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Kiran Ambwani’s Can-Asian Artistic Resilience project: Photography in solidarity with the Asian community

Montréal, Quebec

Kiran Ambwani is a portrait and documentary photographer based in Montreal. She is a member of the board of directors of Festival Accès Asie, the first festival in the series of Montreal summer festivals to be confronted with pandemic restrictions and have to go online in May 2020. The festival’s digital transition and the pool of Asian-Canadian artists who participated in it inspired her to develop a project called Can-Asian Artistic Resilience. From the beginning of the lockdown, Kiran wanted to use this project to give visibility to artists from this community who were facing higher levels of racism due to the pandemic. People who looked like they might be Chinese (Indonesians, Filipinos, Vietnamese, etc.) said they had been victims of an increase in racist behaviours.

For some artists, this was a daily reality. There was a woman who told me she avoided going to the grocery store for a month because every time she went, she felt like people were looking at her strangely.

Kiran gathered 135 personal stories for her project in order to describe the challenges and the realities of Asian artists during the pandemic and to show the contributions of this community. “They aren’t viruses. They’re human beings, artists, creators. They bring life and joy. And we should celebrate that.”

Grateful for the federal Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) program, she used the income from it and her time in isolation at home to familiarize herself with Zoom, which she hadn’t encountered prior to the pandemic. What started out as discussions and conversations evolved into screenshot photo sessions of the artists, whom she interviewed in their own environments (their homes, studios, countries, etc.). The photos complemented the artists’ words, the image representing each person’s universe, thereby giving additional insight into their situation during the pandemic.

The Innovations: Screenshot photography and a new artistic approach

As a documentary photographer, Kiran has always placed great importance on contact and human connection in her work, and resilience is a subject she often explores in her projects. The innovative aspect of Can-Asian Artistic Resilience was the use of videoconference platforms such as Zoom, Messenger, WhatsApp, and FaceTime, which allowed her to continue photographing people despite the isolation and distance. Since she didn’t have to leave home, she was quickly able to go from the 60 artists involved in the Festival Accès Asie to 135 artists living from coast to coast across Canada and even in other countries.

Screenshots had the advantage of expanding the geographic scope of her connections. This didn’t come without its challenges, however. The number one challenge? “The network!” The quality of the subject’s Internet connection and computer equipment had a direct impact on the resolution of the screenshot image. Powerless to fix the situation, the photographer had to adapt her artistic approach. She let go of controlling the aesthetics of her image and accepted the reality of the artist at the other end of the video conversation. At first, she was uncomfortable with the lower-quality images, but over time she developed an appreciation of the (over)pixelation and the “very grainy” texture that this new medium allowed her to capture.

Another very important artistic adaptation was the new and very participatory approach that resulted from meeting outside the studio, in the subject’s own environment and private space. “In this project, my subjects were involved from start to finish, beginning with the creation of the image, because we started with their space, then we looked for the best light source, the most interesting angle to position their telephone, their computer.”

In her studio, Kiran was usually the one who directed her models. But when she began working remotely, discussion and dialogue became distinct characteristics in the organization of her work. The models were involved in deciding how they wanted to be seen and how to present their realities, which gave Kiran some very interesting artistic challenges, as seen in the following two examples:

An artist said to me, “So, I’m a transgender artist. Sometimes I’m a man, sometimes I’m a woman. Can you capture that in a Zoom image?” Okay… how do you do that?! I ended up editing on Photoshop, and I tried to present different facets.

The last one I did was in the artist’s living room, where there was a ballet barre and her two cats. Earlier she had told me that she had been dancing in her living room with her two cats. So we had her start by dancing in her living room, and I took screenshots. The final shot was obviously with her cat because that was her reality.

One aspect that Kiran really appreciated was the participatory approach, which allowed her to evolve as an artist. She foresees using this approach in her future projects.

Mosaic of photos of 130 artists of Asian origin. Source: Kiran Ambwani.

The Financials: Emergency government assistance, but the project’s future remains up in the air

Kiran no longer receives the CERB, and her photo contracts have started up again. She is seeking grants to sustain the Can-Asian Artistic Resilience project, which would allow her to dedicate more time to it. She applied for three grants, two of which are still being considered, one of which has been rejected. She would like to develop a bilingual website to give artists from across Canada a platform where they can share their art with each other and the public free of charge.

While awaiting funding, she has put her project on hold. The next step would be to hire a programmer and a translator, which would cost several thousand dollars that she doesn’t have. She hopes to receive grant money or else she will have to find volunteers to do the work for free. Her deadline to secure financing and resources is May 2022. Kiran is motivated and believes in her project. “If I don’t find anyone, maybe I’ll just do it myself, and it will be a little less polished.”

The Takeaways: Artistic adaptation and community development

Two main aspects of Can-Asian Artistic Resilience stand out for Kiran: artistic adaptability and community development.

During the pandemic, Kiran demonstrated flexibility and the ability to adapt on several occasions. She developed a new work method—a collaborative approach—that she was able to add to her toolbox. She also adapted to a new kind of visual aesthetics in her photography.

The project began with 60 artists involved in the Festival Accès Asie and ended with 135 artists from various regions across Canada. Despite the social vacuum created by the complete shutdown of artistic events—openings, exhibitions, shows, and so forth—this project allowed her to stay connected to the community. She hopes that these beautiful encounters will eventually lead to other projects and collaborations.

Kiran gathered all of these personal stories not only to show and promote the reality of Asian artists, but also to show that, despite everything, artists will continue to create. She hopes that this project will motivate other artists and communities to stay connected, help each other, and be in solidarity with one another. Kiran also hopes that her Can-Asian Artistic Resilience project will show other communities the positive contributions that the Asian community has made and thus combat the racism that affects it.

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Residents at Tiffany Village Retirement Residence in St. John’s, Newfoundland enjoy a digital performance of Handel’s Messiah. Photo credit: Tiffany Village Retirement Residence.