How this Canadian former art student ended up with a gallery in the Netherlands named after her
Over 30 years ago, Ken Lum made a portrait of his student Melly Shum. Neither could predict what happened next
Melly Shum loves her job. She works in retail, spending her days as a sales representative at an appliance store in Markham, Ontario. But to her surprise, nearly 6,000 kilometres across the Atlantic, she's become an icon in Rotterdam, the Netherlands for something she says she's never experienced: what it feels like to hate your job.
In fact, she's become so widely known that the art institute formerly known as the Witte de With — a renowned centre for contemporary art — has recently discarded the name it had borrowed from a violent Dutch colonialist and rebranded itself in her honour. Today, it is known as Kunstinstituut Melly, or the Melly Art Institute.
This all happened because of Melly Shum Hates Her Job, an artwork created by Ken Lum, the influential Canadian artist known for playful, slyly critical works that often express empathy for and solidarity with the people who don't sit atop our structures of power: working people, people of colour, people seeking an ordinary, dignified life only to find the cruelties of white supremacy and capitalism blocking the way.
In 1989, Lum was a visiting professor at the University of Ottawa, where he taught a course on contemporary art; Shum was one of his students. Something about Shum captured Lum's curiosity, and soon she found herself sitting for a portrait in the school's photography lab, with Lum directing her to look "less put together" for the camera as she smiled. She left the session and finished the course with no sense of what Lum planned to do with her image.
The next year, Lum was the subject of the inaugural exhibition at the gallery formerly known as the Witte de With. Posters of an artwork that featured Shum's portrait were hung all over the city to promote the show, including a billboard on the gallery's facade. On one half of the image, Melly sits at a desk, pen in hand, clearly in the middle of work, half-turning toward the camera to offer a placid smile and blank stare. The other half of the work features the words "Melly Shum Hates Her Job" in all caps, with the word "HATES" in bright red bubble letters with a wavy yellow border. The font is unhinged; it radiates devilish ire and contempt. Immediately, it becomes clear that Melly is not placid at all — those letters are the shape of her rage, and her smile is the smile so many of us have plastered on when a boss tells us to do something stupid or says something horrifying we have no power to challenge. The work's charge only grows when one considers Melly's position as a woman of colour, a Chinese woman; we know that she's likely making less and putting up with so much more, and in turn, we're filled with respect and rage.
The work became so popular over the course of Lum's exhibition that when the show ended and the billboard was taken down, citizens of Rotterdam complained and the gallery, with Lum's permission, reinstalled it permanently. 30 years later, after a lengthy process to determine a new name, the gallery landed, perfectly, on Shum's.
I recently spoke with Shum and Lum — who hadn't talked since she finished his class more than three decades ago — about the name change, the work's popularity, and how Shum feels about becoming a monument to the resilience and resistance of workers everywhere.
Melly, how does it feel to have an art institute named after you?
Melly Shum: I was so excited. Because I would never think an ordinary person like me could be so famous that people would remember me because of a building.
Have you ever seen the work in person?
MS: No, actually, the only person I know who has seen it is my previous boss. He brought his whole family down to the Harbourfront Centre [when it was on view in Toronto] to take a picture with the photo. And then the other person [who has seen it] is my pharmacist.
Ken, it's unprecedented that an institution named after a violent colonial figure is renamed in honour of an artwork featuring an ordinary woman, a person of colour, who hates her job. How did this happen?
Ken Lum: The story of Witte de With, which ironically translates in English to "whiter than white," is that he was actually a Dutch Naval Officer in India and the East Indies, where they were very much involved in slave trade in Indonesia and other Dutch colonies. And we're in this moment, over the last few years, of social reckoning. And so there was a desire to rename the institution, which has become quite well-known as a progressive institution — the original name was settled on only because its address is on Witte de Withstraat, or Witte de With Street.
There were a lot of different names being bandied about, and in the end it ended up being the Kunstinstituut Melly. I wasn't involved except that when they asked me about it, they said, "We've contacted Melly, and now we're contacting you for your consent." And of course I consented. I thought it was fantastic. I said, "If Melly issues her consent, then me too."
Melly, why do you think so many people have connected with the work?
MS: The reason why is the slogan. Because a lot of people in the world need to bring food to the table; they don't care what job they have. That's the reason why they relate. Sometimes it's because of a harassing environment that they have in their workplace, so they hate their job. Another is that the pay of the job is not equivalent to their work, so they hate their job. So it's related to everyone in the world who has a job that they don't like.
Well said. I wonder if you can think back to 1989, when you were Ken's student while he was visiting the University of Ottawa. What do you remember about and having your portrait taken?
MS: Well, Ken taught us how to look at contemporary art. He brought us to all kinds of different contemporary art galleries to learn to look, to experience them. It was a really good course. I think it was the best course I had that year. Then he asked me to take the picture in the school's photography studio. So I just sat there and took the picture. I had no idea what the result would be.
Ken, what do you remember about your process of conceiving of the work?
KL: First of all, I remember Melly's name. I wasn't just thinking in terms of the picture — I was also thinking in terms of the text, because in my works, the graphic component of text is very important. So when I met Melly in my class, I just kept saying, "Melly Shum, Melly Shum..." There was just something about the name, it was almost like poetry or something.
I knew I wanted [to make a portrait of] someone who hated their job. And then, I wanted someone who is of colour. And the other thing is, of course, Melly is a woman. And the workplace is highly gendered in terms of compensating women, on average, significantly less than men. And then if you're a woman and of colour, you're compensated even less. And so I thought Melly would be good.
Do you remember, Melly, I made sure your hair didn't look very good?
[Melly laughs and nods]
You were trying to do your hair, and I said, "No, no, you have to make it look like you're really tired." And there were pictures of Melly where she's actually smiling, like truly smiling. And I picked the one where she's forcing herself to smile, because it was the picture that captured not liking her job.
Melly, you were an art student at the time, and you now work in retail. Can you tell me about how you came to your work?
MS: Yeah, my family are all retail salespeople. I was rebelling at that time and I picked the thing that I would really like to do, so I went to art school. But they were telling me that I would not be successful. I gave myself one year to find a job in the art world, and I didn't. So I had to find a job to feed the family and I went back to retail.
Do you relate to the Melly Shum in the artwork? Have you ever hated your job?
MS: No! [laughs] Everyone I work with laughs when they see that picture. They know that I work really hard. I love my job. I work so hard, I seem like a workaholic to them. So they were laughing. That's why my manager went all the way down to the contemporary art centre to take a picture with it, and then laugh.
When did you see the work for the first time? Do you remember?
MS: I remember. All of my co-workers were playing on Google to see who had the most famous name. I said, "No way, my name is so weird. There are not very many people called Melly Shum." And one of the other people had a similar name to a serial killer in the USA, right? I said, "You will be the one." And then we found out that I had the most famous name of all.
Ken, so much of your work empathizes with the position of the worker, and with people whose voices aren't centered within systems of power. What's your theory as to why this particular work hit so potently, if you have one?
KL: It's a confluence of things; there's no one reason, but many reasons. I think as the world has become more and more stark in terms of the weakening of labour laws and the strengthening of the people who already had power to get even more power, so many people feel that there's inequity in terms of, like Melly put it, the little amount of compensation you get for the amount of work you put in. And then you've got people who do very little work, like hedge fund managers, and they're billionaires. So this has been something that's growing as a concern. And I was maybe a bit prescient about that, so that tapped into something.
In fact, when the billboard came down at the end of my show [in 1990], a lot of people phoned into the Witte de With at the time demanding that it go back up. That was a total surprise to me. And the number one reason offered as to why Melly Shum Hates Her Job should go back up was put succinctly by one Rotterdammer, who said that every city deserves a monument to people who hate their jobs. Which sounds funny, and I guess it is. But it also shows you the degree of dissatisfaction in the workplace by a lot of people. And it's not only about dissatisfaction — it's about not finding fulfilment through this kind of monetized competitive system and yearning for, perhaps, a better way of life, a better alternative to the way life is right now.
Melly, once the pandemic is over, do you think you'll go to Rotterdam at some point to finally see the work, and visit the Kunstinstituut Melly?
MS: Yes I will. I've only left Canada when I've had to go on a business trip, but I told some of my best friends that we should go there and see it together.