Common Aliens

Exhibition October 1—29, 2015
Thursday to Saturday 1—6 PM or by appointment (info@atelierceladon,com)
Vernissage October 1, 7:30—9:30 PM
Conference Closing Reception October 4, 7
—9 PM
Z Art Space (819 Avenue Atwater)

viola chen 陈宜晴  (closing reception only)
Yuki Kasaï Paré
Shani Kossally
Kristin Li (closing reception only)
Kosisochukwu Nnebe
Eli Oda Sheiner
Aletha Persaud
Cheryl Sim
Shanna Strauss

When asked about people’s failure to consider the impact of “race” and “ethnicity” in their experiences, values and behaviors, Scott, a White male, shares: “it is a defense against the “traumatic” consequences of having to deal with the “difference gap” – difference related to race, ethnicity and culture – between whites and non-whites.” For all the Scotts living in Canada that find themselves to be one of the dominant group members, such a “defense mechanism” is perpetuated continuously throughout their daily lived experiences.

In an attempt to reconcile these attitudes of exclusion, Common Aliens has provided a much needed platform to address repressed narratives of identity. Similarly, the artists included in the exhibition have insightfully shared their distinct experiences as visible minorities striving to better understand their own diasporic identity. By alluding to imagined homelands; encouraging a close reading of their mixed histoires through ambivalent attitudes of conflict and desire; and even conforming to imposed expectations of “otherness” using subversive means, these artists have well demonstrated the accrued nature of ethnic representation as a socio-political construct. As Carl E. James argues: “ethnicity is not simply a matter of individual choice: members of society play a role in defining ethnicity.”

On this occasion, Z Art Space is pleased to collaborate with l’Atelier Céladon on the nurturing of this ongoing dialogue.


Flashing through online sensations, and yet another instance of cultural appropriation in part by the latest pop stars, we shout about appropriation, calling out the continuous exploitation of people of colour’s bodies and cultures. We are begging the question: who owns culture? Thinking through and beyond motions of more traditional cultural reclamation, we bring nine Montreal-based artists in dialogue with the inaugural Common Aliens: Diaspora Conference, taking place on unceded Mohawk land and a gentrifying neighbourhood with a long but erased history of Black power. We seek to take space without drawing borders and re-present racialized cultural markers in an assemblage of ambiguity. Finding commonalities among differently marked members of what we call “a people of colour diaspora,” the artists featured in the Common Aliens exhibition present cultural objects that essentially move, but do not mark a fixed identity. How is it to be or feel alien?

The works featured in this exhibition point to a double alien-ness, one that is experienced within society – informed by white supremacy, colonialism, racism, sexism, among others – and another, internal one. This is fueled by an unstable identity that can be at once a source of oppression and of limitless creativity. It is the tension between the two which we put into motion through Common Aliens. In the window, we see a familiar garment. Yet many people will not know its name – cheongsam, nor its history. Cheryl Sim’s Hybrid Dresses are a vehicle for the artist’s research, from the object’s ambivalent social connotation to the construction of its personal meaning. Likewise, Yuki Kasaï Paré’s untitled mixed media on two wood panels and Eli Oda Sheiner’s KITAN CLUB Ceramics come together in their gesture toward sorting through multiple layers of racialized reality, ways of materially (re)connecting with one’s heritage and (re)learning to be oneself. We are putting the hybridity invested into the pieces themselves into dialogue with each other, and asking you to eavesdrop, add your two cents.

Drawing on fragments of reclaimed historical imagery and constructed present ones, the works Of Canaries and Revolutions by Kosisochukwu Nnebe, the exploratory Passive Legacy by Shani Kossally, or Shanna Strauss’ selection from the powerful The Floating Homeland series brings into question what it means to ground your roots. The particular duality of alien-ness is evident in viola chen’s performance 常回家看看 (come back home often) as well as Kristin Li’s video Two Snakes, both of which will be presented at the conference closing reception. The construction of home and navigating through one’s heritage, in order to own it, is a complex endeavour. Perhaps there is no state of belonging after all? The pervasiveness of misidentification and exotization is manifest in both Aletha Persaud’s installation I Knew You Were Some Kind of '-nese' and video montage Misc. Girl TV. While we deal with the effects of an uneven political, social, and economic dynamic of capitalist society and the persistence of colonial histories on Turtle Island, the Common Aliens artists together facilitate encounters in space for a collective search for self-love, healing, and the construction of alternate and unalienable realities through art.

CURATORS     Hera Chan, Sophie Le-Phat Ho, Kosisochukwu Nnebe


Dear visitor ... 

Artist Information

Conference Closing Reception 

Two Snakes | video | dir. Krstin Li

Two Snakes | video | dir. Krstin Li

Two Snakes
* special one-time screening * 

An experimental animation and documentary about diasporic desires for foundational myths. Seeking a home in reclaimed ancestry and seeking a self in reappropriated narratives and finding fragments instead. Features a soundtrack by Julie Matson. Originally created for OEDIV CISUM, a night of video art accompanied by live scores.

Kristin Li was born in Chengdu, China, and currently lives and works out of Montreal. As an emerging video artist, Kristin has made animations, documentaries, and experimental fiction that play on the incoherence of narratives: ambivalent diasporic longing for origin stories, religious fables perverted and reenacted, and neoliberal co-optations of queer imaginaries. Her work has been shown across North America, South America, and Europe, including the Chicago International Movies and Music Festival and Entzaubert Queer Film Festival. Kristin’s work is distributed by GIV (Montreal) and Video Out (Vancouver).

viola chen 陈宜晴 

viola chen 陈宜晴 

常回家看看 (come back home often)
video, performance, installation

the performance piece explores diasporic subjectivity as bodily experience. the subject is both a metaphorical and a physical manifestation of an alien, who is in constant negotiation and renegotiation with her surroundings. 

her body is partially submerged under water, in an inflatable pool that depicts a cheaply imprinted utopian landscape. within the pool floats a series of photographic prints that portray decontextualized snapshots of chinese natural landscapes, cityscapes, and domestic spaces. these photographs move around her as images that are at once sensibly close and fantastically distant. the content of the images and their materiality appear to be displaced: out of space and out of time.

the subject herself also appears to be out of space and out of time, as she gently wades around the pool’s water, seemingly without direction nor meaning as the photographic prints materially dissolve. the audience is encouraged to contemplate: what happens when the ink from the images dissolve into the water that immerse the subject? can home be imprinted onto the diasporic alien from the empirical world?

“常回家看看,” loosely translated from mandarin to english as “come back home often,” is a culturally popular chinese anthem that aims to evoke communal feelings of nostalgia, filial piety, and loyalty to the traditional family structure. but the diasporic subject’s understandings of language, social structures, and familial relations have been altered by migration and displacement. for her, the song poses an impossible invitation; home is no longer a specified place but rather a destination always out of reach.

the diasporic alien always belongs to another place, and is never confirmed in the present moment. she must wait for images of home to dissolve and to touch her body. she must wait for home to happen to her. others are waiting, too, but she does not know that they exist.

viola chen is also 陈宜晴 is also her grandmother. the name "viola" came arbitrarily from an electronic translation dictionary, but this memory no longer strikes her as tragic. viola has always been, and continues to be, a lil bug that likes to make art and to find new ways of relating to people. born in tianjin, china, she currently resides on the unceded territory of the Kahnawake Mohawk nation. 

her primary fields of study within academia revolve around east asian diasporic identities, popular cultures, immigration and settlement, and Indigenous sovereignty on Turtle Island. her favourite part of school is learning about the different ways in which people feel feelings.

the art she currently makes explore ideas of satisfaction, pettiness, nausea, and habit, particularly within gendered narratives. she is interested in the act of lying as a survival strategy. her sun is in taurus, and her moon and venus are in aries.

We would like to extend our thanks to Tianmo Zhang and Z Art Space for providing valuable support and helping to facilitate a space of sharing on this year's inaugural Common Aliens: Diaspora Conference 2015. Through conversations on the criticality of maintaining context in the circulation of art around the world, we have planted the seeds for a platform that we hope will only continue to inspire movement. 

We would like to thank the Equity Fund of the Students' Society of McGill University (SSMU). Its generous support has been a valuable resource without which our initiatives would not have been possible.