Inspired by corner stores, this art show confronts 'convenient' Asian stereotypes

Convenience — a new exhibit in Toronto — draws a link between business and immigrant life, in all its "inconvenient" complexity. Take a look.

Convenience draws a link between business and immigrant life, in all its 'inconvenient' complexity

Detail of Shellie Zhang's I am Terrified / 我担心, now appearing in Convenience. (Toni Hafkenscheid/Courtesy of the artist)

Every corner store has a story, and earlier this month, Toronto curators Belinda Kwan and Tak Pham launched an interactive map of the GTA, asking people to plot locations (plus personal anecdotes) about the mom and pops in their area, particularly those run by immigrant families.

It's an ongoing research project about how the stories of newcomers overlap with commercial development, they tell CBC Arts — one that connects to Convenience, the group exhibition the duo launched last week as part of the city's Myseum Intersections Festival.

Featuring artwork by Heidi Cho, Meera Sethi, Manny Trinh, Michael Veneracion, Xiaojing Yan and Shellie Zhang, corner stores are what originally inspired Kwan and Pham to develop the show, on to March 15 at 187 Augusta in Toronto's Kensington Market.

We didn't want to focus on just convenience stores, but actually the notion of convenience itself.- Belinda Kwan, curator

"It was last year," Pham explains. "Kim's Convenience, the CBC TV series, was getting some attention and was getting popular. People were talking about that idea of Asian-run businesses and especially the convenience store — it almost acts like a poster business for many immigrant-owned, family-run businesses."

Pham is also board director at Toronto's 8eleven gallery, a spot which, at that time, was still being run out of a Chinatown storefront — a convenience store in a previous life, in fact — recognizable for its 7-11 spoofing signage.

So, Pham and Kwan had corner stores on their minds, along with a variety of issues associated with them: gentrification, rising rents in the city core — and how these things intersect with immigrant life.

But what they've come up with isn't Kim's Convenience: The Art Show.

"We didn't want to focus on just convenience stores," says Kwan, "but actually the notion of convenience itself."

What does that mean? Kwan offers this example for starters: think about attitudes toward immigrant and migrant labour. "It's considered as being cheap and flexible." For those in power, that's "convenient."

Or think about cultural stereotypes. Making assumptions about groups of people is a "convenient" way of seeing the world — but obvious to anyone who made it through kindergarten, it's plenty problematic.

Pham says the show critiques the way stereotypes bleed over into visual references.

"Ask a non-Asian person what the typical Asian aesthetic might look like, and 8 out of 10, they're going to choose something that resembles something from East Asian cultures — something with a dragon, something that is red, something that has calligraphy."

Just using the catch-all label of "Asian" to categorize an enormous breadth of people and cultures is a convenient/problematic conundrum, and as Pham explains, the show purposefully features work by artists from various backgrounds to represent "this plurality within the Asian identity."

Delicate paintings on passport pages by Vietnam-born/Toronto-based artist Manny Trinh appear alongside new work by Meera Sethi.

Her "Outerwhere" series involves drab Zellers-rack winter coats that reveal rainbow-coloured linings, patched together with silks and flowers and even paper cut-outs of food and film stars — memories of India.

As she writes about the project on Instagram: "What histories do we choose, or are forced, to hide and what do we choose to show?" 

Other artists riff on the convenience store theme more directly. In a piece created for the show, Heidi Cho draws on her Korean family's story of running a shop, including photos of her mom and grandmother alongside original illustrations.   

Reality is complicated, not convenient. Says Kwan, the show "hopes to produce more nuanced means of what Asian immigrant diasporic narratives are, and what their notions of belonging are — as well as the inconvenient aspects of settling as an Asian immigrant."

Take a look.

Installation view of Convenience at 187 Augusta. (Morris Lum)
Manny Trinh. Nature Series, 2017–present. (Courtesy of the artist)
Manny Trinh. Nature Series, 2017–present. (Courtesy of the artist)
Manny Trinh. Passports Series, 2016–present (Courtesy of the artist)
Manny Trinh. Passports Series, 2016–present. (Courtesy of the artist)
Meera Sethi. Rinzen, 2017. (www.meerasethi.com)
Shellie Zhang. I am Terrified / 我担心, 2017. (Toni Hafkenscheid/Courtesy of the artist)
Shellie Zhang. I am Terrified / 我担心, 2017. (Toni Hafkenscheid/Courtesy of the artist)
Michael Veneracion. Portrait of the Young Blood, 2016. (Courtesy of the artist)

Convenience. Heidi Cho, Meera Sethi, Manny Trinh, Michael Veneracion, Xiaojing Yan, Shellie Zhang. To March 15, 187 Augusta, Toronto. www.convenience2018.weebly.com

About the Author

Leah Collins

Leah Collins is the Senior Writer at CBC Arts.

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