Curation as Cultural Activism: A Strategy for Rearranging Desires

Pohanna Pyne Feinberg



Alice Ming Wai Jim’s curatorial premise and organizational strategy for Rearranging Desires, which is “predicated on a destabilization of the expected and the known,” employs cultural activism to engage the public in a critical dialogue about the socio-political significance of culturally-specific art exhibitions. The four presented artists are each exhibiting works that contribute to the decolonization of knowledge and the unlearning of oppressive forms of cultural hierarchies. The artwork ranges between nuanced considerations of cultural remembrance, reflections of shifting perceptions of the self through geographic migration, and explorations of the tensions inherit in trying to identify with a “cultural community”. Collectively, the artworks offer a challenge to “the very idea of culturally-specific work.”

While Jim’s leadership role is clearly essential to the process and vision of this curatorial project, the collaborative and educational components of the exhibition are arguably activist in character. These components directly disturb the privilege of access that is often controlled by exhibition curators. In addition to presenting artwork in a gallery setting, Jim has also programmed complimentary events that illustrate the prominence of public dialogue in her curatorial strategy, such as the symposium, “About Culturally-Specific Work,” which brings together scholars, students and artists who raise questions about notions of authenticity, the pedagogy of difference, and “self-orientalizing tendencies” in artistic practice. There is also an educational component of the exhibition, which involves a curatorial studies graduate seminar, in-gallery tours and workshops with the artists, and a website for a wider audience. Additionally, an off-site event, coordinated by the students in the graduate seminar, includes the presence of activist groups who are like-minded in their efforts to create awareness about mainstream notions of socialized racism.

Jim’s curatorial strategy enables Rearranging Desires to offer a public context that encourages communication and critical debate about the curatorial problem of the culturally-specific exhibition. As Jim states in the exhibition catalogue, “the exhibition and the classroom are two potential communicative frameworks for the “eradication of colonialism.” The artworks, beyond their aesthetic contribution, also serve as tools which provide insight into how the legacy of colonialism has imbedded itself as problematic demarcations across the landscape of the contemporary art world. As one walks through Rearranging Desires, essentialist terms such as ‘cultural community’ and ‘ethnic art’ are not only problematized, but also displayed in an ironic ideological objectification.

This is significant contemporary curatorial work when we consider the potentially detrimental implications of inherited colonial desires and the “questionable practices of tokenism.” Culturally classifying or categorizing an artist not only negates complex personal experiences, but can effectively stifle and silence the unique character and voice of an artist’s intentions. As Ayesha Hameed comments in her interview for this exhibition: “With this institutionalization from above – where people are categorized or labelled, especially with creative work – if people’s work is reduced to a few variables, then that is a kind of marginalization that I think does violence to what [the culturally-specific exhibition] is trying to do. … There is a silencing involved with that ….”

Rearranging Desires confronts the violence of silencing by applying a postcolonial pedagogy to “question so much of what is taken for granted, from within the classroom to what lies beyond it.” The conceptually confrontational and politically progressive character of Jim’s curatorial strategy could offer a timely context for, at the least, a dialectical contribution to the deconstruction of our tendencies towards cultural categorization and specificity. As Jim writes, “the core objective is to consider the implications of these desires for diasporic formations and their representations – to register intonations and contradictions, pitch and silence, rather than set down shared aesthetics and politics.”

a picture of 4 artists

Pohanna Pyne Feinberg is currently pursuing her MA in Art History at Concordia University. She was the Assistant Curator for Le Mois de la Photo à Montréal 2007, and from 2003 to 2005, she coordinated the avant-garde music festival, Suoni Per Il Popolo in Montreal. Pyne Feinberg is also a printmaker, makes sound collages and produces radio for CKUT 90.3 FM.


Reesa Greenberg, quoted in Alice Ming Wai Jim, “Rearranging Desires: Curating the ‘Other’ Within,” Rearranging Desires, exhibition catalogue, ed. Alice Ming Wai Jim (Montreal: Gail and Stephen A. Jarislowsky Institute for Studies in Canadian Art; FOFA Gallery, Concordia University, 2008) 2.

Ibid., 1.

Ibid., 4.

See Pohanna Pyne Feinberg and Wendy Lynn Butler, “Interview with Ayesha Hameed,” Shifting Expectations: The Rearranging Desires Website,

Jim, “Rearranging Desires,” 7.

Grant H. Kester, Conversation Pieces: Community and Communication in Modern Art (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004).

Jim, “Rearranging Desires,” 3.