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S.D. Holman, artistic director of Sum Gallery is pictured while artist Karin Lee's multimedia film plays in the gallery in Vancouver on July 19, 2018.BEN NELMS/The Globe and Mail

The fourth-floor space in one of the tallest buildings in Vancouver’s Chinatown was built to be a dim sum restaurant in 1987. But now, more than three decades later, the narrow hallway lit in a soft pink glow leads to a permanent hub of queer multimedia art.

Sum Gallery opened its doors to the public in May with its inaugural exhibition, QueerSum, featuring works from video artist Karin Lee. It includes more than 1,400 square feet of exhibition space.

Artistic director, S.D. Holman, says Sum Gallery is the only currently operating permanent queer multidisciplinary gallery space in Canada.

Queer art spaces are limited worldwide, Holman says.

“There have [previously] been a few, just a very few that we know of in Canada. But what takes over is gentrification or exhaustion or both.”

But the artistic director, along with Vancouver artist Paul Wong, QueerSum’s co-curator, hope Sum Gallery is here to stay. The space is funded through a combination of government grants and private donations. Both organizers point to years of running artistic spaces and “dogged tenacity” as factors that will help keep Sum Gallery operating into the future.

“We kind of have this whole floor as our playground for possibilities,” Mr. Wong says. “This is a year-long, year-round space for possibilities that don’t necessarily work into the festival model. It can be more thoughtful, more experimental and full of even more diverse possibilities.”

The fourth floor of the building is owned by BC Artscape, which operates it as the Chinatown Community Cultural Hub. Before the gallery launched, its space had been unoccupied for 30 years. Both Holman and Mr. Wong say that’s what attracted them to the location – they didn’t want to gentrify or take over existing businesses in Chinatown.

Holman says they chose to name the space Sum Gallery because of the word’s many meanings.

“We’re occupying what was going to be a dim sum restaurant,” Holman says. “There’s also the total sum of the parts, the LGBTQIA+ – you know the alphabet soup.”

The character for “sum” 心 also means “heart” in the Cantonese dialect – a tribute to the early immigrants from Pearl River Delta in Canton who settled here 150 years ago. As well, many Cantonese words for queer people include the “sum” 心 character.

The space’s inaugural exhibition, QueerSum, presents three works by video artist Karin Lee. She grew up in Vancouver’s Chinatown neighbourhood where her parents ran a radical bookstore. She has worked in video art around the world for more than 30 years, but says she was honoured to get to open a space in her home neighbourhood.

“I grew up basically running around in Chinatown when there was quite a close-knit community in the 60s, 70s and 80s,” Ms. Lee says. “It was interesting for me to go back to Chinatown and see how those voices were going to mix in with what was happening today.”

The pieces play on a continuous loop in the gallery space, with the option for the viewer to put on headphones and isolate the sound from one. The pieces are mostly re-edits of Lee’s previous work, taking into context the current cultural climate in not only Chinatown, but the world. Pieces include the film My Sweet Peony Remix, a fantastical drama shot in the Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Gardens; Portrait of a Girl, a documentary shot in Beijing; and Small Pleasures, a period drama set in Barkerville B.C.

“Even though my work focuses on some culturally Chinese [themes] from different countries, it also incorporates this idea of who we are as a nation and across the Pacific,” she says. “My work isn’t just queer, my work is about the multiplicity of voices that are out there.”

Ms. Lee says the intersections of identity are behind not only her work, but the space itself. She stressed that the act of a physical queer art space in the heart of Chinatown holds even more significance.

“Chinatown is a mix of both liberal and very conservative forces and those conservative forces would say there’s no such thing as queer culture,” she says. “But if you look at Chinese literature and you look at the circumstances of so many people that lived locally throughout the century, there’s queer culture.”

Holman says organizers already have plans for future exhibitions and events after QueerSum, including workshopping an opera, artist residencies and educational programs. The next artist to exhibit in the space will be Saskatchewan two-spirit artist Adrian Stimson in September. Mr. Stimson’s work focuses on Indigenous heritage and two-spirit identity. He recently won the 2018 Governor General’s Award in Visual and Media Arts.

As they look to the future, Mr. Wong says the creation of Sum Gallery marks an exciting step forward for queer art in Vancouver and Canada as a whole.

“We’re no longer outsiders. We’re shakers and movers in our community and in the city,” he says. “We’re here to stay.”

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