The South Asian Visual Arts Centre began to take its current shape in the late 1990s, but its roots lay in the queer activism of the 1980s. Emerging from the art world of Desh Pardesh, a multidisciplinary arts festival that ran from 1990-2001 in Toronto, ON, SAVAC has operated as a non-profit artist-run centrefor over 20 year – dedicated to presenting challenging, experimental programming.
The first iteration of SAVAC emerged in 1987 when a group of gay South Asian men in Toronto joined together to form the organization Khush: South Asian Gay Men of Toronto. Mandated to “educate South Asian gay men and the wider gay community about South Asian culture, as well as to forge connections amongst the South Asian community, South Asian cultural producers/artists and the gay community,” Khush started its arts programming in 1989 with SALAAM TORONTO, a one-day celebration at the 519 Community Centre that featured art, literature, and performances. With over 800 attendees, it laid the groundwork for Khalla, a three-day program of film, video, music and dance “intended to provide a forum for South Asian artists’ aiming to ‘incite dialogue […] about South Asian culture.'” Khalla was later expanded re-branded as Desh Pardesh (meaning “home away from home”).
The multi-disciplinary arts festival–dedicated to foregrounding underrepresented and marginalized voices within the South Asian diasporic community–provided left wing and queer South Asian artists and academics from across the diaspora a dynamic forum to engage questions of gender, sexuality, race, caste, and nation. An early iteration of the Desh mandate describes the organization as follows:
“Desh is lesbian and gay positive, feminist, anti-racist, anti-imperialist and anti caste/classist. Desh exists to ensure that the voices and expressions of those constituencies in the South Asian community which are systematically silenced are provided with a community forum. In particular: independent artists, cultural producers and activists who are women, lesbians and gays, people with disabilities, working class people and seniors.
For eleven years, Desh organized an annual summer conference and arts festival (film screenings, workshops, issue-driven seminars, spoken work and literary readings, music, dance and performance art pieces) as well as periodic arts development workshops, community outreach seminars, mini-festivals, art exhibits, and film retrospectives. It also served as a resource centre and referral service to various South Asian community groups and artists, cultural organizations and activists.
Between 1993-1994, a group of visual artists who had been working together to curate the visual arts component of Desh, come together to form South Asian Visual Arts Collective (later to be named the South Asian Visual Arts Centre, or SAVAC). In 1997, SAVAC was formally established as an artist-run centre, working in close collaboration with Desh Pardesh. In 2001, when the festival and its administrative body were closed due largely to the financial crisis, SAVAC was provincially incorporated as a non-profit organization, ensuring continuity for the Desh mandate.
In the early 2000s, SAVAC initiated a program of organizational development supported by a three-year capacity building grant from the Canada Council of the Arts. Since then, SAVAC has exhibited national and international artists in ambitious programs, including Beyond Measure: Domesticating Distance, …(the heart that has no love/pain/generosity is no heart), South-South: Interruptions and Encounters, Peace Taxi, Big Stories Little India, and MONITOR: Experimental South Asian Film + Video.
“Spaceless Place.” KAPSULA Magazine, Issue 2.1 (2017) Rajee Paña Jejisher Gill, “Partition and Postmemory,” Concordia University, Thesis (2014) Sharon Fernandez, “More than Just an Arts Festival: Communities, Resistance, and the Story of Desh Pardesh“ Canadian Journal of Communication, Issue 31.1 (2006) Leah Lakshmi Piepznsa-Samarasinha, “Artists, Rebels, Warriors: Desh Pardesh’s Legacy and the Future of Radical South Asian Art“. Fuse Magazine, Issue 27.4 (2004) Rachel Kalpana James, “From Foreign Shores” Art India, Volume 9, Issue I. (2004)
Academics, scholars and art writers from around the world have written about the history and politics of SAVAC and Desh Pardesh. As a longstanding artist-run centre with challenging, experimental programming that comprises a range of objects, conditions and issues, the SAVAC Archives encourage fresh approaches to the production of knowledge about diaspora, racialization, political activism and contemporary arts in Canada, among other topics. To learn more, view these selected publications, explore our digital collections or visit our new research centre at The Commons @ 401 Richmond.