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December 6, 2001 Unravelling our cultural conumdrums: Monika Kin Gagnon



Monika Kin Gagnon

Monika Kin Gagnon

Photo by Christian Fleury

by James Martin

Other Conundrums: Race, Culture, and Canadian Art, written by Assistant Professor Monika Kin Gagnon, is about identity — and it’s also a bit of an identity puzzle itself.

The author is a native Montrealer who, until three years ago, hadn’t lived in the province for close to two decades. The book was co-published by a Vancouver small press (Arsenal Pulp), and two British Columbia art galleries (Artspeak Gallery and the Kamloops Art Gallery). The artworks and events discussed in the book span the country.

Yet, in the eyes of the Quebec Writers’ Federation, Other Conundrums is a Quebec book, and worthy of the shortlist for its 2001 First Book Award. Nobody was more surprised and delighted than Gagnon.

“I definitely think of myself as a Quebec writer,” she said. “My work is about issues of identity and culture, and so the shift back to Montreal is exciting for me, because it forces me to rethink a lot of the relations that were formational to my identity.”

Cultural politics

Gagnon left Montreal after completing her undergrad degree at Concordia in 1982. Active in independent cultural communities in Toronto and Vancouver, she spent 10 years writing criticism and essays for “that usual mix of disposable art mags, journals, exhibition catalogues, and anthologies.”

In 1994, she began working on her PhD at Simon Fraser University. The shift back to academia was a catalyst in writing Other Conundrums.

Starting with 75 articles, she whittled her oeuvre down to 11 pieces, resulting in an engaging historical testament to a vibrant time in Canadian cultural race politics.

Gagnon’s insider account fluidly slips between several forms: critical writings on specific artists (including Dana Claxton, Shani Mootoo, Jamelie Hassan), firsthand accounts of pivotal events (the Minquon Panchayat anti-racism strategy caucus in 1997, the In Visible Colours Film and Video Festival and Symposium in 1989), theoretical essays, letters, and lexicons.

“I wanted to consolidate that body of writing as a book, because I didn’t know what was going to happen to me once I entered the institution.

“The university has certain advantages, but it also has a way of marking you apart from being able to participate in alternative communities because you’re now in some ways part of the mainstream.”

Gagnon is currently finishing a second book, co-written with Toronto videomaker and critic Richard Fung.

After its completion, she says, she’ll have to revisit another period in the 90s: her PhD dissertation. She plans to revise her work on race and Disney films.

“That’s something which has been on the back burner,” she said, mock-groaning at the idea of sifting through two huge boxes of Mickey Mouse research she has accumulated, “that I have to move to the front burner.”