Elisha Lim is a queer and transgender story-teller and graphic novelist, whose book 100 Crushes was published by Koyama Press and nominated for a Lambda. Lim has created award winning claymation films, solo and group exhibits, curatorial projects and founded the annual anti-racist Montreal art festival "Qouleur." Lim holds a Masters of Fine Arts in Criticism and Curatorial Practice at OCAD University and is currently writing a PhD at U of T on race and social media.
A Letter from former TSG Curator Elisha Lim
Seven years ago I curated That’s So Gay because I wanted to make a difference. The previous year I had been invited to participate in the Gladstone’s annual Pride exhibit as an artist and I had discovered that I was 1 of 4 artists of colour in the exhibit’s entire history. I took over the following year and curated 12 artists of colour. And when I say I took over, I mean it. I had just arrived in Toronto, fresh on the heels of founding Montreal's first queer of color festival. I pulled up to the Gladstone and demanded to curate in a radical new way, and I was warmly welcomed. Diversity was still new enough to the Gladstone that the press to called it “a provocative spin.” It was triumphant and awesome and fit so well with my brand at the time: unapologetic QTBIPOC visibility.
The following year, Syrus Ware took over and I'm so grateful because he has always dedicated his lifework to revolution. The exhibit has stayed diverse, accessible and thoughtfully researched beyond reputations and friend networks. And so I was pleased when Syrus invited me to write a few words for Eleventeen, because lately I’ve been thinking about revolution.
A lot of people have been thinking about revolution as covid loosens all of the world’s seams around the graphic guts of global capitalism. For
a moment it seemed like our collective frustration finally burst as the first world exploded in riots against extrajudicial police killings of Black people. But how fast that got co-opted by social media memes, and then branding exercises, and then polished PR solidarity statements, and then back to silence. The hushed acquittal of the brother of racist policeman Michael Theriault. The silenced story of Regis Korchinski-Paquet. The genteel handshake of the Toronto police force budget raise.
What does it mean to be queer? It means being adversarial, subversive, and too smart to believe that capitalist solidarity is on our side. Lately I’ve been reading. I've been reading that since the 1970s free trade recessions, markets have gravitated towards neoliberal values of lean, versatile, fast, flexible, diversified, disruptive, up-to-the-minute competition. That's why everything we buy breaks or goes obsolete in a year. That's why local and federal governments push for privatization and deregulation, the erosion of social programs, cuts to long-term stable jobs, and gentrified, gated estates surrounded by state funded police. That's why good jobs are exported to third world countries where centuries of imperial free trade, international development and corrupt debt burdens have produced an underclass of indentured labour. That's why we are part of a growing working class, watching the worst of the social and environmental destruction cascade down on the third world landless poor.
But the tools we could use to fight are also being acquisitioned into market capital. Identity politics, the movement that first brought me into art and curating and queer people of colour visibility, are transforming. I've been thinking about this change. I call it "identity economics." Our current era of flexible accelerated neoliberalism promises wealth, status and diversity - if we make identity politics a hustle - if we post it as social media content, if we market ourselves as influencers, if we spin identity politics into creative entrepreneurialism, if we make a difference while also self-promoting.
As an activist curator I believed that was social justice work. It's a fantasy greased by the residual Protestant work ethic rooted deep in North American society that shapes me. Success, righteousness and redemption are the entitlements of virtue, piety, calling out sinners, sacrificing to the hustle and following my passionate personal vocation.
Social media is a conspicuous showcase for this lucrative Christian story arc: heroically overcoming adversaries, fastidiously retweeting the “right” social causes, vigilantly crusading with our insiders versus our outsiders, watching relentless algorithms rank and rate public virtues and sins. My art and my activism and my identity politics gradually spun into a personal branding exercise. This is bad for sustainability, solidarity, and heart.
Since their inception in the 1960s, identity politics have always struggled against the allure of individual advancement. Audre Lorde passes this knowledge down to us, based on her first hand observations:
"The civil rights and Black power movements rekindled possibilities for disenfranchised groups within this nation. Even though we fought common enemies, at times the lure of individual solutions made us careless of each other… We know in the 1980s, from documents gained through the Freedom of Information Act, that the FBI and CIA used our intolerance of difference to foment confusion and tragedy in segment after segment of Black communities of the 60s."
Today the FBI and CIA can relax. The celebrity catapult of a Twitter callout is enough to scatter our collective spirit.
Identity economics is a neoliberal temptation we have to resist. But that's harder than it sounds, because how else are we going to establish unique reputations? How else are we going to get speaking gigs? How else are we going to attract stable careers? Social media platforms thrive on the garish violence of capitalism seeping into every sacred corner of our lives.
We can take strength from the stories of so many radical Toronto queer artists of colour who have smuggled revolution into this city, who forced sets council juries to diversify, who forced equitable hiring quotas, who made sure artists of colour get equal pay. These artists aren't famous brand names and social media marquees. Because that's not what they were working for. They worked, and accomplished, painstaking, long, slow, hard collective empowerment that continues to make life better in this city. There are so many inspiring stories, to name a few: Lillian Allen, Shirley Bear and all of Minquon Panchayot; Glace Lawrence and Freedom Fest; Punam Khosla and Desh Par Desh; CAN:BAIA and the BVFN; Richard Fung and Orientations; Andrea Fatona and The State of Blackness; Syrus Ware and his persistently radical artistic and curatorial vision.
This neoliberal economic regime aims to divide and conquer our QTBIPOC generation, and the next. So let's cast off the weight of identity economics. We're not gay as in happy. We're not gay as in corporate endorsed Twitter celebrity. We're not gay as in municipal homonormative gentrification projects. We're queer as in capitalism must die.