Vancouver's Jayce Salloum has made a career of bringing forward voices of some of the world's most dispossessed peoples.
It hasn't always been a smooth ride for the Kelowna-born installation artist of Middle Eastern descent, whose works have occasionally been censored by Canadian authorities.
So it came as a happy surprise to Salloum when he was informed that a jury of his peers had selected him as one of eight Canadians to win a Governor General's Award in Visual and Media Arts.
"It's very strange to be a senior artist," Salloum quipped on the phone from Toronto shortly before the ceremony. "I always thought I would be 'emerging' up until recently."
Some of his most celebrated work—including the 1990 documentary Introduction to the End of an Argument (codirected with Elia Suleiman)—features stinging critiques of western representations of Arab culture. Viewers come away with far greater empathy for people repeatedly stereotyped in the West as suicide bombers and religious fanatics.
After the 9/11 attacks on the United States, the Museum of Civilization refused to show Salloum's installation everything and nothing and other works from the ongoing videotape, untitled, 1999–ongoing.
It included a conversation between Salloum and Souha Bechara. In 1988, she was jailed and tortured at the age of 21 after trying to assassinate a Lebanese general. She was freed following an international campaign on her behalf.
The museum relented after then-prime minister Jean Chrétien criticized the decision to censor works by Arab-Canadian artists.
Salloum's focus on the Middle East long predated the current popularity of art about this region. This growing fascination was apparent in the huge attendance at last year's Safar/Voyage exhibition at the UBC Museum of Anthropology.
"I appreciate the Safar show to a certain extent," Salloum says. "But then I also have a critique of it. I see it as not the most difficult work. It's not the most challenging work. For me, it was really cherry-picked from afar."
Salloum's multimedia art is in the collections of the Centre Pompidou in Paris, the National Gallery of Canada, and numerous other major galleries.
He's often described as being of Lebanese descent, but he tells the Straight that his grandparents were actually Syrian immigrants to Canada. They lived in an area that later became part of Lebanon.
"They came to the least fertile part of the Prairies," he says. "My parents both grew up on the farm."
His parents later moved to the Okanagan Valley, where his dad was a real-estate agent. He taught Salloum a work ethic that remains with him to this day. It's noticeable not only in the sheer volume of art he creates, but also in his curatorial and mentorship efforts.
"Part of the reason I gravitated back to the Middle East and do a lot of projects there was to see what it was like for myself," he says.
Salloum states that prior to moving there—he lived in Beirut at one point—he was only able to engage with his culture through social customs and when visitors came to his home.
"We had discussions around the dinner table, mostly about politics and the Israeli conflict," he recalls.
He has also demonstrated a keen interest in First Nations issues.
Aside from his work involving the Middle East, Salloum cites his collaborative two-and-a-half year Native Youth Art Workshop series in Kamloops as some of the most satisfying work of his career.
In 2005, his hometown of Kelowna censored a film he made about the trauma created by First Nations residential schools.
"Basically, they can't deal with First Nations history," Salloum told the Straight at the time. "The film acknowledges residential schools. People talk sensitively about personal stories, intermarriage, precontact history, trading women, issues of colonizer/colonized, and the fact that 98 percent of them were decimated by disease. The city keeps saying the film isn't celebratory enough."
Despite his reputation as an artist who pushes political boundaries, Salloum emphasizes that his practice is not monolithic.
He describes some studio-based works as "very contemplative", inspired by a desire for creating something beautiful.
"Then there's the more exigent political stuff that seems more strident at times—or just more necessary," he adds.
Over the past two decades, Salloum has been a vibrant presence in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside, nurturing other artists at the Carnegie Centre and creating a series of collaborative paintings with area residents.
Salloum says that he hopes the latest community plan, which goes to council on March 12, yields positive results, but notes that his neighbours are becoming increasingly jaded about the planning process. In the past, he has criticized the pace of gentrification in the Downtown Eastside.
He has also taught in the past at Emily Carr University of Art + Design, and loves helping young people through lecturing and workshops.
"I always try to emphasize to art students about this idea of responsibility," Salloum says. "We can uncover things and try to express things in different ways to make them understandable or provocative."
A recent career highlight came in 2008 when he travelled to Afghanistan, which reinforced the importance of being responsible to others in the world.
Salloum recalls conducting a workshop at a Hazara school in Kabul. The Hazara are a persecuted minority in Afghanistan because of their Shia faith.
In a courtyard, the students would line up based on their age. As they entered the area, Salloum says, they would hear Sufi songs based on the poetry of Rumi.
For the school song, one girl would sing from the balcony, and the others would respond in a counterpoint. Salloum says the song focused on "asking God about how they can give themselves up for their community to work harder to better the life of the people around them".
"It was very, very moving," he declared. "We took the title of our exhibition on Afghanistan from that song. It's called the heart that has no love/pain/generosity is not a heart."
He reveals that part of this work will be at the National Gallery of Canada in a series of shows highlighting winners of Governor General's Awards in Visual and Media Arts.
The other award winners are sculptor Kim Adams, weaver and notebook keeper Sandra Brownlee, multidisciplinary visual artist Max Dean, performance and installation artist Raymond Gervais, photographer and visual artist Angela Grauerholz, curator Brydon Smith, and painter Carol Wainio.