‘SUM is a room of our own, here and queer for not only a couple of weeks, but all year’

Karin Lee’s My Sweet Peony, part of the first exhibition at Vancouver’s new SUM gallery. (SUM)

Queeries is a weekly column by CBC Arts producer Peter Knegt that queries LGBTQ art, culture and/or identity through a personal lens.

Next week, Vancouver’s SUM Gallery debuts its very first exhibition with “Karin Lee: QueerSUM 心“. It’s both a long time coming and a very big deal. The organization behind it — Queer Arts Festival — has been actively working toward having a permanent, year-round space since it began in 1998 as a volunteer-run artist collective. But as we all know, space in Vancouver isn’t exactly cheap.

“With a mix of dogged perseverance, some luck and a lot of help from our friends, SUM became a reality this year,” SUM artistic director SD Holman tells CBC Arts.

And in that reality, SUM becomes the only queer multidisciplinary gallery in Canada — and one of only a few in the entire world.

Karin Lee, the artist behind SUM’s first exhibition. (Chick Rice/SUM )

The name SUM is inspired by its location in the B.C. Artscape Sun Wah building in Vancouver’s Chinatown, which, according to its website, “was designed to house a Chinese restaurant, complete with a traditional round window, but was never occupied and has existed only in shell condition.”

“To honour the space’s original intended use as a Dim Sum (點心) restaurant, we dubbed our new gallery and presentation space SUM,” Holman says.

But it’s more layered than that. Holman’s explanation of the name’s meaning essentially breaks down like this:

  • summation (∑) the sum of its parts, the sum total = LGBTQ2Si+
  • Sum (心) means heart in the Cantonese dialect which we use here, to pay tribute to the early immigrants from the Pearl River Delta in Canton who settled here 150 years ago.
  • The word for queer in Chinese 同性戀 has Sum 心 in it.

We wanted the first solo exhibition be a female-identified queer artist. We wanted an artist with deep links to Vancouver’s Chinese and queer communities both. We wanted a woman whose work was challenging, and transgressive, and very queer — in other words, we wanted Karin Lee.– SD Holman, SUM artistic director

On that note, Holman and her co-curator Paul Wong wanted SUM’s inaugural exhibition to represent much of what its name does.

“We wanted the first solo exhibition be a female-identified queer artist,” she says. “We wanted an artist with deep links to Vancouver’s Chinese and queer communities both. We wanted a woman whose work was challenging, and transgressive, and very queer — in other words, we wanted Karin Lee.”

Born and raised a fourth generation Chinese-Canadian in Vancouver, Karin Lee is “a unique storyteller whose critical voice and perspective touches on the past and the present, both local and international,” Holman says. “Themes of trans-Pacific migration, gender, identity and intercultural contact surface in her work. Lee often uses humour and transgression in her work, traversing untold territories.”

The poster for SUM’s first exhibition. (SUM)

And Lee is only the beginning. SUM will build on the model developed at the Queer Arts Festival, where Holman worked with guest curators. The programming will be queer not only in its sexuality but in “the most fundamental sense of the word.”

“‘Queer’ takes its etymological roots from the German ‘quer’ — oblique, or cutting across categories,” Holman explains. “SUM’s programming will be transdisciplinary, extending that connective principle to bring artists together across discipline, time and place. Inhabiting a demographic so irreducibly diverse that we are commonly identified by an acronym, we bring those lessons of intersectionality, coalition-building and complex, fluid identities to our artistic collaborations, risk taking and genre-bending explorations.”

SUM is a room of our own, here and queer for not only a couple weeks, but all year.– SD Holman, SUM artistic director

Holman notes that for generations, LGBTQ people have had to carve our own spaces “out of a hostile world.”

“Spaces where we can sing and dance and draw and rhyme and fuck our resistance,” she says. “Spaces that meld struggle with celebration, politics with sex, serious purpose with more fabulous than anyone could ever swallow.”

Like the Queer Arts Festival that it grew from, SUM has been consciously created to be of these spaces.

“[It’s] a site for queer artists to do the things that are hard to do as queers in the art world, as well as those things that are hard to do as artists in the queer world, including — perhaps especially — at the intersections that get stonewalled in both of these worlds. Unlike QAF, SUM is a room of our own, here and queer for not only a couple of weeks, but all year.”

Read more about SUM Gallery here.

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