Yaniya Lee was born in Montreal and is now based in Toronto where she works as a writer, and associate editor at Canadian Art. Yaniya is establishing herself as a rising star in art criticism. Her work covers artists from marginalized identities and places them within Canada's art history. Once you first spot Yaniya at a talk or gallery show, it is often very memorable. She is striking with her elegance, and always warm. VSP chats with Yaniya about how collaboration can create change, her favourite Canadian artists, and how her style has evolved since coming from Montreal.
Tell us how you go about your practice.
I write, I organize and I edit, although how I do these things has changed over the years. I work as an editor at Canadian Art magazine, where I commission new writers and edit different writing on art and culture.
For me, writing is a form of thinking through. I’m usually drawn to artists who are marginalized in some way for my essays and reviews and interviews. I’m interested when their art can show an alternative to mainstream perspectives, or share experiences that are usually overlooked.
I'm also always trying to find new ways to collaborate. I think that reshaping our personal relationships is a way to create lasting change in our society. For example I was a member of MICE Magazine’s non-hierarchical collective for several years. We had members of different backgrounds and levels of experience, which was challenging but also proved to be quite radical. Last year, Laurie Kang and I created a performance together at The Table, and more recently I co-wrote an experimental essay with Rosa Aiello. These projects help me constantly redefine how I approach my practice.
Who are your top artists + Canadian artists right now?
I’m excited about a younger generation of artists out there. Tau Lewis’s sculpture is amazing, and she’s been showing at art fairs and galleries in Canada, the US and Europe. Oreka James and Aaron Jones, who are both in the BAU collective, have also been doing exciting work.
I have also been watching Sara Cwynar’s work for a while. Her film and photography are mesmerizing representations of our contemporary culture. And so are Caroline Monnet’s video and sculpture works, which weave together important histories into strong, simple artworks. I’m obsessed with the painter Joseph Tisiga, especially his 'Prop for Reconciliation' series where he pairs characters from Archie comics with representational tropes of Indigenous people.
I also love Divya Mehra’s conceptual work. She recently made a big green bouncy castle version of the Taj Mahal for an exhibition at the Art Gallery of Alberta. Whatever form she works in, she lays down incisive critiques of imperialism and everyday racism. She manages to make it funny, which is disarming and powerful.
This is just a few Canadian artists! I think it might take too long if I got into international artists I like right now too. I mean, Sondra Perry, Claire Fontaine, Adrian Piper, Tony Cokes, Liz Johnson Artur! There are so many.
What are some of the themes you focus on in your work?
In everything that I do I try to make space for difference and otherness. I focus on the notion of making space and looking differently. It’s about ethics and questioning the “how” of art as opposed to making value judgements on whether something is good or bad. It means looking at the bigger picture, considering what has gone unsaid, seeing who benefits at any given time. I do all this through praxis, and in collaboration.
I co-run an informal meeting for racialized artists and art workers with Michele Pearson Clarke, and I organize public events and workshops on different aspects of feminist and activist histories with the Emilia-Amalia working group. All these projects are meant to engage with or bring to the fore those people and practices that have gone unseen for too long.
I worked with the geographer Katherine McKittrick when I did my Master's in the Gender Studies at Queen's University. I was researching Black art in Canada. I wanted to find new language to represent how and where these practices happen in Canada, and why they are only now beginning to be a part of our canons. I want to question and rethink how we approach aesthetics. In short, it’s always about changing how we look.
How would you describe your style?
My style is toned way down from what it once was. I grew up in Montreal, which is all style. There, how you dress is a language, a form of expression. When I first moved to Toronto, I found it hard to adapt. People here are more subdued, or eccentric, in a way I didn't understand. I’m still figuring it out. I want to feel good in my clothes but I no longer need to make a statement. I like clothes that are simple and well designed, like Ashley Rowe, Black Crane, or Ilana Kahn, that I can mix with basics, like jeans, or white t-shirts.
What are you looking forward to this year?
There have been great leaps and strides in the representation of Black artists in Canada over the past several years. More institutions and government initiatives are supporting their work through awards and funding initiatives, and more collectors are buying work by Black artists, which means they can support themselves. I'm really looking forward to how these changes will take shape, and how that might help racialized artists starting out, or make room for more mature artists to get recognized.
As for my own projects, Zoe Sharpe, Fan Wu and I have been developing the first set of publications for a new press we're starting called Hiatus. Fan and Zoe are both excellent readers and brilliant poets. We laugh a lot when we’re together, and since we’re all doing this for the first, and it’s been exciting to think together on such a concrete project. We’re hoping to launch the first set of books in the fall or winter.