Abby Ho, Art Director, Project 40 Collective
L: You’re the art director for Project 40 and I want to get to all of that but first, I want to hear more about your background, growing up in Canada, I’ve never been there, how you got into art and all of that.
A: I grew up in Mississauga which is a suburb and I started doing art at a young age because my parents had enrolled me in art lessons. In a sense you could say that I’ve been creative for a large portion of my life but in terms of being more engaged with that it wasn’t until university and high school. The neighborhood I grew up in was pretty multicultural so I never really experienced racism but it was something I noticed more in university. My parents are really supportive of me doing art because they think my sister and I should do something we enjoy doing.
Your sister is an artist too then?
She’s a writer.
Oh awesome. If you can talk more about your schooling in relation to first experiencing racism there? I think ideally we like to think that by the time everyone gets to college they’re grown enough and it can somewhat be a safe space for higher thinking individuals, we like to think our generation is tolerant, diverse and accepting.
For one, the university I go to is predominantly white and there would be quite a few classes that I would go into and I’d be the only person of color and it was like, oh this is what it’s like. I know that in university people are more critically aware but there are certain times when people aren’t and you kind of just go, oh.. what the?! How do you not know? It’s a little bit strange.
Branching off into your involvement with Project 40, how did you folks all get together? There are what like five of you on staff?
In Toronto there are three big universities, I go to OCAD and my co-founder goes to UoFT and I went to the University of Toronto’s fellowship, the Christian fellowship there and so I met her there. That was kind of where we found people to work with but over the last year, it was through connections from friends like hey, this person is creative, she’s interested in the topics you’re interested in in Project 40 and so that’s how we got connected.
Where did the name come from?
Jasmine is the co-founder and she wrote 40 poems once and she worked with another artist and they collaborated to create a book and so it was 40 poems that went with 40 illustrations and basically through that experience she saw why doing things collaboratively was really beneficial to the community. Through that, she wanted to create something more from it so she thought of the name herself and I kind of just hopped on.
That’s interesting too because when we think of artists or making art, most of the time we think of the individual. For you personally, what does it mean to have a community of people that are reaching out to you guys and you’re the ones putting out their work? I imagine it can be rather emotional.
I think it’s really great. There are times when it’s a bit hard as we’re very young and sometimes it’s overwhelming but when you see the amount of people who can come out to some of our events, even if it’s less than 20, the conversation that happens is really fruitful. I’m really thankful we can do this. I think you’re right because a lot of the time art is only looking at the artist but I think art shouldn’t be something that’s just restricted to the maker and the people viewing the work, art comes from culture and culture is related to community. I feel art should be accessible to everyone.
If you could just talk more about how you view your own identity and the importance of it as an Asian artist in Canada? Why is it important to identify as an Asian artist and not just an artist?
When I tell people I’m an artist, I tell people that I’m a Chinese-Canadian artist and a lot of my work does actually talk about what it means to be Asian-Canadian, when you’re between two cultures and you’re trying to navigate that space there’s some negotiation that has to happen, it’s a give and take between what you end up identifying as and doing. I would definitely say that I lost the ability to speak Cantonese or write it, or read it, because I’m more influenced by being in a Western culture and so a lot of the work I do talks about this. I’m interested in exploring language and how I can re-gain part of my Chinese culture and if it’s possible to re-gain and if it’s not how do I create something new where it’s in between that space but is also very proud of being in between those cultures. Sometimes we aren’t proud, sometimes we just want to be one but we can’t, we’re obviously both.
Right, right. Are your parents very cultural? Did you grow up with Chinese customs and if not, you really are navigating this space on your own per se?
My parents aren’t very traditional but when I was younger we did the traditional things you do during Chinese New Year and stuff but as I’ve gotten older, it’s a little bit more of oh, whatever. I wouldn’t say they’re more Western, they’re definitely more conservative Chinese people but I would say it’s kind of something I’m searching for myself. Even though my parents are really supportive, it’s kind of through the relatives that are like, “how come you can’t speak Chinese if you’re a Chinese person? You should work on your Chinese. You hold your chopsticks so well,” those sorts of phrases that you can sort of brush past but if you hear it so often you’re kind of peeved and annoyed by it.
Does that ever make you feel insecure or made out to feel different in a way that’s pushed you to find this culture you’re “missing”?
Or when you walk into a classroom at university and you’re the only person of color in the room, does that make you feel empowered or insecure?
I don’t feel insecure but I wouldn’t say I feel really empowered either. Hmm, how do I say this… I wouldn’t say I feel insecure, it’s more like this is the situation and then it makes me question, should I speak up more because I’m the only one? Is it wrong to not say anything? Because it’s not in my personality to be very extroverted as well. There’s a lot of questioning that happens and it’s not necessarily because I’m insecure of myself in that situation, it’s just I’m more aware of how I might act.
Hmm, so in a sense you kind of feel a weird sense of responsibility then?
Mhmm yeah. There is an aspect of other-ing that kind of happens but I question whether I do it myself or if it’s in the situation I’m in.
Yeah that’s interesting too because I find in conversation or when you read things, a lot of the time it’s about identifying with a distinct label but I always question if that’s a part of the whole problem of feeling like an other? Because we’re aware of our “other-ness” and thus single ourselves out? I don’t really know what the answer is to that.
Me neither, I sometimes question if it’s bad that I create work about this identity. There are so many things you can talk about and is it bad to fixate on this? At the same time, I don’t believe it’s bad to because as Asian people, our history — I can’t speak for the States but our history in Canada has been ignored and it’s important to start acknowledging it a little bit more.
Yeah in the States it’s like we’re always brushed off as being a certain stereotype. In Hawaii, it’s different though because we have such an Asian influenced culture as it is, almost everyone is racially mixed here and so I’m in a similar situation as you to where I never really experienced racism either until I went to New York and people were yelling “nihao” at me.
Yeah it’s interesting how that changes with the space you’re in.
Definitely. What you were saying earlier, I feel like so much of being an artist is being self-aware. To what extent do you think that statement is true?
I definitely think it’s true, as artists you should be aware. Part of me also thinks that if you’re a person of color as an artist, you’re also even more aware. I was at a talk and the person was saying that she felt that when you’re a person of color you’re always aware and in her own experience when she was walking on a sidewalk with her mom, her mom would move out of the way for the person coming in front of them and it’s all these little action that we take just because we’re used to being sidelined and excused and not seen as someone who should be able to do the things they want to do or say what they want to say.
Have you ever thought about going back to China just to experience the culture there and not only see, but live the differences? It’s interesting and so different when you try to carve out a space or understanding of your culture but don’t really know what it’s like to live in the country of your heritage. I’ve only gone to Japan once and that was for a skateboard trip. Japan is where my family comes from and I was somewhat hoping to feel this sense of, oh I’m back, but I still felt a certain difference which was weird but to be expected I guess.
It’s funny because I feel the same way. When I go to Hong Kong, it’s where my parents are from and I enjoy it there but my parents always tease me, they’re like, you’re not going home, you’re going to visit, you’re not from there; or when I go, my relatives always say that they can tell I’m not from here because of the way you dress and the way you tlak. There’s definitely a distance, I feel like I try hard to try to connect with it. Every time I travel back I bring back all the little receipts from the places I go, the advertisements, I’ll bring it all back because I feel like I want to have a physical connection with that place even though it really isn’t home for me. Does that make sense?
It does! It’s a weird thing too because in a sense you know your parents are right, this isn’t where you’re from and it’s not the culture you grew up in. What you were saying too about art being culture and that translating into community, I feel like that’s why for you folks at Project 40 you all really connect and connect on a deep level. You’re all carving out a space that exists in uncharted territory almost.
Yeah I definitely think so. We want more representation in the Toronto art scene and this is a way to do it. Especially because a lot of Asian parents do not support their children going into the arts, this is a way to show them that there is support for emerging artists or even anyone interested in dabbling into the arts.
Can you explain the current state of the art world in broad terms? Do you see it to be democratic? It’s sort of kind of become a popularity contest, a lot of it inevitably has to do with social media and everyone is so fixated on a certain hierarchy of cool in the art world.
I feel like there is a community in the arts, there is a lot of support for artists amongst artists but at the same time there is a competition of wanting to make it and be able to create a career out of it for yourself. I definitely think there is an elitist aspect to it as well, I feel like it’s hard to enter into the art world, community arts is a little bit easier but if you want to be a person who shows in a gallery, it’s hard to put your work out there and the art world really depends on your connections which is community based but also very cliquey.
Do you think that’s complete bullshit? When you think about it, everyone tries to put art on this high horse of it being self-expression but at the end of the day, artists have to pay the bills too.
I think it kind of sucks, there’s not enough opportunity for everyone or every artist to show their work, it typically just stays within a circle. I wouldn’t want to be someone who shows my work in a gallery, I don’t want that to be the main focus if I was to become an artist to pay the bills. I think you’re basically put your work on a wall for a select few people, people with money, people who will pay to see it and I wish there was a little bit more there which is why I think I enjoy doing community arts more.
Yeah if you could talk more about your art too on a more specific note. Are there any themes your currently working with or do you have a favorite medium?
I like doing a lot of paper cut-outs, I call them paper sculptures because I will do drawing with ink on paper and then I’ll cut through the negative space and create a sculpture out of it. I think I do really enjoy talking about identity and what does it mean to have a hyphenated identity. I used to do a lot of painting and now I’m looking into commercial objects a bit.
Cool! Yeah and I mean with sculpture, it seems like those objects occupy the same physical space that you mentioned earlier as the mementos you’d bring back from Hong Kong, you can interact with it, it’s 3-D.
I’m interested in having the viewer have to do something with the art work even if it’s just walking around it to see it at all sides. There is a lot of history with a painting on a wall and in some ways I just think it’s not as engaging.
When you talk about engaging I think when we engage with art nowadays so much of it is on the Internet, do you think there’s an element that’s lost with everything being so digital?
I definitely think there’s an element that’s lost. I really believe artwork should be viewed in person, it’s not always possible but it’s different viewing it on a screen versus viewing it in person unless it’s like on Instagram promoting your work. I don’t know how to say it but it’s more breathtaking in person.
To what extent is your art influenced by emotion?
It’s kind of influenced by emotion, there’s a little bit of anger when I talk about this kind of thing. Or for example, I did this piece in the form of self-portraits and all the portraits look really angry because I was very annoyed that I didn’t know how to recognize myself within the culture that I am in. It’s not necessarily the point that I want the viewer to be able to experience my own emotion in the work but I want them to be able to be more intimate with it and take a second look at the piece when I create something.
With this anger, ever since you’ve been involved with Project 40, do you think that anger has dissipated into something — not more proactive, but in a sense you know? Or is it something that you’re continuing to harness? That’s how everyone kind of starts off until they find their niche or community.
I do think it’s a little more proactive, it’s kind of like when you want something but you don't really do anything about it. Project 40 is a way for me to do something about the tension that I feel, the anger is still there because it’s something that I want to work with in my art. Yesterday, they were saying that my work is too polite at the criticism, but I feel like emotion is important in your art work because then you can really express yourself honestly so I’m still harnessing that haha.
Yeah so much of art, and making “good art” is so much about knowing how to translate emotion into something that’s going to make an impact on a wide audience of individuals or even strangers. Do you ever feel like art makes you too vulnerable?
Maybe not yet. So yesterday at the crit when they were saying my work was too polite and that I need to be, not necessarily aggressive but to be more honest in the work, I was a little bit uncertain because I was like I don’t want to be — well, their advice was you’re either more vocal or aggressive in your work or you’re so polite in your work that it makes the viewer uncomfortable. I went home thinking that I’m not sure if I want to do really aggressive because that’s not really how I speak, but I don’t really want to be so passive aggressive that when someone views the work they might also think of me as passive aggressive but it’s knowing the line between the art and the artist. Because I feel that when you create art, it is your baby and you put so much work into it that when someone says something negative about it, it does make you feel very vulnerable and it’s a direct jab and it’s hard not to be offended. I think it’s important to step back too, if you hold it too closely you can’t see past it and you can’t move forward in making something better afterwards either.
That’s interesting because I feel like a lot of the time, the only criticism that you value is the stuff you almost don’t want to hear. It sticks with you because it’s kind of true which isn’t necessarily what you wanted to think.
When I create work that is about my hyphenated identity, I do want to hear the opinion of someone who hasn’t been in my own shoes so it can welcome them into my perspective but they can also tell me what an outsider’s opinion of it is. If I’m only stuck in my own shell and I’m only sheltered by the opinions I want to hear, the work isn’t going to be very great.
What have your classmates said? Do you find that they’re able to empathize with you in a genuine way?
They can empathize I think because a lot of the work I create is to start a conversation. They might not empathize with the personal experience but they can help give me feedback in terms of how to make it artistically better which I think is just as valid as someone who relates to the piece and agrees with it and thinks it’s a good piece.
Right, and with Project 40 can you talk more about the events you do? Is it in connection with the outside community or is it within your group or the people who identity with you folks?
We do want to expand our community and there have been several ways we’ve been doing that through our magazine which is like an open callout to any artist who identifies as an Asian-Canadian, so in a sense that’s a little more closed to the specific experience but we hold workshops and those workshops are more open ended to invite anyone to come. We also have our meet and mingles. I think because we are so small right now, it’s sometimes seems like we’re only working within our group but those people we’ve been working with have been invited to join, we’re pretty open arms.
Yeah and for you still being a student, Project 40 sounds like it’s a big emotional responsibility too. It’s not just about you folks anymore solely, it’s about this community of individuals who you may not necessarily know but they’re relying on you folks to put their work out, have workshops, build community etc. How does the latter impact you?
There are so many things we want to do in the future, we’ve been around for a year and it is a little bit daunting. This whole experience has been a very big learning experience and curve because we didn’t know how to do any of this stuff when we were starting out, in a way, doing Project 40 has also helped me to be more confident in my voice, to talk about these things. When I see the people who come out or submit their work, I’m kind of like yeah, there is a need for this and it’s not that we’re the only ones doing it, I’m discovering other collectives that are looking to do the same things and it’s like we’re all on this journey to get more representation together.
How many more years of school do you have and do you have any plans for what’ll happen after school?
I’m graduating in 2017 and will continue with Project 40 for a couple years and I wanted to take up another arts-related job, maybe arts administration and I’m considering doing art therapy but that’s not for a while.
Art therapy that sounds interesting!
Yeah haha it’s like music therapy but with art.
Yeah I mean art is so cathartic in so many senses too, it’s like your subconscious almost.
Mhmm but I don’t know if I want to study it or just continue doing workshops and helping out with teaching art because it’s not the same but teaching art does provide an outlet for people to experience art in a relaxing manner.
What conclusions have you come to throughout this whole experience? I was reading your bio on the website and you’re exploring your multiple selves and how are you making sense of all of that and what have you come to understand?
I think I’ve come to understand that it’s okay to not know. It’s okay too not know all the answers basically, it’s okay to feel insecure or to feel other-ed because there are others who feel the same way and I think when you discover the people who feel the same way, it’s the way you can create community and work through it together.
In your ideal world, what would you like to see happening? What kind of community, level of acceptance, opportunities do you envision or hope for?
I hope there will be more collectives who engage with this identity and have conversations. I wish there were more conversations about this and those conversations can become something, artists collectives or media representation. Just more Asian artists who are empowered to continue to create art.
Is there a reason why there aren’t as many of these conversations going on?
I think there haven’t been a lot of platforms to talk about it, there are but they’re not always focused on the Asian identity, not that they have to be but being more specific isn’t a bad thing.
To wrap it up, what are some big self doubts or things you’re going through personally that you’re working on or towards? How do you keep your head level with such a large emotional burden?
I do have doubts that I can’t carry Project 40 forward. I don’t always feel like I’m good enough for it but it’s such cliche, but if you fake it till you fake it, you can do it. I think in the past year I’ve learned that I’m not alone in doing it and as we take on more members on our team, it’s more reassuring that there is a possibility for Project 40 to exist a few years down the line.