Last December, Kwantlen Polytechnic University’s English department paired up with the fine arts department for the collaborative exhibit Maple-Washing: A Disruption. The final works were displayed in the Arbutus gallery throughout January.
Described as “a synthesis of literary analysis and ceramics” by the KPU English instructor who spearheaded the project, Greg Chan, the project “articulates select parts of Canadian colonial history that resist the myth of Canada’s multiculturalism.”
Some examples include Canada’s involvement in the Atlantic slave trade, its refusal of migrant South Asians aboard the Komagata Maru, its internment of Japanese Canadians during World War II, and its discriminatory laws—Head Tax and Exclusion Act—that profiled Chinese Canadians.
“The 16 displays contest the erasure or sanitization of narratives that document these ‘maple-washed’ incidents in Canadian history,” wrote Chan, in an email to The Runner.
The idea for the collaboration started as a class project in the course “Canadian Literature in English,” in place of a final exam. Each of Chan’s students partnered with KPU instructor Ying-Yueh Chuang’s ceramics students to bring a symbol from one of the literary works they studied to life.
“Students were expected to focus on four works of Canadian literature as an inspiration for the displays, which were Joy Kogawa’s Obasan, Lawrence Hill’s The Book of Negroes, Sharon Pollack’s The Komagata Maru Incident, and Wayson Choy’s The Jade Peony,” says Chan.
Literary symbolism was another factor meant to be brought out in the collaboration, according to Chan.
“I also teach symbolism to my students, so they had to choose a certain symbol from a chapter … [and] bring that symbol to life. Then I thought of ceramics,” he says. “And that’s how literary symbols came into ceramics piece.”
Chuang says that her students had a completely different take on the project. While literature students read and know about the importance of symbols, her students focus on the technicalities of how to create physical representations of them. Maple-Washing brought these two groups of students together to talk and make sure that they both liked the object they ultimately produced.
The title of the exhibition is based on the “Canadian tendency to say we don’t have racism, we don’t have any of those problems,” Chan says.
“It’s about looking at history through the lens of these four books that we read. We have to look at that part of the history and be honest about it,” he says. “That’s why we look at Chinese-Canadians, Japanese-Canadians, Indo-Canadians, African-Canadians, and we found those literary works and symbols are part of that honest look at Candian history.”
The ceramics produced through Maple-Washing are going to be donated to Joy Kogawa House as part of a permanent exhibit in the Canadian Museum.
Having their work on display there is a very proud moment for all the students and instructors involved in putting together the Maple-Washing exhibit.