Breaking news! White lady's voice hijacked by women from the DTES. Why won't they just shut up and let her help them?

I. just. can’t. even.

I am a little behind on the news here, so please accept my apologies to those who have already been angry, and have perhaps moved on since then. Just recently this story was relayed to me by a prof, who was actually in attendance at a conference called “Absence, Silence, Action, and Voice in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside” at SFU back in August.

A guest speaker at the conference was local artist, Pamela Masik. A woman who, as far as I can tell from her website….loves to look at pictures of herself.

So much so that she tends to stick herself right into shots of her artwork. In the most humble of ways. Like right in front of the faces of the women she supposedly intends to ‘make us see’.

The project she was invited to speak about was a collection called ‘The Forgotten’; described on her site as “deeply moving….with a serious social message.” Apparently Ms. Masik thought she would generously donate her time, talent, and voice, “to a greater social cause,” by creating large portraits of the missing and murdered women from the DTES, minus the permission of the women, their family, or their community.

Among acclaim, this project also garnered a significant amount of controversy and criticism. Some of which came from the actual family and friends of the women she so generously decided to capture (often graphically and violently – many of the women’s faces are bloody and battered).

From what I gather (as I was not present I can only speak from a second-hand persepective) some activists from the Dowtown Eastside attended the conference. With the intent to question and/or criticize the artist. Perhaps to create a dialogue. What Pamela wanted was not this. She wanted to speak. And she wanted everyone to shut up and listen. But alas,  “these women [were] so blind and deaf to any greater perspective on the issues…..” Oh no she didn’t. ‘Greater perspective’? No stop. Don’t. Just don’t. And because they dared to criticize, they dared to speak, Pamela left. This, is “the moral distance that Masik goes.”

I think somebody missed the class on post-colonial theory. This woman has been traveling the globe, promoting her art, making her voice heard. She has all SORTS of privilege that goes, not only, unacknowledged, but denied. And when she is confronted by the very people her work impacts, by women from the community, women who knew and loved these women she has used, to a certain extent, to make a name for herself, dare to criticize, to challenge, she accuses them of (no joke) “hijacking the conference.” The conference she was invited to speak at. I mean, how DARE, anyone have a voice but her? She is the artist, isn’t she? She is the one who deserves to be heard, right? Above all others? Oh but wait, wasn’t this supposed to be about the women? Nope. no. It is about her. Her image, her voice, her comfort level, her “God-given right” to make art. Out of other peoples lives, other peoples images. Women who have had no voice, women who have been marginalized, in life and in death. Now their voice is….Pamela Masik’s?

The way in which she has imposed herself, literally and figuratively, on the lives and experiences of women and a community that she has no real understanding of and, more importantly , no desire to listen to or understand, is simply unbelievable. The way in which she places herself in front of the images for photo ops, imposing herself, her status and her privilege upon the images of the women parallels  the way in which her attitude of defensiveness and self-centeredness is imposed upon the voices and experiences of those she claims to be speaking for. Did you ever ask, Pamela, if these women wanted your voice? Whether they wanted your gaze, your interpretation, your vision? From a position of power, we need to, at the very least, listen. With humility.

Instead, when confronted by criticism from the community, she claims that “the conference was hijacked” (editor’s note — Masik has since deleted the post in which she claims the conference was ‘hijacked’, providing no comments as to why she has done so; showing a complete lack of integrity or transparency. The quotes in this piece were taken from that post, found on Masik’s website in August 2010. In some circumstances I’ve been able to link to screen shots taken from her original post, though not all.) That’s right. Hijacked. By the DTES community. The community she claims to be representing. And helping.  She writes: “There was so much hostility in the room by a group of women from the DTES, who, no matter what I said, or how I confronted their issues and concerns, obviously came with an agenda.” A group of women from the DTES?! How dare they speak! An agenda?! Gasp! Could they possibly have had opinions? Thoughts? Criticisms? Is it possible they came with a desire to make their voices heard? Or even to have a dialogue? With this woman who claims to be so interested in “the greater social cause” that is their lives? I suppose that cause is only attractive to her so long as those who she imagines herself to be championing for, and so long the victims, remain silent. She considers herself to be generous because she was “polite” to those scary stangers in the DTES. She seems to think that she herself was marginalized because “some of [her] collectors…wouldn’t come into the area, park their cars to visit [her] in [her] studio.” Wow. That must have been tough. So some people wouldn’t come and give you money for your art? You definitely understand what it is to be colonized, and marginalized, and oppressed, and murdered.

The thing is, that, in some ways, she is right. Her art is her art. And people have a right to create art. They do. What is wrong is not necessarily that she made it, but rather her reaction to criticism from the community. When she could have listened, she refused. When she could have made an attempt to understand, she instead was defensive. Instead of humility she showed entitlement and claimed a “God given right to create” (yes really, those words). Instead of imagining that maybe, just maybe, she did not, and could not, not ever, understand the experiences of these women, she claimed that she was them and they were her. She claimed to be a bringer of truth. ANDOHWAIT. She volunteers. Do you know what that means? It means she has the right. Because “You see, it is one thing to create a massive collection with a social message. It is another to work hands-on with people who live in the DTES.” And once you do, you have the right. You have the right to speak and not listen. To take images of others and use them as you see fit, as it is your right. You have the right to accuse those who criticize, those who might like to know why you think you have the right to speak for, represent, and depict, of being  “women are so drowned in their own stories” that….That what? Won’t shut up and listen to you? Won’t shut up and shower you with praise? Won’t just shut up and realize that you are doing them a favour? Maybe they don’t want your favours, Pamela. Maybe they don’t need your ‘politeness’ on the streets. Maybe, just maybe, it’s not about you, Pamela. Oh but wait. You’re right there. In front of the portrait. We can do nothing but see you.

Update 01/12/11  — Thanks to pressure from Aboriginal women’s groups, this exhibit will not be shown at U.B.C’s Museum of Anthropology out of respect to “the families (of missing and murdered women)” who feel that “that the image of their beloved daughters, mothers, sisters and aunties has been stolen and used by this ambitious artist to further her own career.” See my post about this issue here.

Meghan Murphy
Meghan Murphy

Founder & Editor

Meghan Murphy is a freelance writer and journalist. She has been podcasting and writing about feminism since 2010 and has published work in numerous national and international publications, including New Statesman, Vice, Al Jazeera, The Globe and Mail, I-D, Truthdig, and more. Meghan completed a Masters degree in the department of Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies at Simon Fraser University in 2012 and lives in Vancouver, B.C. with her dog.

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  • k

    Thanks for blogging about this. I went to “The Forgotten Exclusive Preview Event” earlier in the year. I was able to get on the guest list through a friend and was curious to check out this exhibition of work I had, until that moment, not heard of in spite of working in a women’s treatment centre in the heart of the DTES. It was a lavish and exclusive affair. I felt confusion and shame looking around at the ‘no expense spared’ open bars, trendy and predominantly white people, as they/we yelled at each other across the loud music about anything but the reality of the lives and deaths of the sixty-nine women whose bloodied faces gazed down on us from billboard sized portraits on every wall of the massive warehouse. I understand that Pamela Masik wants to create visibility where there has been invisibility. However it felt as though the murdered women had become objects in a bigger game of image rather then subjects of their own lives. The warehouse was after all in the high security Olympic village zone in the week before the Olympics began, and Mayor Gregor Robertson was a key speaker.
    I appreciate that Pamela Masik is very good at what she does – make art. And I defend her right to do so. I can’t justify, however, her over-all lack of connection or consultation with the community that she is making art about. I stand beside the women who spoke up loudly in frustration and anger at her SFU speech. They have fought to have their sisters, mothers and daughters story told and justice served in an inherently racist system. Pamela Masik’s inability to hear and acknowledge the voices of open questioning and criticism places her in the same league as the silencing oppressor.

  • Meghan

    Thanks for sharing this, k. Wrong and sad on so many levels.

  • Laurence

    I would be more sympathetic with Pamela, if she wasn’t going about this in such an exploitive way. If she can’t talk to the “people” who are living this nightmare, then she has no place profiting off this horror. Is it just a marketing scheme? Using a international story to promote her art? That said she seems like a very good artist, maybe she should stick to portraits of people she can connect with.

  • Meghan Murphy

    I’m not against ‘art’ or her making art. What I am arguing against is her response to criticism and questioning by those who she claims to be ‘helping’, her condescending attitude, and the way in which, instead of listening, she made it all about her. Had she dealt with all of this in a different way, had she represented herself and her art differently, had she operated with some level of humility, had she actually connected with the DTES community before, during, and after embarking on such a controversial and sensitive matter (oops, I mean her ‘god-given right’ to make art), I imagine many would have responded and viewed her differently. Her behaviour at the conference, as well as her personal blog response afterwards, was ignorant, selfish, and offensive.

  • Angel

    I am an artist. I also had never heard of Masik so went to her website. My impression is that she is very self-focused and just using the issue/images as a marketing scheme. When using an image of a real person generally a model release form (permission to exhibit) is suggested. Not sure how this was handled. If I had been related to a murder victim – pretty sure I would object to someone I did’t know profiting from such a personal life-changing event.

  • fold

    Huh. Interesting. I’m not able to find the specific criticisms from family members
    of the missing and deceased women depicted in Masik’s forgotten series online.
    Apologies, one often comes across articles like this online, has one’s interest piqued, and then conducts but the briefest research before heading back to the material that one went online to find originally. Which is to say, I might simply have not dug deep enough.

    That certainly would be a worthy undertaking. It might also be worthwhile to post the criticisms from the ‘activists from the Downtown Eastside’, or include a link to them somewhere below this article. Again, it’s difficult to fully understand the context of this article without such information. I’ve read small fragments from a few of them, but nothing more, and of course, the same charges of self promotion at the expense of the unfortunate women depicted in Masik’s work could be levelled at he organizers of protests against her work. I’m not per se doing so, only raising what ‘some might say’ is a valid point.

    Also, just a minor note, you ask “Did you ever ask, Pamela, if these women wanted your voice?”. Not to bring an unpleasant note into your article, but wasn’t the series of paintings based on women that are missing or dead ? How would Masik have asked them ? How would any of us ?

  • Meghan Murphy

    Here is some of the more news coverage (much of this took place after I wrote this piece):

    A lot of this criticism, at the time I wrote this, was spoken and not written. In terms of suggesting that Pamela ask whether or not the women wanted her voice, I meant that perhaps she should a) ask herself, b) ask the community c) ask the friends and families. Someone who endeavours on a project of this nature, which is very about racialized and gendered violence against marginalized women, needs to explore and interrogate the politics of representation along with post-colonial discourse and theory. The community is there. The families are there. The women who are still at risk are there. Offering or volunteering to ‘speak for’ or on behalf of a group without questioning whether or not they might need or want your voice, particularly when your voice is that of a privileged white woman, is inappropriate and condescending.

  • Amanda

    This is a really interesting post. I appreciate that you touch on how she does have a right to create the art. The art itself is not what bothers me. I actually think that when looked at on its own and out of context of this whole mess, it is actually quite interesting and compelling. It has the power to make people think and feel and thinking and feeling about missing and murdered women is something that not enough Canadians do.

    But you are right that its not being used in a way that could productively work towards achieving what she claims to have wanted to achieve. The positioning and the unwillingness to listen to debate and participate in it, are things that do perpetuate silence on the surviving friends and relatives of these women. Also, how anyone could create art about a real life event, claim to be trying to work against the forces that caused it, profit from it, and then not donate some or all of that money back towards fighting that issue, is beyond me. That is what truly makes it exploitative for me. I do understand that artists need to make a living and pay for expenses, but its about putting your money where your supposed mouth is plain and simple.

  • Gerry

    Everyone defends the right for someone to create art– well I guess it’s time for people who’ve made art all of their working lives to stand up and call out this person for what she produces – slick sexualized trash. Her website no longer mentions that she’s available for performances-for-hire, which usually meant she tossed paint around with some sort of dress falling off. I’ll bet it impressed the Suits – Hot Chick Covered With Paint – but please. At least when Hannah Wilke used nudity in her performances it related to her mother’s battle with cancer. It’s so DONE.
    What’s her education? It’s never mentioned – BFA? MFA?? I think she’s taken a few workshops, and clearly some marketing training. Anyone can pick up a paintbrush and call themselves a painter, especially if you have deep pockets and can afford the studio/promo/website/photographer.
    I’m so glad MOA cancelled her show – I was sickened at the thought that she’s get Museum Cred. for exploiting women of the DTES – altho I admire her hard work in producing those huge canvases.
    If she’s so concerned about the plight of exploited women, why does she continually portray herself in sexualized clothing?? Buy my paintings because I’m hot?? It’s hypocritical.

    • jude

      Pamela is a talented artist, not all artists are MFA’s of MFA’s.. you can’t discount her talent as an artist. she is exceptional, wether you enjoy her painting it on stage or off, in clothes or out of clothes… her work is very very good….. not saying anything on the political subject, but you can’t go accusing someone of not being an artist because they didn’t spend 30,000 on education… that is a little bit rude to the many other talented artists our there as well.

      • Meghan Murphy

        The critiques of Masic have nothing to do with spending money on education, it has to do with privilege. Unacknowledged privilege specifically.

  • Christy

    Her education is ex stripper, blackmailer, rat, plastic surgery from head to toe…….. Reading some of her bio made me barf . Rolling pennies for art supplies? Oh please! why didn’t she just sell her BMW that the guy she was blackmailing gave her. I’ll give her a A+ for hustling. She’s a goof

  • Yuck.

    Reading this article made me a little bit sick.
    Yes, I agree that her work is problematic, and needs to be addressed as such.
    BUT, the amount of articles and comments that I’ve read that contemptuously, viscously make note of her appearance, her clothing, her use of makeup, or even her amount of ‘female grace’ as a marker of her worthlessness as an artist, and person, is disgusting. I mean really, this is site is titled ‘feminisms’…. Why can’t you stick to the work?… Why the need to constantly bring up her appearance? Oh wait, because attractive women are b**ches that deserved to be humiliated, right?!?!
    Wouldn’t have expected to find such misogyny in supposed progressive dialogue. Disappointed.

    • Meghan Murphy

      Where, in the post, do I discuss her appearance? I note that she places herself in front of the images. I don’t discuss her makeup, ‘grace’, or her clothing.

  • (yuck continued)

    Sorry, I should have emphasized that I was discussing various articles’ portrayals of Masik, not just this one, and was particularly offended by the comments beneath your post (ie see the few posts above my last comment… though I did feel that bringing up her enjoyment of posing in front of cameras fell into the same dialogue that I’m finding problematic). Yours happened to be the last article of several that I had read, and so took the brunt of my frustration about her continually being talked about in relation to her sexuality, appearance and vanity. So yes, I’m sorry that I wrote that your article made me sick. I should have said the way that people seem to be responding by criticizing her appearance, ‘sexiness’, and even graceful posing, was making me sick.

  • a

    Meghan, you are such a prolific and passionate writer that any story you write about becomes a significant piece of journalism. Regardless what side your are on your writing brings visible energy, passion and dynamics to the atmosphere of your work. This one above is the best example of how good you are as a writer. I wish you a great carrier and many books to write and then unimaginable success as your talent deserves that.

    Your comments on Pamela, as intense and as honest as your reaction can be, are only a reflection of your very limited exposure to the criticism facing Masik. The account by your professor is true. But I think she did not mention that organizers were expecting some confrontation to happen. As a matter of fact they were warned to cancel the conference if Masik is supposed to show up. From the beginning it was obvious that some of the audience members in attendance were there only to make their point about Masik presence, not the content of the art work or to actually participate in that conference. They acted on their plan as documented.

    The role of Masik in that meeting was to hear from different vintage points where we are, how we got there and where the solution might be. The name of the conference was correct.

    The problem of east side at large and horrifying account of murdered women in this area is so multilevel and so endless that one or maybe even hundreds of conferences will not fix it.

    Yet we all feel strongly that something has to be done. I have been following this social process of reconciliation of our society with crimes of the past on the East Side and I find myself puzzled by few new to me phenomena. Some of east side leaders are so entrenched in their positions to be only the right, the true and the only proper and just representation of this issue that nobody else is worth the voice and recognition to voive any opinions or act in the best interest of women of East Side. They call truly authentic representatives…it seems more like silencing of majority of society.

    Since when it is accepted that only chosen ones represent or participate in the broad dialogue on topics so close to health and survival of our society. This topic, this mind numbing outcome of murders and vanishings of women is the critical one. Anyone should be entitled to voice and use any means of expression, support and even disagree in approach in this process.

    Look, you write, study and lead talk show, Pamela paints and creates, I read and conclude, others claim and demand for some not to speak at all, and they did take advantage of that conference accusing Masik of all the trespassing they could come with.

    Masik was right saying that in the heat of the moment they lost the greater perspective. She also said that she refuses to hear them, but not to deny them her attention, but meaning when they get over personal attacks then she remains as before actively involved in the process of reflecting society through art and her social involvement.

    The art is not to please the politicians or social activists. In this case it is to document for ever the horror of individual experience those women went through. Also the project documents the number (even if fl actuating) of lives lost and despite the comments about the graphic depiction it provides detailed insight into lives of the women beyond what current criticism assumes.

    If the leaders of east side are unable to see how difficult lives those women lived or how complex and sometimes how terrifying their health and personal issues were, they are hiding the most important ingredient in search for the solution and prevention. See, Masik dared to strip that pretending, yet she was very respectful, yet she also brought to the surface the raw pain, horror and hopelessness of their individual situations. Yes it might be too much for some. At the end unless we talk about real dimensions of that loss and reasons why that happened we are not moving toward any solution any soon.

    It is easy to accuse everybody around, of course all of us are guilty of their death and disappearance. Police, politicians, health care system, west side society, east side society, post colonial and colonial reality and secondary and first nations….all are part of that guilt and carry the responsibility of the change.

    This time it is Masik who was accused of everything possible including major flaws of the character, privileged status (that is because she is Caucasian descent?), position of power (what power does she represent?), lack of humility, being a woman, make up, colour of her hair, beauty or ugliness, academic degrees or lack of them etc. It is just all that you personally stand against; sexism, racism, female objectification and all expressed mostly by women…(this comment based on other replays to your article)

    “The way in which she has imposed herself, literally and figuratively, on the lives and experiences of women and a community that she has no real understanding of and, more importantly , no desire to listen to or understand, is simply unbelievable. The way in which she places herself in front of the images for photo ops, imposing herself, her status and her privilege upon the images of the women parallels the way in which her attitude of defensiveness and self-centeredness is imposed upon the voices and experiences of those she claims to be speaking for. Did you ever ask, Pamela, if these women wanted your voice? Whether they wanted your gaze, your interpretation, your vision? From a position of power, we need to, at the very least, listen. With humility.”

    Masik listened and studied the topic as much as you would do preparing for the book about the women and that would be for the whole time of creating the paintings. Yes, that is true, she spent five years mostly devoted to bringing her interpretation to life. How many times do you think she asked herself those questions you mentioned? All of us have the right to search for interpretation of reality and truth. She painted the way she saw it and experienced that horror. Her job is done, ours reminds to be defined. Yet how are we supposed to do it? Your professor who organized the conference should know better than one sided story telling, what comes next, what ‘privileged’ professors of SFU will do?

    Interestingly also, Masik figured it out, unless society is ready to look past her image, we are not ready to even start discussing solutions as we have been entangled in the minutia of self serving and demeaning accusations (i.e. current commission under direction of Opal is the best example).

    You may ask why I say that, why now? I see the same disharmony in the case of Opal commission based on day to day accounts.

    After all, it is so simple, for any changes to take place on the east side, short or long term, the whole society has to be included and the changes have to happen in atmosphere of mindfulness, accountability, forgiveness and respect for each of the lives the decision and changes will impact on. That means the whole Canadian society and culture of 21st century.

    Thanks for reading that replay..a

    It is always easier to say or write about the issues and solutions than DO them. Therefore we should respect Masik for creating the action and results, while we as a society at large still have been exchanging the jabs. (general closing statement)

  • Cate

    While my addition into this conversation is regrettably late, I still was moved to add my thoughts to this dialogue.

    I can not help but be struck by the amount of concern garnered by this topic, not only in this one collection of opinions but spread across the entire issue. I find myself focused on the fact that were this amount of concern paid prior to these events perhaps we would be dealing with a considerably smaller body of work.

    I say this mindful of the 1000’s of people who have stepped forward, long before the first brush stroke fell, in a multitude of capacities went above and beyond in their attempts to assist the problems facing many women who were portrayed and many more who but for the grace of (insert deity here) would easily have found themselves on those canvasses.

    While I will readily admit Pam made some poor choices related to comments she made or more notably failed to make. Her media comments also left me with the feeling that she is rather self serving and superficial.

    That being said I think that there are 2 important points I wanted to add .

    First, I wonder to what level her character and presentation really impact the actual work she presented. Removing her from the work and allowing it to stand alone still leaves me struck by the importance of her interpretation of the women and the positive and negative aspects of both their lives and in most instances their death. I can think of many examples of Artists both visual and performance, who have character flaws that were I to dwell on I would do myself a disservice by allowing that to cloud works that I have been both inspired and compelled by.

    Secondly I am left wondering why she should not be allowed to use these women as a medium. Art inspired by war or other atrocities is nothing new. Surely not every artist that was moved in the face of tragedy is required to have been a participant in the event to be able to connect with the topic in a deep personal way and in turn allow it to fuel their creative process. The pictures were not private, the were publicly circulated and for me personally etched in my mind long before her painting her interpretation of them.

    I find it ironic that in some instances people have taken their attack on her to the levels of trying to discredit her based on issues of education or lack there of. Yet at the same time suggesting that due to her “means” she would be excluded from having a genuine ability to connect with the subjects in her paintings. Is it not rather elitist to suggest that only the educated have the ability to produce works of importance.

    I have the unique vantage point of being one of the “marginalized”, uneducated, women as the heart of this matter. Coming from multigenerational poverty, abuse, addiction and mental health battles I know that while I may disagree with the manner in which the mail was delivered I am grateful for the letter itself. I think that any perceived exploitation should be mitigated by that fact that once again the issues are being raised and once again this desperately needed conversation is being had.

    I can not help but think that the mere dimensions of the work both in scale and quantity provoke a gut level defensive reaction as we all know, at some level collectively, we as a society, failed in a plethora of capacities.

    The quote that rings out to me is “A nation’s greatness is measured by how it treats its weakest members.” ~ Mahatma Ghandi
    In this context we are truly failed in our greatness that we so often espouse. Right from the draconian laws surrounding the sex trade that ensures women are forced to engage in the most perilous of occupations in the most precarious of circumstances through to the punitive and dismissive way we approach the health based issues surrounding both addiction and mental health we are no where close to where we need to be in order to bring about meaningful and lasting change.

    We need all the exposure that we can get and I hope that we are able going forward to find the balance needed between respecting the inherent rights of people against exploitation while at the same time recognising that without trying different forms of communication we are not going to be able to advance our desire to adopt awareness that leads to meaningful and permanent change.