401 Richmond is a labyrinth of galleries and studios of which many are open to the public. Now is the perfect time to wander, explore, and get lost (like I do) in this space as the 26th annual Scotiabank CONTACT Photography Festival is also well underway here. Last weekend I visited the galleries including the Red Head Gallery that is currently exhibiting the incredible works of  Kim-Lee Kho  — a Brampton-based multidisciplinary artist whose work explores her personal experience as a gateway to broader human concerns. As a bi-ethnic daughter of a scientist and an artist, Kho’s process and interests combine both influences, in sometimes unexpected ways.

Her current exhibition titled BURNT OFFERINGS is part of the “Open Call Exhibitions” at this year’s CONTACT Festival. While the annual city-wide Festival has curated exhibitions within the core programming, they’ve encouraged and brought attention to a variety of photographic practices exhibiting throughout the city at galleries and non-traditional venues.

I had the opportunity to interview Kim-Lee Kho about her moving body of work …

Tell us how and/or why you decided to create this exhibition?

Kho: First, as a member of The Red Head Gallery collective, I have a solo exhibition scheduled every 18-21 months usually. The pandemic delayed things, but I knew I had a major show coming up well in advance.

Then, just over a year ago, at the same time as a lot of other major family crises were happening, my father died. He spent most of his hospital time under covid restrictions so family couldn’t visit, which was agonizing.

Losing dad was a momentous event, and probably within a couple of months of his passing I realized my new show would have to address that loss, and my experience of grief, in some way.

Can you tell us more about the ‘Burnt Offerings’ – the title of your show, but also as a common ritual as we grieve our loved ones?

Kho: Burnt offerings are, as near as I can tell, a universal and ancient practice of burning items ritually, to make an offering or sacrifice (to ancestors or a higher power for example), or as a form of spiritual purification or as a prayer. It’s using fire to transform something from the material world and send it into the realm of the non-material, a way to transform something from the mundane to the sacred.

Some versions of this include: North American Indigenous traditions of burning sage, sweetgrass and tobacco; Catholic churches having candles burning in a side area, and someone will carry and swing a big incense burner while walking in procession; in Asia there are temples full of incense in coil and stick form, sometimes large and elaborately carved; and the practice the Burnt Offerings titles alludes to is a Chinese funerary one, of burning “joss” papers, including paper replicas of things they had during this lifetime, so they will have them on “the other side”.

We all grieve differently but the pandemic has challenged us in different ways. How has this process of creating art helped you during this time?

Kho: Something that artists do is process their life experiences through their work. Studio time is time for reflection, finding form and meaning for feelings, observations, associations and insights. It’s much more about asking questions and noticing carefully than it is about finding answers, which makes it open-ended. Perfect for profound experiences like grief.

As well, I mentioned there were a lot of overlapping challenges and crises at the time of my dad’s passing (still ongoing), so making this show about my experience of grief and mourning meant I had to set aside lots of time to reflect and write, create images and objects that would channel some of my experience and hold meaning.

When I say that, I should add that I consider artworks (usually) as meaning-vessels. I pour meaning into them, consciously and subconsciously. In doing so, I create things that have clues in them, which trigger the puzzle-solving part of the viewer’s brain, drawing on their own personal experiences to figure out what each image, object or environment means to them. A big part of my need to make art is to make meaning. But the meaning is different for every individual who engages with an artwork.

In the sculpture installation there are many elements incorporated into the overall piece – can you tell us more about this?

Kho: The sculpture bears the same name as the exhibition, and it’s central, physically in the show, and conceptually in encapsulating what the show’s about.

At its heart is 2ft x 2ft simplified house, raised up on a low platform, the design stripped back to the point of being a symbolic representation. The house is flanked on both sides by frosted glass lamps, lantern-like but simplified like the house, with flickering flame-lights inside them (so convincing that visitors told me they mistook them for real fire at first). The lights create a processional feeling, and the fire is of course central to the idea of the show.

On the floor in front of the house are two more lamps with a brass bowl in the middle, containing a mound of ash, the residue of a burning.

The house and everything inside it (but for one element) are designed to be burned. There is traditional “joss” paper inside, and special “bank” notes, used for funeral offerings, in enormous denominations to make sure the deceased have everything they need. As well I have made my own facsimiles of things my father might need by making prints on Chinese paper of photographs of his actual shirts (well, some of them), folded as if to be put away in a drawer.

There is also a central structure inside the house from which these various paper offerings hang, and it’s a stack of aluminum pie plates. That’s a reference to the collection of food containers that my father used to wash and save, something a lot of people do (or did) if they either lived through the Great Depression, or deprivation during World War II. My father grew up during the war under Japanese Occupation in Indonesia, followed by the Indonesian war for independence from Dutch colonial rule, so frugality was deeply etched into his psyche.

In the series of images Sackcloth + Ashes we really feel raw emotions come through. What was the process in capturing these moments and can you tell us more about why you chose the various mediums?

Kho: Sackcloth + Ashes is a series of black and white self-portrait photographs. I should add that I use self-portraiture regularly in my work, not as a way to glorify myself, but as a way to record me performing or embodying some quality, state or emotional experience.

I shot the photographs myself, and the first shots were done as casual experiments, with no inkling they would turn into anything serious. And they wouldn’t have, if I hadn’t noticed (noticing is a huge part of my job as an artist), a clean rag on the table near me. I asked myself “what would happen if I put this one my head?” (Asking questions is another huge part of my job.) So I did. (Trying things is another essential.) What happened was magic: I was transformed from contemporary me to timeless Anywoman. I could have come from the middle ages, the 18th century, possibly far earlier. And it also looked very striking.

I did a number of photoshoots that way, and thought rather than making straightforward paper prints of the photographs, I would present them in a variety of ways. Printing them as photographs or as layered, photo-digital images, onto aluminum, was one method I chose. The brushed silver finish of the metal shows wherever there is white in the image, or light grey or colour. I thought the metal added weight, elegance, and a quality of reflective light that suited the fire theme.

I also painted some wood panels using aluminum paint, ie where the pigment is finely ground aluminum. Onto those I did a form of image transfer where by using a solvent I transfer the emulsion layer (bearing the image) from a special film, onto the painted surface. In the process irregularities are created as the emulsion stretches, wobbles or breaks, and you end up with a more organic and expressive image and surface than a straight print would give you. The aluminum paint also created a softer effect than the brushed aluminum panels did.

Finally there is the group of three giant silk scrolls, each about 3.5ft x 12.5ft. Digitally printed onto silk georgette, which is very lightweight and highly transparent — they flutter with the air current of even a single person walking nearby. Silk is the ultimate Chinese fabric, as it was invented and developed in China, and was a major trade item with the rest of the world as, for centuries, it was the only source. My father’s family came from China, so that was the reason that material was important, like the Chinese paper in the sculpture.

How about the Public Participation aspect of the exhibition?

Kho: Part of the Burnt Offerings exhibition is a Public Participation Project where I invite visitors to write down something or someone they’ve lost onto a piece of joss paper that they wish to commemorate or honour or simply offer, and put it into a large steel wok I’ve set out to collect them in. After the show is over, I will perform a collective burning of all of these submissions, record it on video and post that on my YouTube channel and website.

How are you feeling now that the exhibition has opened up?

Kho: Tired, lol. Relieved. And since the opening reception, where I had so many wonderful conversations about the work and the show as a whole, and heard so many stories that people wanted to share after being there for a while, I feel gratified that the show is having the kind of effect I was hoping for. People described it as moving and emotional, but also rich and beautiful, warm and inviting. They could feel how personal the work was, but also connect it well to their own experiences. And many visitors stayed for substantial lengths of time! That made me so happy. I attribute that to the fact that it is a complete environment, not just a collection of artworks. Spatial design, presentation and setting the mood with lighting are things I work hard on and consider the final stage of making my work.

My internal experience of the show is in part one I have with every new show I mount: having dug inside to create work and put it out into the world, I now have to drink it in, absorb it, reflect on it, to integrate it back into myself. That’s sort of the full creative lifecycle, for me anyway. That process allows me to build on a bigger foundation when making my future work. It also helps me understand myself better.

The other part of course is spending a little time experiencing the space as visitors can, so I can reflect and experience that special space, removed in all respects from my mundane life, into a different, elevated part of myself, where I can open up to things that have happened and how I feel about them in a healing way.

Tell us more about Red Head Gallery?

Kho: The Red Head Gallery is a collective of artists that has been operating since 1990, during which time over 100 artists have mounted over 200 shows. There are 17 members plus a paid administrator who look after running the gallery, and managing special projects such as juried exhibitions or exchanges with other similar groups internationally or in far-flung parts of Canada. I have been a member since 2018. The Red Head Gallery is located in the 401 Richmond building, a former factory, that is an important creative hub in Toronto, home to many galleries, artist studios, other collectives, and creative enterprises of all kinds, including the Reel Asian Film Festival and the Scotiabank CONTACT Photography Festival.

What else do you have going on?

Kho: I am pleased to be one of seven women photographers as part of another Contact exhibition at the Art Gallery of Mississauga: View Find(H)er, curated by Fausta Facciponte, runs until June 10. The reception for it is this Thursday May 12, 6–9 pm.

BURNT OFFERINGS by Kim-Lee Kho is currently on view until May 21, 2022 at Red Head Gallery, 401 Richmond in Toronto. Free admission. 

As member of The Red Head Gallery collective since 2018, Kho has participated nationally in exhibitions, residencies, and mentorships; and won a number of awards. She is a popular and experienced, independent art educator, speaker, and juror, teaching art to adults in a variety of digital and traditional media.

Website: www.kimleekho.ca
Instagram: @kimleekho
YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/c/KimLeeKhoArtist

The Scotiabank CONTACT Photography Festival invites the public to over 140 exhibitions across the city including indoor and outdoor installations and many great artist talks, workshops and events. For details of this year’s Festival, link here. 

*Burnt Offerings by Kim-Lee Kho. Photo credits: Jessica Kho