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By Ivy Lerner-Frank
Photo by Yang Shi
September 24th, 2020

Threads run through Cheryl Sim’s life: an Asian-Canadian woman of colour, the multi-media artist, musician, and filmmaker’s work and passions weave art, music, fashion design, and identity joyfully together. Sim is the accessible, informed, and dynamic face of the Montreal’s Phi Foundation for Contemporary Art, where she has been both the Foundation’s curator and managing director since 2016.

Sim was born in Hamilton, Ontario, in 1971, the same year that Trudeau père’s multicultural policy was launched and when immigration to Canada from non-European countries was opening up in earnest. Sim’s Chinese father and Filipina mother met in the US as students and were just the kind of immigrants the country was seeking to nation-build. Well-educated and English-speaking, the family truly represented a “model minority”. Even at a young age, Sim remembers being comfortable speaking to large groups and would be called upon to talk about her heritage, instrumentalized as a poster girl for multiculturalism. “Multiculturalism had its place in terms of nation-building, but what it actually means for uneven power relationships is another story,” she says.

Artwork from Relations: Diaspora and Painting.


Sim came to be more critical of the policy as she got older, reflecting on whether or not assimilation can be truly complete. “You’re trying to negotiate the terrain, but all the while, simmering beneath, you still maintain connections to your cultural heritage that are private,” she notes. “As I evolved into adulthood, I came to see multiculturalism as more of a smokescreen.”

The threads of assimilation, belonging, and home have long preoccupied Sim. “I keep coming back to the term 'diaspora' as a term referring to ‘home’, but that’s not the reality for second-generation diasporans,” she says. Her most recent curation at the Phi Foundation Relations: Diaspora and Painting, weaves these themes together. Sim never lived in either China or the Philippines, the countries of her parents’ birth. Canada is home, and yet she, like others, is always questioned about her true origins; the eternal "where are you from?" Her first film, A Few Colorful Phrases, gives voice to these uncomfortable conversations in a wry, humorous way, belying its seriousness for her.

Sim’s curatorial notes for the Relations show (on until November 29 in Montreal) talks about diaspora as a condition/experience in constant evolution, “providing agency and a sense of belonging for first-generation immigrants, and the generations that follow.” Being born at the same time as the multiculturalism policy has been a source of reflection and growth for Sim. “As a ‘model minority’, Canadian-born person of colour of Asian heritage, it seemed like a really great thing at the time. It’s a strategy of survival, though; you start to buy into these ideas, that Canada is a tolerant place.”

Sim has been singing and playing piano since she was little, sang in the local St Lawrence Choir, and worked diligently to master jazz improvisation. “It’s impossible for me to not bring musical metaphors into my art and in the exhibitions that I get to curate,” she says. Her 2011 film Ode to the Cheongsam, an exploration of the charged history of this garment, ends with Sim singing an a cappella piece in Hokkien dialect about the grace of women wearing this “symbol of Chinese cultural identity and femininity”. Sim’s 2015 ephemeral multimedia show at Oboro Gallery, The Thomas Wang Project, was an homage to a great-uncle who met a tragic end in Republican China in 1948 and included her performing jazz in Mandarin, singing songs that Wang himself might have heard at the time.

In 2017, as one of the artists featured in the In Search of Expo 67 project at the Musée d’art Contemporain, Sim wove the aspirational theme song Un jour, un jour into her piece. “Music is so important to any project, whether it’s nation-building or the promotion of a movie - it’s a powerful element.” Her use of music as metaphor is evident in her description of the Relations: Diaspora and Painting exhibit to visitors: “(this) multiplicity of voices with their joys, tensions, traumas, and struggles…allow for a polyphonic experience.”

Fashion and its cultural specificity is another thread that Sim draws on in her work. Probing the origins and experience of wearing the Chinese cheongsam dress in Ode to the Cheongsam, Sim incorporates audio interviews of Chinese-Canadian women both in love with and daunted by the cheongsam. There is no right or wrong here as she delves into the history of the garment, and we see her interacting with a young Hong Kong-trained tailor in Montreal as she explores her own relationship with the charged outfit. Her subsequent book, Wearing the Cheongsam, approaches the questions of heritage and assimilation more deeply and is one of the only scholarly books on the subject.

Fifty years after Expo 67, where Sim’s parents honeymooned, Sim explored female identity through the lens of Expo hostesses and their uniform. For the MAC show In Search of Expo 67, Sim designed a fantasy mashup of the hostess skirt suit (which she describes as “sex appeal, with authority”) and what was then perceived as the quintessential outfit of the future — the pantsuit. Sim wears it in her multiscreen music video shot at the Expo site.

Artwork from Relations: Diaspora and Painting.
The one-zip pantsuit, by contrast to the skirt, is “an idealized garment - a democratic uniform that (would) neutralize gender, race, and class in the future.” Wearing a beanie identical to the one worn by hostesses during Expo, Sim sings the exposition’s official theme song Un jour, un jour, in the film, “a critical gesture designed to explore the slippages of the past, present, and future. Being a woman of colour, of Filipino and Chinese heritage, and born in Canada: there’s a lot of baggage wrapped up in that, in the package of the body,” she says.

Tying these themes together, there’s a joyousness to Sim’s work; constantly revealing itself in her humour and her sheer warmth and approachability. The joy of singing, of creating, and of communicating easily with others is a value for Sim also reflected in the Phi Foundation’s principles: to be of service in a spirit of generosity, empathy, and inclusion. The joy comes through in the informative and engaging curatorial tours she will hopefully lead again at the Phi Foundation, when she explains the artist's perspective of the shows, and exhorts visitors to think about the origins and importance of art as part of daily life. In this, it’s also clear that Sim is deeply influenced by her long standing yoga practice and the sutras of Patanjali.

“What I’ve learned in yoga says it all: may all beings be happy and free, and may my thoughts, words, and actions contribute to the happiness and freedom of all beings,” she says. “It’s in tune with how I’ve constructed my vision of how to live and do in the world, and endlessly helpful for doing my work. Operating from joy, keeping in mind the idea of being in service, we can just have a much more enjoyable ride through this life we’re leading.”

Ivy Lerner-Frank has been a professional singer, a waitress, a food writer, and a diplomat. She lives in Montreal now, after having called Delhi, Beijing, Hong Kong and Manila home. 





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