How 1 artist sacrificed her dream to help minorities during the pandemic

Montreal art collective founded by Haein Oh gives voice to BIPOC artists during pandemic

Joliz Dela Peña's live performance for "The 'I' Word" in September 2020. PHOTO COURTESY CHARLOTTE RAINVILLE

Joliz Dela Peña sits with her back to the audience, as she once again returns her hand to the plate beside her. She is eating and staring at the screen in front of her, unable to see the emotional reaction from the audience behind her.

Watch Dela Peña discuss her performance:

Dela Peña asked other first-generation immigrants to submit videos of themselves eating in front of their laptops or cameras for an art exhibit called the ‘I’ Word. She incorporated these into a live art performance by presenting all of the videos on various laptops which she sat in front of while eating. 

“It signifies how immigrants usually just eat and see their family through screens,” Dela Peña said of her performance. The distance between families hinders intergenerational traditions of physically eating meals together — which is especially meaningful now because of the pandemic, she said.

Joliz Dela Peña proposed the live performance idea to the founder of Underdog, a BIPOC art collective based in Montreal, during the pandemic

The need for Underdog

Haein Oh, Underdog’s 24-year-old founder, decided it was necessary in 2019 after a series of frustrating rejections from her post-secondary institution’s exhibits. She posted a callout for minority artists on Instagram. The start of the caption on the post reads, “Dear mom, I was born to make a difference.” 

Her own experience being excluded is what inspired her to feature minority voices and diverse art that wouldn’t be found in the average art exhibition. Oh, who is Korean, uses the pseudonym Underdog to signify the disadvantages she faced growing up as a first-generation immigrant.

She accepted the piece Dela Peña proposed because she felt it was especially impactful. They were able to hold an in-person exhibit in spite of the pandemic last September.  

“It made people cry,” she said. “It reminded me why I was doing this.”

When Oh was just starting, most of the artists involved were her friends. Now people from all over the country message her on Instagram for an opportunity to participate in her exhibits. 

Photos courtesy Charlotte Rainville @jaillia

“I am a very shy person by nature, but when I feel injustice and anger and feel like there needs to be change, I can’t be stopped,” she said in an interview from her home in Montreal. 

She said that aside from ambition, luck has played an important role, not only for her collective but for her “pioneering” family as well. 

 The artist came to Canada with her parents when she was three years old. Her family settled in Montreal and opened a restaurant that Haein used as a gallery for the art collective. 

Since then, Oh has held almost 20 events featuring various mediums such as writing, food, visual art and more. Though most of the events have been virtual, Oh and Olivier Stainvil collaborated with Boiling Point to hold an in-person event in September 2020 called “The ‘I’ Word” at WIP gallery in Montreal.

The ‘I’ Word exhibit

 The “I” stands for immigration, a word that Oh feels is loaded with negative connotations. 

“I asked [the artists] to write a 50-word paragraph about what they think about the word ‘immigration,’” She said. “So it’s not only about the art. But it’s also about the artist. And it’s also about their story.”

Joliz Dela Peña, a first-generation Filipino immigrant, was one of the many artists that participated. 

She is a self-taught multidisciplinary artist that focuses on breaking stereotypes and exploring discomfort outside social constructs. She uses a variety of mediums including painting, alternative photography and performance art. 

“I was going to propose a piece of traditional art. But I saw an opportunity when Underdog put out the theme ‘The ‘I’ Word’ and how we as immigrants define Immigration. That really hit hard for me,” Dela Peña in an interview from Montreal. 

Though she wants everyone to interpret the piece in their own way, Dela Pena’s personal relationship to this piece stems from her physically distanced relationship with her mother. 

Kain Na, meaning “lets eat,” was Joliz Dela Peña’s in-person performance at WIP gallery in September, 2020. Photos courtesy Charlotte Rainville @jaillia

While Dela Peña was growing up in the Philippines, her mother worked as a caregiver in Canada to send money back home to her family. Dinner through a screen was the norm for Dela Peña for a decade, until she eventually moved to Canada with her father and siblings to reunite with her mother.

Oh says that the collective is primarily made up of Asian artists, though she is working with curators from different backgrounds to ensure that the group includes various racialized communities. 

BIPOC mental health during the pandemic

The federal government released statistics showing racialized communities are up to five times more likely to contract COVID-19 than non-racialized communities.

Mental illness has also substantially increased. CAMH published a study showing that in 2021, half of Canadians feel their mental health has substantially deteriorated. This means there will be even more strain on racialized individuals’ mental health.

Community organizations such as Underdog are doing their best to support vulnerable minorities at this time.

“People are depressed. They can’t go out and I think it’s healthier to make the brain work and stay creative than go outside. It is important to have social interaction but it has to be online,” Oh said. 

She also notices issues involving minority communities’ rejection of mental health assistance because of taboos surrounding this topic. Even if mental health services are made available, she worries that they wouldn’t pursue help.

Featuring minority art in post- secondary institutions

Diana Rice, administrative co-ordinator at the Dawson College Peace Centre, is working to empower minority communities and break the hierarchy of Western art curation in Montreal’s post-secondary institutions.

“The frame and the lens changes when white people aren’t curating,” Rice said. “They differentiate between the art saying that a (Kent) Monkman oil painting has more value than a handmade woven basket.”

Rice has worked on many exhibitions with BIPOC curators to highlight minority artists and change the western ideologies of art curation. She recently worked with Rhonda Meier, gallery administrator, to curate and present Resistance and Resilience. This exhibit is an ongoing virtual exhibit that aims to send a timely message of justice by presenting artwork that focuses on the unheard voices of legacy and racialized immigrants.

Resistance and Resilience Exhibition Poster

 The emerging artists are paid and presented alongside well-known artists which helps them enhance their resume and portfolio for future job opportunities.

“I would imagine that the capacity to showcase your work, the thing that matters to you… and has meaning to you, in a space where people can access it, must have great meaning. It must feel validating,” Rice said.

Haein Oh hopes to accomplish a similar goal with Underdog. Though she is unsure about the future of the organization, she recognizes the impact it has had on people and the support its provided during the pandemic.

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Posted: Apr 18 2021 3:11 pm
Filed under: News