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Truths Not Often Told: New exhibit highlights South Asian community's history in Burnaby

The exhibit will open at the Burnaby Village Museum on May 6.

South Asian history Burnaby

Truths Not Often Told: Being South Asian in Burnaby will explore South Asian history in the city. ( Burnaby Village Museum BV019.32.18 (r) and the exhibit's poster by artist Jag Nagra (l))

A new exhibit detailing the history of the South Asian community in Burnaby will be opening at Burnaby Village Museum.

‘Truths Not Often Told - Being South Asian in Burnaby’ will open at the museum on May 6, and “explores the diverse experiences” of the city’s South Asian Canadian communities, notes the City of Burnaby in a release.

During last week’s Parks, Recreation, and Culture Commission meeting, exhibit co-curators Dr. Anushay Malik, who is a visiting faculty member at SFU, and Jane Lemke of Burnaby Village Museum shared information about how the exhibit came together.

A key focus of establishing the exhibit, shared Malik, was “counterstory telling, … [which] asks us to radically rethink the inclusion of marginalized people, including how their representation changes their story.”

“So instead of just representation, how the representation means the story of Burnaby changes,” she said. “By flipping the script in this way, this methodology can help us develop a better, more holistic understanding of history.”

‘Whole people, with whole stories’

Malik said the exhibit is not just about South Asian experiences in Burnaby itself, but how those have been shaped by colonial history and the British Empire.

Essentially, it’s about making “that big story more accessible,” she explained.

Malik noted that the kind of South Asian representation that has existed in historical records has often been “exoticized or characterized.”

“So we began to pay more attention to how these stories appeared in mainstream news sources,” she explained.

“You have to find those stories in the past to put together a story that’s much more than someone who sold wood, or someone who bought a house. They’re whole people with whole stories.”

In an interview with the Beacon, Lemke noted that when gathering information for the project, it was difficult to find South Asian stories in historical records or old news sources, because they weren’t widely documented at the time.

“The South Asian community stories didn’t often make the newspaper, … or it’s not often in council reports, as opposed to some of the white communities in Burnaby,” she said.

During the presentation, Malik highlighted how crime and murder were unfortunate examples of “the sensational where people of colour and their stories were represented.”

This is touched on in the exhibit, where the public will be able to gain a greater understanding of the lack of South Asian historical representation at the time, in regard to the murder of a well-known South Asian community member in 1941.

An exhibit slide presentation slide shared at last week’s Parks, Recreation and Culture Commission Meeting. (Screenshot)

What stemmed from that particular case, Lemke noted during the presentation, allowed Burnaby’s historical researchers to uncover even more about “what the [South Asian] community was in 1941” via testimonies and various records.

How are voices represented?

Lemke told the Beacon that research for the exhibit began two years ago, with primary sources.

Last year, the museum reached out to South Asian community members via an in-person conversation event, which added to the diverse “web of connections” the museum and its researchers could foster relationships with to further inform the exhibit.

The museum also established the South Asian Canadian Advisory Committee, made up of several community members, who offered their valuable and diverse lived experiences and knowledge as South Asians living in Burnaby.

During last Wednesday’s meeting, Malik acknowledged how building and strengthening community relationships was a key part of the exhibit.

“I think one of the most important things for me as well … is positionality,” she said, noting that the team working on the project was able to use their diverse South Asian backgrounds to further deepen relationships that the museum had already started building.

“Also, oral history as a methodology is something we were centring on throughout, in terms of the questions we came up with collectively, [which] asked about the global picture,” she said.

Concept images shared at last week’s Parks, Recreation and Culture Commission Meeting, depicting what some sections of the exhibit will look like. (Screenshot)

“That’s become more of the story where we have an entire section in the exhibit which talks about how people rose up and came together and mobilized.”

Malik also noted that the exhibit also highlights intergenerational family history.

“So, not assuming where are you from, which is a very problematic question…, but where….have you travelled. And that actually is also represented in the exhibit, showing that many people who we assume are from South Asia actually came from various countries across Africa, and hold on to a Kenyan or Ugandan identity as well as their South Asian identity within Burnaby.” ‘

Exhibit just the beginning for Burnaby’s South Asian History

The exhibit itself will feature a number of different artists, and historical mediums, including interactive experiences, poetry, and film.

Lemke noted that the exhibit will be presented in English but there will be parts of it in various South Asian languages such as Punjabi or Urdu, for example.

“...South Asia as a broad area has several hundred languages and we didn’t want to be making statements and decreasing accessibility based on which languages we picked,” she said.

This summer, the museum will also have several programs available to the public including henna and workshops, block batik printing, and Kirtan at the Museum.

The exhibit is also just the beginning of what the museum plans when it comes to covering the rich history and continuing legacy of South Asians in Burnaby.

“We do find that once we open an exhibit, people now know we want to hear from them. So then they come in bigger numbers [and] that’s what we’re looking forward to.”