In recent years, several major cultural institutions have come under severe criticism for maintaining a colonial approach.
One of the highest profile controversies involved the Royal B.C. Museum. In 2020, the head of Indigenous collections and repatriations department, Haida Nation member Lucy Bell, delivered a blistering resignation speech, triggering an investigation into racist practices.
The museum later released a report admitting its failings. It also explained why the entire institution needed to be “reimagined and decolonized”.
In other cases, such as with the B.C. government-owned Knowledge Network and the National Film Board, community groups blew the whistle. Reports issued in 2021 and 2022 demonstrated how a disproportionate amount of funding had gone to white documentary makers.
Knowledge, for example, granted 98.3 percent of $17.4 million in pre-licence fees to non-diverse-owned production companies over a seven-year period. This money funded 132 projects.
Meanwhile, the Racial Equity Screen Office recently released a racial-equity audit of NFB productions from 2012 to 2021. It showed that Asian directors, in particular, were sharply underrepresented in receiving grants in comparison to their percentage in the population.
Then, there are ongoing battles in several countries over whether museums should be returning cultural artifacts to communities and nations where they were created.
According to Vancouver immigration lawyer and cultural advocate Zool Suleman, an “institutional rulebook” often kicks in after an organization faces challenges.
“First of all, you deny the problem,” Suleman tells Pancouver over Zoom. “Then when the problem is studied and made evident, you resist change—in the sense that the status quo is good enough.
“Then, there is a kind of commitment to incremental change or a kind of cosmetic change,” he continues. “But then, if the critique persists, then ultimately you have a kind of collapse.”
Rungh led the way
For decades, Suleman has been challenging the cultural status quo—particularly when it comes to discriminatory treatment of racialized communities in the arts. This dates back to when he co-founded Rungh magazine more than 30 years ago.
In the late 1980s, Suleman was attending law school when he became aware of “interesting conversations” going on across the Atlantic Ocean.
“In England, there was something called the Black Arts Movement, which was looking at racialized artists and creators in relation to the British Empire and colonialism,” Suleman says.
He adds that in this period, there were also very vibrant discussions about the role of racialized people in the arts in America. “But in Canada, I felt like there wasn’t a place where racialized artists could critically engage with these dialogues.”
That was the impetus for creating Rungh, which was a published print magazine from 1992 to 1999, focusing on South Asian arts. Rungh existed as a webpage in 2014 before relaunching in 2017 as a full-fledged web platform focusing on Indigenous, Black, and all racialized artists.
The platform recently won a B.C. Museums Association Award of Merit for Innovative Practice for a project called Rungh Redux. It reproduced all the articles from the 1990s in an interactive and interconnected website.
“As new generations of artists come up, I want them to know that work has been going on since the ’80s and ’90s in many communities,” Suleman explains. “And they can have access to it.”
Naturally, this prompts a question about how Suleman feels when he re-reads his old articles from that era. He laughs before acknowledging that he was a little more strident and assured than perhaps he should have been.
“There was a certain feeling in the air that change was possible,” he says. “There was a sense that global communities were forming and there was a sense that the Canadian arts system was not responding. So, there was a target.”
Suleman isn’t easily appeased
That target was the Canadian art establishment, which he recalls as “slow-moving”.
“I think people on the inside of that dominant scene might have viewed people like [those at] Rungh magazine and others as being problematic—something to be appeased and put away—and life would go on. But as we know, lots of institutions started to…fall apart,” he says.
A recent example was Canadian Art magazine. According to Suleman, it was once held up as a hallmark of what it meant to be an artist in Canada before it collapsed last year.
“It could not sustain its publication model and even worse, it could not articulate its rationale for existence,” Suleman declares. “And so, we have seen these institutions crumble over the last three decades.”
He also cites another example from the early 1990s when Rungh and others were advocating for a change in the Association of National Non-Profit Artists Centres, a.k.a. ANNPAC.
Suleman says that ANNPAC made noises about wanting to reform itself, but resisted when it was challenged about bringing in new arts groups from racialized communities.
“The group that did this challenging was called Minquon-Panchayat,” of which Suleman was one of the co-founders.
“Within less than a year of that, ANNPAC collapsed,” he adds. “A national artist-run centre movement did not coalesce again after more than a decade.”
To him, these examples illustrate that cultural institutions are often more brittle than they appear.
“They look very solid and very impenetrable,” he states. “But in fact, when you get beyond the façade, there’s a Wizard of Oz kind of situation where…they’re actually very fragile.”
Officials want to retain power
At the same time, he feels that they often have deep interests in avoiding change.
“These things are structural,” Suleman maintains. “They are long-term, but it’s interesting that the patterns of resistance haven’t shifted much.
“I think at its core it’s about people not wanting to give up power,” he continues. “They’re established; they have power; they are the arbiters of culture; they don’t want to give that up. You see it in institution after institution after institution. I think that dynamic has been consistent for decades.”
In its current incarnation, Rungh continues its advocacy. It also built an archive about the 1991 Local Colour protests against the Vancouver Art Gallery’s decisions around whose art was being shown. And it has published poetry focusing on labour and migration issues.
As the editor, Suleman emphasizes that Rungh is not a political science magazine, but he is proud of its role in highlighting racism not only in Canada but in other countries. To reinforce this, he cites a long interview with Indian documentary filmmaker Anand Patwardhan, who has highlighted sectarian issues, religious fundamentalism, and majoritarian-initiated violence in his country for more than 30 years.
“It’s reaching a point where we are in the midst of horrific violence that I suspect is going to get worse,” Suleman says. “And I think while there’s much that demands our attention every day, more attention needs to paid to this. Canada needs to take strong stances for human rights in the Indian subcontinent.”
India continues to be a concern
Suleman’s ancestral roots go back to the western Indian state of Gujarat, which happens to be the birthplace of Mohandas Gandhi and current Indian prime minister Narendra Modi.
During the colonial era, Suleman’s ancestors migrated to the east coast of Africa. His father’s side established themselves near Nairobi in Kenya and his mother’s side settled in Kampala, Uganda.
“I was born in Kampala and came over 50 years ago as part of the Ugandan-Asian resettlement in Canada,” he says.
Suleman is well aware of the impact of authoritarian governments—and not only on his own family, which was ordered out of Uganda along with all other Asians in 1972.
Shortly after he launched his legal practice in 1992, he began advocating for 21 Iranians who went on a hunger strike after their refugee claims were denied.
“As a result of the attention that came to that—and they were all successful, by the way, at the end of their hunger strike—there was a certain awareness that I was willing to take on activists’ struggles,” he says.
That led to him to represent Robert Watt, a member of the Sinixt First Nation with U.S. citizenship who wanted to remain in Canada in the 1990s. Watt felt that he should have the legal right to cross the border into his First Nation’s traditional transborder territory in B.C. and the United States, but the Canadian government sought to have him deported.
This story was featured in Toronto documentary maker Ali Kazimi’s most recent film, Beyond Extinction, which focused on the Canadian government’s false claim that the Sinixt had gone extinct.
“I felt very moved and I learned so much from that struggle,” Suleman says. “It was a very humbling exercise because you realize that you are not removed from the nation state and its effect on Indigenous communities. You are a participant. And that kind of realization is very sobering and it requires a lot of reflection.”
In the film, Suleman says that people need to listen more, reflecting his deep compassion for underdogs in society. He reiterates that message in his interview.
“There’s a lot of listening that needs to happen,” he tells Pancouver.
One of the things that Beyond Extinction highlights is the state’s propensity pitting Indigenous nations against one another with their land claims.
Suleman says that governments also like to maintain silos in dealing with cultural communities—something that he has consistently resisted at Rungh. He believes that the perpetuation of silos makes it easy for bureaucrats to check off boxes for funding purposes.
“Politicians like photo opportunities tagged to specific siloed communities,” he says. “But I think, as communities, we have much more to gain by building alliances across silos. And we have much more to gain by having honest conversation across these definitions that exist.”
As the interview comes to an end, Pancouver asks Suleman if there are any other things he would like readers to know.
“I think I’d like them to know that Rungh is continuing to publish—that we do want artists and creators to contact us,” he replies. “We’re always looking for new material.”
Follow Charlie Smith on Twitter @charliesmithvcr.