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Interview / Sena Cleave – Diaspora, Community-oriented Care, and Reciprocity

June 3rd – August 8th, 2024, Massy Arts will host, Ravelling Seams: Visioning Hope, a new group show by artists Allison Chow, Sena Cleave, and Rawan Hasan.

Ravelling Seams: Visioning Hope brings together a collection of unfolding stories. From strolls in shipyards to embodying home from away, the artists in this show braid intimate reflections with public spaces, archives, and the touchstones that constitute them.

The works in this exhibition outline the edges of collective hope while ravelling the lived experience of artists reaching –but never touching– the history of what could have been.

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This project is supported by the British Columbia Arts Council.

The Massy Arts Gallery is located at 23 East Pender Street in Chinatown, Vancouver.
The gallery is open Wednesday to Saturday, 12pm to 5pm.
Entrance is free, and masks are mandatory.

To contact the gallery, send an email to: info@massyarts.com

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To celebrate the exhibition, Curator Faune Ybarra interviews artist Sena Cleave for Massy Arts.

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Sena Cleave – Diaspora, Community-oriented Care, and Reciprocity

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Faune Ybarra – In your artist statement, you mention that weaving is “(…) a method of bringing disparate materials together and putting them into tension”. In your work you “put into tension” different materials, from food to butcher’s twine, you are threading a story and I’m curious to know, what do you think spans from the tension in the materials? 

Sena Cleave – For me, tension is a metaphor for reciprocity and exchange. When you weave threads, you put them into an organized tension—they push against one another to keep the textile intact. Without proper tension, the threads will tangle and become unable to support one another toward the larger goal of building a textile. I’m drawn to this idea of objects (or bodies) holding one another in place. 

I’m also thinking of support through the objects I place into my textile sculptures, which reference common offerings to ancestors. In some Japanese traditions, these offerings reciprocate care to loved ones who have died and now look after the living from a distance. I think gifting and offering are particularly important in diasporic communities because we live at a distance, and objects can sometimes travel where we can’t. In my sculptures, the offerings disrupt the woven thread tension and make those negotiations more visible, while also being held in place by the threads. 

 

FY – For you, these woven nets are also “provisionary structures”… What do you think about their permanence in the space? That is, when they are hung for a moment they become part of the room. How does this form of permanence affect the pieces?

SC – I’m resisting the idea of permanence because everything rots or corrodes and returns to the earth, even materials that outlive us, like the metals and plastics in my sculptures. Everything is shifting or transitioning, often at speeds we can’t perceive. 

I’m curious if the permanence you see in my sculptures comes from their tidiness or stillness during the exhibition. Or from an observation that I use dried foods, which preserves them. Or the idea that when materials are placed into artworks, they’re removed from their usual lifecycles—they’re disrupted from their rot or continued use. I don’t think I can address these ideas satisfyingly, but I can share that I’m thinking about provisionary structures in relation to diaspora, community-oriented care, and reciprocity. 

When you’re placed into a new cultural context, or when you lack access to the materials and foods you’re used to, you find ways to make do. Permanence offers stability, but a provisionary solution allows you to shift in response to new challenges. 

 

FY – In your work, you include the cultural practices performed by your ancestors which in turn reference their ancestors. How does this familial thread come to be in your work? Does it unravel something specific in your practice?

SC – I’ve started looking to traditional practices to learn about my family and the broader Japanese diasporic community, and how we’ve been changed through time and migration. It’s a process that’s larger than my art practice, expanding into my everyday work, community, and domestic lives. I’m parsing through my cultural inheritance for practices that model reciprocity—I don’t feel I have to (or should) reproduce every tradition I encounter. 

Traditions that have been handed down through generations, like making offerings to ancestors, carry the weight of time and repetition. It’s not one grand gesture that gets immortalized, but many small gestures repeated by countless people over time. By practicing these gestures myself, I state and re-state my belonging among those people, while also extending care outward. There’s a humility to these small gestures, and an invitation to change them if one wishes. 

I also believe my race and cultural heritage are always with me—I can’t pause them or live through someone else’s lens. It’s a process of uncovering ideas that some part of me already knows. Sometimes I can’t distinguish between what’s new to me and the knowledge that I’ve lived with for some time.

 

FY – Collaboration is another branch in your practice, what do you think of collaboration and why is it important to collaborate with other artists?

SC – Together with Debbie Chan, I run The Couch, a mobile art space consisting of a purpose-built couch and coffee table. We invite emerging artists to exhibit small artworks on the furniture, which we’ve displayed in various art and domestic spaces. The latest iteration was Hometown II (2023), inspired by Kim Beom’s artist book Hometown (1998), which we found in CAG’s library during a residency there. 

This project was a collaboration between me, Debbie, and the artists whose work we showed, but, in a way, intergenerationally with Kim Beom as well. In his book, Kim invents a fictional hometown named Ungyeri and invites readers to claim it as their own, explaining that because the town does not exist, no one can contest these claims. There’s something in that offer of sharing a hometown that I found so generous—like Kim had reached across the ocean and invited us to participate in his work. 

I think collaboration requires you to step away from your perspective and challenge yourself to respond to the ideas and interests of others. It’s a community-building skill, where you give to others, and you receive their labour and care in return. 

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To learn more about Sena Cleave’s practice, please visit their website: senacleave.com