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In Visible Colours: An International Women of Colour and Third World Women Film/Video Festival and Symposium

Amber Berson

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The Vancouver Women in Focus Society (WIF) began as a film distribution and production project, founded by Marion Barling, originally based at the University of British Columbia. It operated from 1973 to 1994 and during that time also ran a gallery specializing in feminist art by women. In Visible Colours (IVC) was a film festival and conference that took place in Vancouver in 1989, and was “made for and by women of colour.”1 In the late 1980s, Women in Focus hired Zainub Verjee as Film Distribution Manager.2 Verjee, along with Lorraine Chan of the National Film Board (NFB), organized the film festival In Visible Colours. At the NFB, an interest in both Canadian and international women’s film was already brewing under Studio D, where Verjee had also worked. As Verjee puts it:

In Visible Colours emerged amid contestations on nation building and the making of a global neoliberal order, as much as the social and political upheavals of the late 1970s and ’80s that foregrounded race, gender and the politics of cultural difference. IVC was primarily about the contested history of the modernist aesthetic and modernism in the visual arts and the making of the contemporary condition—as a historical marker—for the decolonized world. It asked: Who was defining this marker? To reduce that conversation to diversity and representation can undermine the deeper issues of contested art histories and the politics of aesthetics. The reality today is that embedding oneself into such a discourse is still a massive challenge for people of colour, particularly women.3

Verjee was the first and only non-white staff member at WIF. As an organization, WIF had not done any work to decolonize its institution nor to create a welcome and hospitable environment for what we might now call a “token” hire. WIF may have co-hosted IVC, but it was not ready for that responsibility. As Elfrieda M. Pantoga writes, “one of [Verjee’s] greatest risks as a staff member of Vancouver Women in Focus Arts and Media Centre was her decision to speak out about the organization’s relative neglect of promotion of the work of women of colour.”4

WIF’s catalogue, prior to Verjee’s interjection, was devoid of titles about Indigenous women, black women or women of colour. Rosemary Heather retrospectively described the IVC festival in Canadian Art as “ground-breaking,” writing further that it “stands as an important precedent for the return of identity politics.”5 Canadian artist and new media scholar Sara Diamond recounts, “almost everyone that I interviewed acknowledged that one of the most important provocations that brought the discourse around race and gender into Vancouver’s nebula was the In Visible Colours festival.”6 In addition to the screenings and workshops, In Visible Colours hosted a multi-day symposium on race and gender in the arts.7

The festival was considered a huge success, and because of Verjee’s fundraising efforts it concluded with a fiscal surplus. Despite not receiving any federal arts funding—or perhaps because of it—In Visible Colours has had a lasting effect on current discussions around Canadian cultural production and funding.8 It was not just arts funders who struggled with how to handle these new questions; IVC also brought questions around the intersections of race, class and gender to the forefront for artist-run centres and other cultural institutions.

As Diamond writes, “like some other attempts to bring race politics to predominantly white organizations in the 1990s, there was not a happy ending, resulting in a rupture between In Visible Colours and Women in Focus, with both organizations dissolving.”9 This “rupture” was tied to how funds were managed between the two organizations. While it was originally connected to WIF via Verjee, In Visible Colours was incorporated as a separate entity in 1992 and was planning a second iteration. Up until that point, WIF managed—and held in its bank account—grants meant for the administration and production of IVC. When WIF began to dissolve amid serious debt, it used $50,000 in money that IVC had received for the festival to pay back its own creditors. This resulted in a lengthy court battle that ultimately ruled in favour of In Visible Colours. Unfortunately, In Visible Colours was also forced to shut down due to financial pressure. Some accused WIF’s handling of the money to have racist implications. Yasmin Jiwani, one of IVC’s original board members, recounted in an article by Nancy Pollak in Kinesis “an ongoing struggle between IVC and WIF” during the festival planning, which as Pollak notes, extended “to a range of a problems including sharing of space (IVC worked out of WIF’s offices) and money—problems which often had racist underpinnings.”10 In Verjee’s account, quoted in the same article, “The actual act of taking the IVC money wasn’t necessarily a racist act—they were desperate. But how they have dealt with us since has been racist.”11

The period in which WIF ceased operation coincides with a sharp decline in funding to arts and culture organizations at the national and provincial level. In Canada, we’ve had a long tradition of the government paying for arts and culture, but not everybody shares the wealth equally. In Visible Colours and Verjee brought modern feminist considerations to the table at WIF and created a new community base for the struggling centre. When WIF stole from In Visible Colours, it acted in a way that protected only itself. As Fumiko Kiyooka explains, “just keeping WIF alive legally is, in the meantime, killing other parts of it, like its community and ethical considerations.”12 Had it left the money in the control of In Visible Colours, WIF still would have closed, but an organization that prioritized invisibilized women of colour would possibly have survived.

Amber Berson

Executive Director of the Visual Arts Centre in Montréal, Amber Berson is a writer, a curator and an art historian. She holds a doctoral degree from Queen’s University, where her SSHRC-funded research examined artist-run culture and feminist, utopian thinking. She is also an Affiliate Assistant Professor in the Department of Art History at Concordia University in Montréal, where she is working on a long-term research project on the history of equity-seeking artist-run centres tentatively titled “Parallel.” In her spare time, Berson works on knowledge equity projects, especially with the Art+Feminism Wikipedia project, where she worked in various capacities for a decade and now sits on the Board. In addition to her curatorial work, Berson’s writing has been published in a variety of Canadian and international publications.


1 Rosemary Heather in conversation with Zainub Verjee, “In Visible Colours,” Canadian Art, September 25, 2017.

2 It is significant to note that Verjee was later involved in developing equity policy at the Canada Council for the Arts, BC Arts Council and Ontario Arts Council, and that she led the Artists’ Coalition for Local Colour, raising racism charges against the Vancouver Art Gallery.

3 Heather and Verjee, “In Visible Colours.”

4 Pantoga quoted in Zainub Verjee, “In Visible Colours: The Making and Unmaking of the Women of Colour and Third World Women International Film and Video Festival and Symposium,” Other Places: Reflections on Media Arts in Canada, ed. Deanna Bowen, Media Arts Network of Ontario and Public Books Toronto, 2019.

5 Heather and Verjee, “In Visible Colours.”

6 Sara Diamond, “Action Agenda: Vancouver’s Prescient Media Arts,” ISEA2015: 21st International Symposium on Electronic Art, conference proceedings, 2015, p. 13.

7 Larissa Lai, "Labour Asian Can: Grammar, Movement and the Institution,” Travelling Concepts: Negotiating Diversity in Canada and Europe, eds. Christian Lammert and Katja Sarkowsky, VS Verlag für Sozialwissenschaften, Berlin, 2009, p. 158.

8 SAVAC, “Oral History Interview with Zanub Verjee,” The ArQuives, 2015.

9 Diamond, p. 13.

10 Nancy Pollak, “Women in Focus, In Visible Colours: Visibly Far Out of Focus,” Kinesis, June 1, 1991, p. 5.

11 Pollak, “Women in Focus, In Visible Colours.” p. 5. 

12 Pollak, “Women in Focus, In Visible Colours.” p. 5.