Joshua Vettivelu - Visual Culture Colloquium 10.22.19

Wed, 10/16/2019

Artist talk, 10.22.19, 4:30 pm

Goldwin Smith Hall G22

reception to follow



In 1986, 152 Tamil refugees fleeing the beginnings of the Sri Lankan state’s bloody genocide of the Tamil people were discovered adrift near the eastern coast of Canada’s Avalon peninsula by a local fisherman. Despite grumblings from many Canadians, they were issued Minister’s Permits and welcomed to relocate and seek employment while their refugee claims were processed.

In 2009 and 2010, cargo ships carrying Tamil refugees were intercepted off the western coast of British Columbia, and their 492 passengers were placed in detention, some for over a year. The federal government responded to their landing with aggressive legislation that gave them increased power to detain migrants indefinitely and deny them a wide variety of rights. The landing of these boats had a lasting impact on Canadian immigration policy but also solidified (into law) how Canadians conceived of themselves as a unit.  

Toronto-based artist Joshua Vettivelu contextualizes the reception of Tamil refugees arriving on Canadian shores in their recent work Surface Tension. Completed during a research residency in St. John’s, Newfoundland, the monumental installation examines how national collective anxieties around resource scarcity allow for humanity to be bartered on the basis of citizenship. The 40-tonne sand sculpture uses the physics of surface tension (how sand holds itself together), to create a metaphor of how citizenship (or the creation of an “us”) becomes foundational to who we are willing to extend humanity to. The talk will expand on Vettivelu’s multidisciplinary studio and social practice, which considers a wide variety of media, including scent, sound, bureaucracy, and sunlight, to examine how desire, recognition, and language build the world.


Joshua Vettivelu is an artist, programmer, and educator working within sculpture, video, installation and performance. Their works explore how larger frameworks of power manifest within intimate relationships. Recently their practice examines the tensions that emerge when personal experiences are mined for art production, and how this allows institutions to posture and position themselves as self-reflexive. Currently, Vettivelu teaches in the faculty of Art and Continuing Education at OCADU and is the previous Director of Programming of Whippersnapper Gallery.

Cosponsored by the Asian American Studies Program and the South Asia Program

poster for talk, all text is in the body of this article page