“The Professor’s Desk” by Zinnia Naqvi: Mayworks Festival

Zinnia Naqvi. Before the Settlement – Professor Chun’s Desk, Inkjet Print, 2023.

Interview by Aysia Tse

“The Professor’s Desk” series by lens-based artist and educator Zinnia Naqvi features archival materials from four specific cases of racial discrimination in or about Canadian universities. Naqvi uses her own student/professor’s desk to frame these cases of systemic racism and considers the impact and legacies of each case, reflecting on the ongoing struggle for racial equity and justice in academic institutions.

As a selected artist for the 2022 Mayworks Labour Arts Catalyst, Zinnia Naqvi worked with the Asian Canadian Labor Alliance (ACLA) with support from OPIRG Toronto to create the photo-based series “The Professor’s Desk.” The series was co-presented with CONTACT Photography Festival at the Whippersnapper Gallery from May 4-31st for the 2023 Mayworks Festival of Working People and the Arts. Mayworks’ Labour Arts Catalyst is a program that helps to facilitate the collaboration between local labour organizations and artists. As Naqvi describes, her creative and research processes for this project came together organically. After connecting with the two ACLA chapters based in B.C. and Ontario, Naqvi accessed an online archive of digitized materials from ACLA’s 20 years of activism which was her jumping-off point for her research.

I spoke in depth with Naqvi about her process, creative and political considerations for each of the six images in the series, and what she has learned from research into Professor Kin-Yip Chun’s case.

Aysia Tse: Can you discuss your deeply collaborative and multi-focus research process for this series?

Zinnia Naqvi: ACLA hired filmmaker Lokchi Lam to make a video for their 20th anniversary. Lokchi spoke to members and gathered many materials from past events they supported and organized them into five Google Drive folders. One of the folders they made was about instances of anti-Asian racism on Canadian campuses was called “White Fear on Campus.” Lokchi Lam put three events together; Professor Chun’s case, Maclean’s Magazine “Too Asian” article from 2010, and the W5 CTV News segment from 1979, which is what I [made] the project about.

Professor Chun was exploited and wrongfully denied a tenure track position four times at the University of Toronto in a span of 10 years. In 1998, Professor Chun launched a complaint with the Ontario Human Rights Commission for unjust dismissal. His case soon attracted national and international attention.

On the panel, Chris Ramsaroop was one of the founding members of ACLA Ontario, and a student at the time of Professor Chun’s case. He was very actively involved in supporting Professor Chun’s case and there were a lot of student organizers, so he was able to give me insight on the significance of the case from a student perspective. I teach part-time at the University of Toronto and was able to access historical newspaper databases by having institutional access. I found all the Toronto Star articles written about his case specifically and visited their picture collection at the reference library to access images. It was through my own digging that I then found out about OPIRG and the Dr. Chun Resource Library of feminist and critical race theory. Professor Chun donated funds to support the library during his case and it was later renamed after him.

Zinnia Naqvi. After the Settlement – Professor Chun’s Desk, Inkjet Print, 2023. Courtesy of the artist.

Aysia T: It’s great to hear how bits and pieces of the research came through. OPIRG sounds like a cool grassroots organization whose work relates to what you’re doing. So that was a great collaboration opportunity.

Zinnia Naqvi: Yes, I reached out to them while I was making the project and they generously agreed to support the panel and partner with Mayworks. As a result, we [could] fly Professor Chun to Toronto for the panel. It was interesting looking at this case 20 years after it happened because it isn’t part of the collective memory of the current students.

When I came across this research that Lokchi did, what stuck out to me about Professor Chun’s case was that someone was able to speak out against such a big institution as the University of Toronto and take them to court for racial discrimination. As someone who teaches sessionally in universities and has recently been a student, I have dealt with instances of racism or prejudice in the institutional space. However, to prove that in a court of law and in front of the Ontario Human Rights Commission is significant. There’s a report called the Chun Report that’s a very comprehensive study of the case and all the events that unfolded. It illustrated how toxic the environment was and how blatant the racism was that he faced. I realized that it got to a point in which he had no choice but to take legal action from the school because his treatment was damaging his life and career.

After he reached an initial settlement, he received significantly more discrimination or hostility from other people in the department. Journalists like Margaret Wente wrote very damaging articles in the Globe and Mail, saying that Professor Chun was just trying to get attention. Still today, Professor Chun takes care to not call the University of Toronto racist or any specific person racist, but rather he was talking about systemic racism at a time in which people were not used to hearing that term. That’s another reason why his case felt so significant because it started to change the discourse and language around these issues.

In the Chun report, there is an account stating that at one point Professor Chun was put in an office that had sewage, cockroaches, and mice in it. That’s when the report started to paint a visual picture for me. I started to imagine how experiencing that might look or feel. So that’s the approach I decided to take with this project, to frame it within the space of the office. I’m placing myself in his shoes in a way, but it’s a flex space that’s my imagination of what his desk would be like.

Zinnia Naqvi.What’s Behind the Diversity Numbers?, Inkjet Print, 2023. Courtesy of the artist.

Aysia T: Your desk compositions feature small details including those cockroaches that allude to these important aspects of Professor Chun’s case. What are some of the symbolic considerations you had when curating these pieces? Can you walk me through your thinking about the details you included?

Zinnia Naqvi: With “Before the Settlement,” I wanted it to be this space that’s in between balancing his career as a seismologist, who studies earthquakes and teaches physics. He talked about the personal significance of what this case caused him. He is also a father and there’s a family photo on the desk. He’s an incredible scientist – he received a lot of national funding for his extraordinary research. A lot of that got sidestepped because of the case and the toll that the case took on his life and his career.

The second image is called “After the Settlement.” That’s when I’m imagining the case taking over even more of his life. Things start to get messy and unravel even further.

Then there are also the other images that address different instances from ACLA’s archive. With the images of the controversial 2010 Maclean magazine “Too Asian,” I wanted to show the article and then there was also a book that I have placed on top of it, which was made directly in the aftermath of the article in which many scholars address Anti-Asian racism in universities.

The other image shows the cover of the same Maclean’s magazine, and it was interesting to me to see this image of two students with the Chinese flag that was taken, from what I understand, without their permission. However, the cover image of the magazine is of this very happy-go-lucky white student and the contrast of that was interesting to me.

It also started to make me think about diversity images and when images of diverse people are used for profit. Those images are used to attract students to apply to schools, but then a lot of people who are working or studying within those spaces are not actually supported. This also relates to the other image of the posters; those are current posters that I took from both University of Toronto and Toronto Metropolitan University where I work. It was interesting that I would see a lot of the same posters in both schools. There are a lot of posters about mental health studies, tutoring, and scholarships. It just shows the precarious financial situations of students, especially international students who are brought to these schools and don’t have citizenship status and are not able to work or are limited to how much they can work.

The last image I made is about the W5 CTV News segment from 1979. CTV aired a special that was [essentially] saying that international students were taking the place of Canadian students, especially in medicine and dentistry programs. Then there was a rebuttal by the Chinese Canadian Council, saying how that was factually incorrect and very racist, and there were a lot of protests about that. I have included excerpts from that news segment, articles about the protests, and then again, my school materials and other props to situate these issues in physical space. With these three cases from the past, it was significant to see how the rhetoric was so similar from 1979 to 2010 and continues today.

Zinnia Naqvi. What’s Behind the Diversity Numbers?, Inkjet Print, 2023. Courtesy of the artist.

Aysia T: As a part of the Mayworks Festival programming, you had a public talk with Migrant rights organizer Chris Ramsaroop, moderator Furqan Mohamed and of course Professor Chun about his story and wider conversations about Indigenous, Black, and racialized workers in academic institutions. Can you share more about this discussion or any highlights that came out of that conversation?

Zinnia Naqvi: All the materials I took about Professor Chun’s case were from public archives. But it also felt like at the end of when I read his report, I wasn’t sure where he lived or if he would be interested in the project, but it felt important to me to reach out to him. He originally had said that he would like to be part of a Zoom panel and then later, he said he wanted to come in person. This was significant because it has been 20 years since his case closed and he hadn’t spoken publicly about it for a long time.

What I was interested in with research on Professor Chun’s case is that I wanted to pay homage to his struggle because now, especially in the arts, we’re seeing the flip side of what he had to go through. We’re seeing now that institutions are aware of their lack of diversity and are trying to rectify that by holding targeted BIPOC hires. We’re aware that there’s a problem that’s trying to be resolved. There are still a lot of flaws in that process too as it can be tokenizing. A lot of times people are again invited into the institution, but they’re not supported once they’re there.

But we are at least in a moment where people are openly recognizing that there’s a problem and I do think, we [must] thank people like Professor Chun for making that part of the discourse. He sacrificed a lot to shift the public conscience and I wanted to pay homage to him in this project. Now that we’re in a different moment that still needs a lot of work, but we are trying to make change. We discussed that he wasn’t the only person who had public legal battles with universities in Canada. Many other racialized scholars are still in legal disputes with schools for not being supported or for speaking out against discrimination.

…You’re expected to keep your head down and be grateful that you’ve been given any place at all, even if it’s a precarious one.

Aysia T: I imagine you’ve been thinking about your own role or your own experiences within the institution and with your students. How has that informed your thinking about this project?

Zinnia Naqvi: I was thinking a lot about my own experience, but also about my students. Although I was and am a minority student and faculty, especially in the arts programs that I was in, I was also born here, and I wasn’t an international student. That was one thing I wanted to also be aware of as I was making the work.

We don’t always think of professors as workers because there’s a certain prestige that comes with the academy. That was another thing that stood out about this case. To me it felt like Professor Chun did everything right, he went to these Ivy League schools, and he did everything that you’re supposed to do on paper. Yet you’re expected to keep your head down and be grateful that you’ve been given any place at all, even if it’s a precarious one.

I was thinking about the way that my students, especially the ones who are international students, manage work, worry about grades, and all the pressure that the school puts on them. I’ve had a lot of support from the institutions that I’ve worked at but again, I feel that has come at the expense of others who have come before me.

Aysia T: I think some people dislike when people ask, “What do you dream of?” or “What would be an ideal change?” but I’ve learned to ask it anyway because it’s important. Do you see this work as a call to action for better support for BIPOC artists, students, workers, and staff within academic spaces? What do you hope to see in the future regarding these topics?

Zinnia Naqvi: I’m teaching a digital photography class at U of T right now, and I brought my students to the [Professor’s Desk] exhibition on the first day. It’s funny because it’s a photography class, and I’m making this very political work.

It’s always an awkward space because sometimes as professors, we don’t want to push our own work or our own research too hard. But I would hope that showing this work makes students feel like they can talk about these issues within the space of the school. It’s interesting with Chris Ramsaroop and some of the other student organizers who helped Professor Chun’s case, many of them are working in universities now.

I’m not sure if students today would do a one-week sit-in at the president’s office where they slept there for a week in support of Professor Chun. I just don’t think that we protest in the same way as they did in the nineties. But I think it just shows the impact that students have in these cases. I’m not sure if young people feel like they can make that change [through the idea of collective action]. I think this can be an example that they can. It takes a lot of resources and a lot of confidence to be able to do it. I think it’s also amazing and important to remember. They were able to create collective action and Professor Chun really got the most support from his students. I think talking about these issues and feeling like we can also be peers with our students is important.

You can view all of the images from “The Professor’s Desk” series online on the Mayworks Festival website and read more about OPIRG Toronto’s work on their website.

You can find out more about Professor Chun’s case through the Chun Inquiry.

Check out more of Zinnia Naqvi’s work on her website.

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