When a friend of mine shared the news of the new Alberta Artist in Residence on social media, they were understandably leery of the decision. The current government hasn’t exactly been discreet about some faith-based motivations underlying their legislative decision making.
Most recently, their leaked school curriculum revision recommendations proposed that we teach bible verses as poetry in our public schools in the first grade. We also need to look at the 21 of the 26 post-secondary institutions that faced provincial cuts; the only ones that escaped this outcome were five Christian or Catholic post secondary institutions (with the caveat that Concordia has technically become secular since 2016). I’d argue it’s thinly veiled religious reasoning that instructed the current government to push 2019’s Bill 8, which wiped out protections that allowed students to form Gay Straight Alliances in public schools (look at Harvest Baptist Academy’s reflection on this topic).
Within this tempest, the Government of Alberta’s ultimate choice of Joal Kamps, a self-described “free-spirited singin’, songwritin’, storytellin’ sensation, passionate about connecting with audiences through music and laughter,” as Alberta Artist in Residence feels…well, complicated.
In a posting that specifically outlines that “applications from all artists are encouraged, including artists from the following communities: Indigenous artists, culturally diverse artists, Deaf artists and artists with disabilities, Francophone artists, 2SLGBTQIA+ artists, new generation artists, emerging artists, and youth” it feels particularly intentional that the best man for the job happened to be a white, middle class, Christian man.
…we are in a world and a time where we’re faced with tremendous opportunities to rectify and acknowledge the pains of the past that continue to be open wounds in our present.
To be perfectly clear, there isn’t anything wrong about being Christian, being white, being a man, or being middle class. But what’s striking about this decision is that we are in a world and a time where we’re faced with tremendous opportunities to rectify and acknowledge the pains of the past that continue to be open wounds in our present. Instead, public funding is supporting art that already has access, power, mobility, intergenerational wealth, and legitimacy. We already KNOW bible-inspired art has merit.
We call it Shakespeare, Shaw, Eugene O’Neil, Lorca, Picasso, van Gogh, Tolkien, and most definitely C.S. Lewis. Even J.K. Rowling’s mythology is entirely predicated on a Christian and European locus of knowledge. For the record, the highest budget theatre company in Canada is the Stratford Festival, coming in at a whopping $60 million annually ($3 million of which is from public funding).
Well, maybe Kamp’s work is more specifically related to a direct Christian-themed art. With song lyrics like “Hey God, I’m learning to pray, but it’s hard and I’m just not sure what to say,” his work is not only culturally Christian, but evidently, deeply and spiritually Christian. That’s all well; that’s not a problem! However, that’s also a multi-billion-dollar industry. Take a look at Hillsong and the megachurches, which amplify all sorts of Christian artists, peppered across the United States and Canada. There is nothing remotely parallel to this in the Muslim, Buddhist, Jewish, or any other religious group in the world.
When we’re watching the world reckon with the legacy of white supremacy and American and Christian imperialism the world over, it feels like a deeply tactless, insensitive decision to prioritize his work before some of these other finalists, who’ve had so little voice because of the same Christian supremacy this person’s art contributes to. We’ve literally been watching Indigenous communities ravaged and brutalized across the country from Wet’suwet’en to the Mi’ kmaq Nation in Nova Scotia. We’ve been parading around the public lynching of Black bodies on our social media in desperate attempts at social change; if we yell into the void hard enough something will change. But the yelling was never the social change. It was the signal to reprioritize our money, our culture, and our policies. These are the seeds of the real change we’re advocating. So again, it feels particularly insensitive that this artist was selected by this government… especially when there was ample opportunity to share the mic with those shortlisted.
Joal: a quick google search can show you innumerable wealthy philanthropic individuals and organizations that would love to support your work. You have a chance to turn to them because the rest of us have had to band together in our eclectic make up of queer, brown, Black, disabled, deaf, Indigenous, and all the crossroads in between our experiences in order to fight just for scraps of funding.
…this isn’t simply about who gets the funding and gets the role of Alberta Artist in Residence. This is about a shifting of consciousness…
We’ve resorted to the collective will of public funding to fight for our survival. The affirmative action initiatives of the 80s work. But we need to continue this commitment. Public funding has an ethical opportunity to lean into a posture of affirmative action. We should be deliberate in nurturing a generation of Black, Indigenous, and people of colour (amongst other intersections of marginalization) as artists in order to come to a true and dignified meritocracy. And this isn’t simply about who gets the funding and gets the role of Alberta Artist in Residence. This is about a shifting of consciousness, a displacement of Eurocentric ideals as the only legitimate way of existing. This is about equitable reformations to the status quo (which is so damaging it would need a whole other essay to begin unpacking). We are all here, we have all shaped Canada.
Surely my rhetoric above contributes to the sentiment that marginalized people are only getting anything because of affirmative action efforts. A professor once told me, “you’ll get all the grants, you’re gay and Arab.” But no one has ever told a white boy that the only reason he might get what he gets is because he’s white – because he’s inherited the cultural, economic, and political wealth of being white (and/or Christian). Instead, he gets to be the blank slate of meritocracy.
For the record, I didn’t get the grants I applied for in that year.
Again, I want to be extremely careful to iterate that this isn’t an attack on Christianity or white people, or on Joal Kamps, undoubtably a fine, talented, and hard-working artist. I’m also inspired by the role model of the exemplary person named Jesus Christ (who, it’s worth noting, was a brown skinned Arab Jew, born mere kilometres from where I was born in Lebanon).
My work, for all intents and purposes, is about as Alberta as it gets. I am made of this land. But I would never be described as inspired by the history and folklore of this land. I am often described as ‘immigrant experience,’ as if white Albertans never immigrated. To be brown and Black in this province is to be an outsider and an immigrant, no matter how long you’ve been here. To be Indigenous in this province means you’re invisible or you’re working for the Indigenous arts centres and initiatives only – the sad irony of that.
I hope Kamps feels some sensitivity for what is happening in our province, in our nation, and around the world, and I hope he would consider giving this opportunity to someone else.
It is crucial that we hold an ethic of equity and we need each of us to be in the active pursuit of anti-oppression.
But I see everything from a very specific lens. I don’t know if I’m right. I don’t know what white boys are supposed to do right now. I don’t want them to become the missing and the murdered or the ones facing police brutality while IBPOC people become the artists and politicians. That’s not the answer either. But even as I express this, it feels like a very distant possibility. It is crucial that we hold an ethic of equity and we need each of us to be in the active pursuit of anti-oppression. I sometimes feel like: how can I ask a generation of white people to give space at the cost of their ambitions and desires in their life? I know intergenerational privilege is real, but a person only gets to live their one life. How do we reconcile that?
I hope my argument is clear that innocuous inequities, like selecting an Alberta Artist in Residence who comes from overly represented communities, understandably scaffold into real atrocities. I hope in light of the real atrocities committed against marginalized people, this ask of sharing economic, political, and cultural space feels well founded.
The truth is somewhere between all of us.
Makram Ayache is a community-engaged theatre artist and educator who splits his time between Edmonton and Toronto. His playwriting explores meaningful representations of queer Arab voices and his relationship to Lebanon. He often endeavours to bridge complex and interlocking political struggles to the very intimate and real experiences of the people impacted by them.