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Gallery Gachet showcases VANDU history of collective resistance as part of Capture Photography Festival

VANDU
To Be Belligerent//To Commit To Memory//To Live Without Fear has one wall entitled "Intimacy".

For 25 years, the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users has tried to improve the lives of people who use illicit drugs. The grassroots organization pursues this through peer-based support, education, and political activism. However, few Vancouverites know that VANDU has an impressive archive documenting its extensive efforts to advance harm-reduction measures and better housing.

As part of the Capture Photography Festival, Gallery Gachet (9 West Hastings Street) and VANDU have teamed up on an exhibition showcasing this 25-year history. This tribute to VANDU’s collective resistance is entitled To Be Belligerent//To Commit to Memory//To Live Without Fear.

“This archive of VANDU is called a guerilla archive because it’s presenting a dissident perspective—and monumentalizing and commemorating the lives of people who have kind of stood against the system,” Gallery Gachet director and curator Olumoroti Soji-George tells Pancouver on a tour of the exhibition.

VANDU
The exhibition includes this poster from the VANDU archive.

VANDU embraces Black Panthers’ philosophy

In the exhibition brochure, VANDU worker Nathan Crompton writes about the importance of direct action and mass-member democracy.

“Yet direct action has also worked less visibly and glamorously through everyday forms of care, mutual support, and human community,” Crompton declares. “Like the Black Panther breakfast programs fifty years ago, our mutual care is neither a straightforward political action nor a simple act of material charity, but a merger of both these into forms of collective survival and revolutionary commitment. Survival can be political when the state wants us dead.”

Visitors to the gallery immediately encounter two films showing this dichotomy. In one, VANDU members are engaged in social activities, and in the other, political action. From there, the exhibition has four sections entitled Loss, Origins, Power, and Intimacy.

Photos on the Loss wall commemorate several deceased VANDU members. This section also includes images of coffins and crosses. Over the years, VANDU has incorporated these symbols of death at protests held on behalf of drug users.

“I think it was very important to address the amount of people who have passed away due to the poisoned-drug crisis and just the general violence that’s enacted on Downtown Eastside residents in different ways,” Soji-George says.

VANDU
Loss is commemorated on one wall of the exhibition.

Curator works closely with activists

As the curator, Soji-George worked for five months with VANDU’S 25-year committee team. Moreover, they shared their expertise as they discussed options for presenting images.

“It has very much been an exercise of friendship, community, and co-curation,” Soji-George emphasizes.

He says that as he examined the images, he was struck by how the archive presents Blackness and Indigeneity. He then recalls how a 2022 grunt gallery exhibition curated by his good friend Nya Lewis—entitled An Insufficient Record: The Photo Ethics of Preserving Black Vancouver—demonstrated how Vancouver’s official archives often documented Blackness through police mug shots.

VANDU
Indigenous advocate Clyde Wright is featured in the exhibition’s “Power” section.

VANDU’s archive, on the other hand, offers a more nuanced perspective.

“Looking into these archives and seeing Black people here was something that was very important to me,” says Soji-George, who was born in Nigeria. “It also raised lots of questions why some people have not thought to look at VANDU’S archive.”

The Origins section of the exhibition includes a timeline of VANDU’s first 10 years. In addition, the exhibition features photos of early harm-reduction activists Bud Osborne, Ann Livingston, Dean Wilson, and Earl Crowe.

The Power section focuses on VANDU activism. Harm-reduction rabble-rouser Pablo Pincott and Indigenous community advocate Clyde Wright appear prominently on this wall. Pincott, a survivor of the Winters Hotel fire, died last year.

VANDU
Longtime VANDU activist Pablo Pincott (top) died last year.

Visual language of postering

Meanwhile, VANDU’s critiques of political leaders appear on a two-sided wall between the Origins and Power sections. “I was borrowing the visual language of postering in the Downtown Eastside as a way of communication,” Soji-George explains.

The final section of To Be Belligerent//To Commit to Memory//To Live Without Fear offers a different side of the organization. Entitled Intimacy, it includes several warm and comforting images of VANDU members in various guises. They are seen sleeping, embracing at a protest, and relaxing at home.

VANDU
VANDU cofounder Ann Livingston (middle, top photo) is among those who appear in the Intimacy section.

Soji-George says that he spoke with the VANDU team about how to present intimacy in the exhibition. Furthermore, he drew inspiration from the book On Cuddling: Loved to Death in the Racial Embrace by Phanuel Antwi, a Canada Research Chair in Black Arts and Epistemologies at UBC.

This explains the large photo of a 2007 drug bust, which is at the top of this article.

“I thought it would be interesting to think about the intimacy of state violence on the Downtown Eastside—and just the familiarity of it,” Soji-George says, “but also coupling it with banal and mundane moments of closeness and kinship within the Downtown Eastside.”

VANDU
VANDU has often lambasted politicians who don’t heed its policy recommendations.

In the brochure, Crompton points out that VANDU has “refused to be folded into the machinations of power and governance” over its 25-year history.

“This exhibition is a moment for us to pause and recollect,” Crompton states. “It bears witness to our struggles as much as our lost members, and helps us make a new clearing for our collective road ahead.”

Event details

Gallery Gachet (9 West Hastings Street) and the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users are presenting To Be Belligerent//To Commit to Memory//To Live Without Fear until May 17. For more information, visit the gallery website. The exhibition is part of the Capture Photography Festival. Follow Pancouver on X @PancouverMedia and on Instagram @PancouverMedia.

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Charlie Smith

Charlie Smith

Pancouver editor Charlie Smith has worked as a Vancouver journalist in print, radio, and television for more than three decades.

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We would like to acknowledge that we are gathered on the traditional and unceded territories of the Coast Salish peoples of the xʷməθkwəy̓əm (Musqueam), Skwxwú7mesh (Squamish), and Səl̓ílwətaɬ (Tsleil-Waututh) Nations. With this acknowledgement, we thank the Indigenous peoples who still live on and care for this land.