Blackfoot peoples in the area. Calgary has never strayed far from celebrating those colonial roots. Known internationally for the Calgary Stampede and Outdoor Exhibition, a pean to the city’s western and decidedly settler culture, the arts and culture scene in Calgary revolves around a colonial and white settler aesthetic. To exist outside of this aesthetic in Calgary creates considerable challenges for racialized artists. 

It is with this cultural context of Calgary/Mohkinstsis that Uproot YYC was created. Skye managed to raise $2000 privately from other racialized people (largely artists) to provide a fund for Artists of Colour. This formed the first major project that Uproot YYC undertook as a collective. The idea of the fund was to provide Artists of Colour with money completely free of the traditional constraints of the granting structure. The funds were intended to be used by racialized artists however they deemed appropriate and were meant to communicate value and appreciation for the work of the artist. By creating our own fund, racialized artists would remain free to create critical and reflective work without fear or reprisal from artistic organizations and granting bodies dominated by cultures of whiteness. By a culture of whiteness, I am referring to the ways that European/Western culture are considered natural and the norm and this is enforced through intentional and unintentional biases. 

One critical question which was raised for the collective from its inception was the question of whether or not to accept funding for our art from white people. We wanted to remain free of influences which might be critical of racialized artists but we also acknowledged that white people have a responsibility to challenge their own privilege by supporting the work of Artists of Colour that are free from colonial and whtie supremacist structures. Therefore, we made it explicit that white people could donate funds to Uproot YYC but could not stipulate how the funds would be used or to set any terms for us. This contrasts with granting structures which specifically stipulate how funds should be utilized. Although it is not my intention in this article to critique granting structures explicitly, I believe granting powers can and do unknowingly perpetuate cultures of whiteness when they are not critical of how their guidelines may be biased against racialized artists.  

For Us, By Us

Sally Njoroge, a spoken word artist and DJ who was a recipient for the Uproot YYC award, expressed that it was explicitly Uproot’s dedication to “diversity” in all forms which drew her to the collective.

“A collective run by three women of colour with different artistic expressions was something that I didn’t see in the arts scene here. There were other collectives run by men which focused on diversity, but more so diversity of artistic forms,” Sally says.

Sally
Photo Credit: Kim Jev (IG: @iamkimleester)

Sally and Skye both agreed that one of the most important aspects of creating POC only art spaces was the freedom they both felt in these spaces to be themselves fully without fear of needing to explain shared aspects of their experiences with racism and racialization white people who had no frame of reference and made little to no effort to understand the experiences of racialized people within society generally and the arts particularly. 

“Creating our own standards and norms in the arts (as People of Colour) was crucial for me,” commentened Skye. 

“Infrastructure and power in the arts tend to be controlled by white people and organizations. POC run collectives are crucial to challenging this dominance and ensuring we are able to represent ourselves with dignity in the arts.”

It was crucial for Uproot YYC to challenge the norms we wanted to dismantle by incorporating the norms we wanted to create into the very fabric of Uproot YYC. Our structure, from inception to the present, remains decentralized and non-hierarchical. No artistic form or experience is prized or valued above others. Uproot YYC also operates from a strengths based model. Collective members lived and professional experience is honoured and valued.

In order to grapple with the financial realities of creating an art collective with no operational funding, our work is project and community based. We provide funds and artists supports when we receive it; we build community connections and networks when the funding dries up. Our grassroots structure has allowed us to remain flexible and free to determine our own priorities, which many racialized artists have indicated is crucial to their unhindered artistic expression. 

When we first began promoting Uproot YYC within the community, we were met with and undaunted by predictable suspicion and hostility. Members of the community, mostly white, expressed a range of emotions from outrage to shock that an arts collective would cater only to the needs of racialized artists. During an outreach, one older white man asked a collective member pointedly, “Is that not simply another form of racism to have something only for People of Colour!? Isn’t excluding whites racist?” 

In addition to outright hostility and defensiveness, we were contacted by white artists demanding resources or information. Rather than offering resources or connections that could be valuable to Artists of Colour, we were required to defend ourselves and sort through requests from white artists who have an abundance of resources at their disposal already.

The inevitable white fragility and hostility to POC only art collectives is integral to the reason why Uproot YYC was created in the first place–to address and challenge the culture of whiteness in the arts by empowering racialized artists. Unacknowledged cultures of whiteness in the arts manifest themselves in numerous ways. For instance, granting structures in the arts rely heavily on Eurocentric ideas of professionalism in the arts and what it means to be an artist. Standards of professionalism typically include formal education and showcases in galleries and with reputable arts organizations. Formal education in the arts is regarded by many to be a luxury; a luxury which many racialized people cannot afford. In addition, art spaces may not acknowledge or have staff trained to appreciate and respect non-European artistic expression. Of course, this creates a vicious cycle where racialized artists face barriers to being recognized as professionals in the first place and without recognition in the arts community, it becomes impossible to make the necessary connections which would enhance the professional profile of the artist. Artists of Colour may also consciously refuse to work in spaces which are predominantly white, which further hampers access to resources and connections. Constant gaslighting around our experiences as People of Colour, coupled with problematic depictions of ourselves and our cultures, leaves many racialized artists with an impossible decision–work within white organizational structures, which dehumanize us and cause harm but have resources and connections, or create our own structures outside of the mainstream with little to no resources. When your decision as an artist is between dehumanization and working outside of those structures, that is itself indicative of the larger oppressive structures at work in the arts. 

A recent example of this was shopping for a burlesque costume and being confronted with costumes that blatantly mocked Black and Indigenous people. There was an abundance of costumes outright labelled Indian and also dashikis for sale, which are a traditional form of West African cloth. Why would I, as a Black artist, continue to support a costume store that was so blatantly racist and unconcerned with the lived realities of Black and Indigenous people? For myself as an artist, I refuse to work any longer in predominantly white artist spaces for my own mental well-being. This of course shrinks the types and quantities of artistic spaces I have access to. However, the ways in which I am gaslit about my experiences as a racialized artist or forced to educate and fight back against cultural appropriation and other covert forms of white supremacy and power are exhausting, stressful and detrimental to my health. 

Decolonizing and Challenging Whiteness in the Arts 

The central question remains for Uproot YYC in particular–and racialized artists more generally–how do we decenter whiteness in the arts? 

For Skye, decolonizing the arts and confronting a culture of whiteness is an intentional effort to embrace her identity as a Desi artist.

“Culture is tied to land and place. What happens to a culture through land and resource extraction? The impact cultural dislocation has on colonized people is insidious and can last for generations. Being able to recognize cultural disruption and finding ways to reconnect with my culture through land is crucial to challenging white supremacy in the arts,” says Skye.  

“Desi art (Desi meaning a person of Indian, Pakistani, or Bangladeshi birth or descent who lives abroad) is rooted in community and builds on the knowledge and traditions of the people who came before. When I work on a pattern that someone else has created before me, I feel connected to my culture and community. It is a powerful challenge to western notions of art which prize the individual over the collective.” 

Incorporating Desi, Afro and Indigenous futures into the framework of Uproot YYC has been an important perspective shift for the collective within the last year. Desi, Afro and Indigenous futurisms conceive of futures without white supremacy and colonialism; futures we have envisioned for ourselves.  

“There is a pervasive idea underlying the arts that art created by People of Colour is stuck in the past or is traditional and therefore immune to change. Culture is always changing, always in flux. It is a racist notion that the art and culture of racialized people is static and doesn’t change,” says Skye. 

For Sally, the question of decentering whiteness in the arts remains unclear. 

“I still don’t know. I create art as an expression of myself. I am not white and therefore my truth is not white. I live with the realities of my race everyday. Sometimes my art is the place where I go be free; where I can truly explore myself. I can’t always create art that centers around my race. I think that is the point.” 

To see more work from Uproot YYC, check us out on Facebook – https://www.facebook.com/uprootyyc/

Mel Vee X
Photo Credit: Mike Hopkins Photography
Mel Vee X is a Black queer (out)spoken word artist, burlesque performer and photographer. She’s cofounding member of Uproot YYC, an artist collective by and for Artists of Colour in Mohkinstsis/Calgary, Alberta, Canada. Her unflinching dedication to telling hard truths is the heart of her craft.