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Ahasiw is Canada1
Zainub Verjee

In the decade preceding my meeting Ahasiw, the world had undergone a major economic recession and Britain had come under Thatcher’s axe, with outcomes such as the 1981 Brixton race riots. These realities also led to the rise of the British Black artists’ movement, which contributed enormously to the discourse in the arts around race and identity. Gender issues were brought to the fore and added to this mix.

Trudeau’s mosaic theory heralding the concept and policy of multiculturalism had effectively whitewashed the cultural landscape, and in the late eighties and early nineties Canada had only seen a handful of events such as Asian New World, Race to the Screen, Yellow Peril Reconsidered, Desh par Desh and InVisible Colours.

Identity politics and the tensions therein were debilitating where appropriation of any kind was condemned almost to the point of reaching essentialist proportions. I could hear Gramsci as the margin was taking centre place. Discourse from the British Black artists movement influenced my cultural practice and germinated the seeds that would lead to InVisible Colours in 1989 and its role in addressing identity politics and its many manifestations. It is against this violent backdrop of identity politics, the mantras of decolonization and deconstruction that I had my first encounter with Ahasiw.

A tangle of ideas, hopes, aspirations, aims started to get stitched together as I was contemplating this essay. What unfolds in this essay is not any form of history of Ahasiw’s work, but rather three aspects that stood out for me as I reflected my sharing of life with Ahasiw: his work at the Western Front, our musings and his visit to our home a few days before his passing.

In working the archaeology of this relationship, I attempt to make sense of Ahasiw’s genealogy through three poignant events that I will reflect upon more in a Foucauldian sense.

I. Souffle á Sarcophage2

“Art perhaps begins with the animal at least who carves a territory...”
- From Gillles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, What is Philosophy?3

Souffle á Sarcophage was among the first of the works that I saw of Ahasiw’s—then also known as Donald Ghostkeeper—as I started my term as the executive director of the Western Front.

The gallery housed a large, fresh moose hide brought into the gallery and left to decompose over the course of the exhibition. The gallery, as a sarcophagus, came to life as the hide began to decay and the olfactory senses awakened to the reality of the work. This work grew on me, as did the smell. That experience always remained with me and in a way defined the very trajectory of our relationship and the power therein.

This use of a disruptive aesthetic was Ahasiw’s nuanced act of throwing a stone at the glass house of colonial hegemony. The moose hide rotting is an event rather than a finished work of art: ‘a phantasmagorical dimension of the truth which belongs to the aesthetic regime of the arts’, as Ranciére suggests in his The Politics of Aesthetics.4

The detritus that Ahasiw left in the gallery was not a Duchamp’s readymade. Ahasiw defines an episteme. He articulates a process by which the a priori structures of human subjectivity are mapped onto the sensible phenomenal domain. He re-read the patterns of Modernism; for Ahasiw, art was always historical and ontological and in this belief he confronts Kant.5

II. Musings

“Art is what makes life more interesting than art.”
- Robert Filliou

Our musings, often drawn long into the late night, were sustained over cocktail hours, dinners, jury coffee breaks, conferences and meetings of all kinds, and continued over a period of sixteen years.

The subject of these musings varied depending on which exhibition we had seen, conference attended, deliberations that had taken place, cross-community dialogues, appropriation, self-determination, politics of aesthetics, making of subsidized cultures, entitlements versus rights, etc. Grappling with the dominant neoliberal narrative of our world manifesting in the international trade, media, neocolonialism and world religions, Ahasiw mused on range of ideas: HIV, Food, Drugs and the Pharmaceutical Industry, Political economy of Aboriginal Development; Violence and Poverty; Cultural and Spiritual Values of Biodiversity at the United Nations. It was never a clamor but a discourse.

We had spoken of a collaboration of building a tepee with a tribal community in India—something about cultural difference and cultural translation, engagement with cross-community dialogues on self-determination and finding interconnectedness across social and natural worlds.

All through the musings, I felt as if Ahasiw was tracing how modernity forgets. He roots his forgetting in the processes that separate social life from locality; from the disconnect of consumerism from the labor process; in the morphing and making of urbanisation—the life spaces of modernity. He would conjure the mourning atmosphere talking about the fate of trees as he pointed to the booklet Olive Trees Under Occupation, which documents the experience of the village of al-Midya, a Palestinian village in Ramallah on the north West Bank in 1986 when over 3000 olive trees were uprooted—a metaphor for his experience of uprootedness and the longing for his rootedness.

Yet, as I felt then and as I feel now, the sheer weight of those discussions held us with a gravitational intensity in addressing the imperatives of the future, as much as the politics of now.

Ahasiw brought his animist perspective to examine: “…it makes little sense to discuss the implications of the vast destruction of distant wilderness and oceanic ecologies or the extinction of wild animals and fish, let alone the human costs these atrocities also represent. They only appear on the players doing backgrounds for product placement and lifestyle accessories.”6

In the performative practice visible in the musings, where the focus is not necessarily the influence of individual or ideas in a very art historical sense, but rather in this interpersonal intermedia, Ahasiw shows his kinship with Fluxus. His practice encapsulates the practice of the art that Filliou described as “losing oneself without getting lost”, constantly navigating a shifting and changing inter-subjective space.

As part of the archives, this very act of writing encapsulates the deeper connections and nuanced articulations of these reflective moments. What can be the alternate way to imagine the significance of these meetings? I am reminded of that famous meeting (or audience granted) between the Dalai Lama and Joseph Beuys at Hotel Konigshof in Bonn on October 27, 1982, as I wonder how one can write a history of such meetings in which nothing in particular seems to have happened.

If Filliou’s imaginary ethnographer joined us at the table what would he have


III. His Visit

“The struggle for power is the struggle between memory and forgetting.”
- Milan Kundera, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

The door buzzer rang and Ahasiw was at the other end. He had mistimed and arrived a week early for our annual summer martini party. He decided not to come up but said he would come back next week on the day of the party. The following week, on a hot evening, he arrived in fur coat, saying he was very cold. Clearly he was unwell and going fast.

He sat in the balcony, ate little and drank water.

A couple of weeks later he was back at our home. This was a few days before he died. He had called to say he had a terrible cold but really wanted to eat Indian food and specified what he wanted. We cooked up and served.

He sat on the red chair with a tall back, like a maharaja in a fur coat, in the corner of the living room under a painting, The Old Fisherman, an oil on canvas done in the famed Baroda Narrative school of painting by eminent contemporary artist M. Sasidharan.

His voice was brittle though, with the same steely resolve of his gentle spirit. He refused any photos to be taken. He sat there in an eloquent silence perhaps scanning in his mind a montage our relationship: all the time spent together, the strengthening of our bonds, the strength of sharing our weakness and apologies for not standing up when integrity called for it.

He could hardly eat.

I was accessing my memories of the young Donald Ghostkeeper.

After couple of hours, he got a cab home.

Ahasiw had come to say goodbye.


A few years passed. September 15, 2008 was the day when the Lehman Brothers failed, ushering in the financial meltdown. It was also the same day Damien Hirst earned $198 million by staging his own auction at Sotheby’s. I could not resist but to speculate a conversation between Ahasiw and Damien Hirst. The irony of the times continues to stare us in the face, reminding us each day of the provocative questions that his oeuvre had raised.

Zainub Verjee
March 2012


  1. I borrow this title from remark made by Narendra Pachkhede, the Co-Convener with Candice Hopkins, at the inauguration of Transpose: Shedding the capacity to fit in, an exhibition and symposium, Sakewewak First Nation’s Arts Collective, MacKenzie Art Gallery, Regina, Canada, March. 2007. He invoked the work that Ahasiw has left us with, quite Duchampian in order, not in its historiography but the very ontology, in which this essence of the metaphor—Ahasiw is Canada—is rooted.  back

  2. Soufflé á Sarcophage is listed in the Western Front archives as sculpture and photographs on animal hides.  back

  3. Deleuze,G. and Guattari,F.1994.What is philosophy?.London:Verso Books.  back

  4. Ranciére,J. 2006. The Politics of Aesthetics. Continnum.  back

  5. I was tempted to refer significantly to read Ahasiw’s work through de Duve’s book. For more see: Thierry de Duve, 1996, Kant after Duchamp, Cambridge, MA:MIT Press.  back

  6. Ahasiw Maskegon-Iskwew, 1999, Hysterical, Auto-Cannibalist Culture, in The Multiple and Mutable Subject edited by Vera Lemecha and Reva Stone, St. Norbert Arts Centre, Manitoba, Canada.  back

An artwork made with multi-coloured felt sewn to paper with purple yarn

Felted Memories:
intertwined, entangled, meshed and recorded.

(Felt, paper and ink)
Zainub Verjee, from "Along the line I met Ahasiw"
Arthouse Co-op Sketchbook Series Project

Zainub Verjee was born in Kenya and educated in England and Canada. She has a major in Business Administration from Simon Fraser University.

Verjee was co-founder and Festival Director for InVisible Colours: An International Film/Video Festival & Symposium (1988–90), participated in the Vancouver Arts Initiative (1991–93), was Executive Director of the Western Front (1991–98), and sat on the B.C. Arts Board (1992–95), whose work led to the formation of the first B.C. Arts Council.

From 1999 to 2005, Verjee was Senior Program Officer Media Arts, New Media, Canada Council for the Arts, and Senior Policy Analyst to the Arts Policy Branch at the Department of Canadian Heritage, Gatineau, in 2006–2007. From 2007–2008 she was Director, Office of Arts and Culture, in Mississauga. Since 2009, she has been Principal Consultant at MetaCulture, a global boutique research and strategy consultancy in Culture, Water, Cities & Innovation.

As a media artist Verjee locates her practice in the politics of identity, culture and technology. Her work has been shown nationally and internationally. She regularly contributes to scholarly publications and has been an invited speaker on cultural policy, arts, relationship between culture and technology on an international stage.