Racism, privilege explored in Kelowna exhibit

Exhibit includes an enlarged picture of a costume party the artist attended as a child, which shows her in blackface and her brother wearing a First Nations headdress.

Exhibit includes a childhood picture that shows the artist in blackface, other children wearing headdresses

One of the displays in a Kelowna exhibition on privilege and racism features two enlarged images of Fern Helfland as a nine-year-old in Toronto. In these pictures, taken at a costume party, Helfland is wearing blackface and her brother is wearing a First Nations headdress. (Fern Helfland)

A photography professor at the University of B.C. Okanagan is hoping to spark a discussion about privilege and racism with an exhibit in Kelowna.

Associate professor and artist Fern Helfland and her UBCO colleagues Tannis Nielsen and Samuel Roy-Bois are behind the exhibition What does it mean to be The Problem, which is at the Alternator Centre for Contemporary Art until Feb. 18.

One of the displays that Helfland said she hopes will start a dialogue features one of her family photos, taken in 1961, which shows her at a costume party when she was nine years old, dressed in blackface with pigtails with her brother wearing a feathered indigenous headdress and war paint.

The full view of the display in the exhibition, which shows Helfand her siblings both in a group photograph, and in a photograph of just the three of them. (Fern Helfland)

"At that time people just did that stuff without thinking," said Helfland, who said she stumbled across the image recently and decided to use it for the exhibition.

"Frankly I was quite taken back and rather shocked. It was such a thoughtless thing to do. People just never gave those things a second thought back then."

She said that photograph was taken at a costume party with other children from the Jewish community.

"The parents of these kids were all mostly new immigrants themselves and some of them actually holocaust survivors, so this is children being assimilated into what it means to live in Toronto at the time. We're very much shaped by the media at the time."

Helfland and her colleagues will talk at a public discussion on racism and privilege at the centre on Feb. 15.

Helfland said she hopes that her photographs will make people "stop and think."

"If you type into Google 'Indian headdress fashion,' it's happening right now in 2015. And people take it for granted that it's okay to appropriate somebody else's sacred artifacts and use them in a commodified fashion," she said.

"So what I'm hoping people that will see by looking at this photograph is that they'll somehow see themselves reflected in it a little bit and maybe stop and think twice about maybe the next Halloween costume, that they might be appropriating somebody else's identity.

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