Inbetweenness: A Reflection of “Living in the Third Space”

By Janet Tran

In May of 2017, I exhibited my thesis work, “Living in the Third Space” at OCAD University’s 102nd Graduate Exhibition. As my installation loops through its audio and lighting sequence, it draws viewers into the room like flies to UV lamps. Viewers find themselves suddenly immersed in a staged bedroom where clips play from interviews of Asian identifying individuals sharing stories of racially charged experiences.

“Living in the Third Space” is a media installation that narrates the state of being in-between cultural identities experienced by Asian-Canadians. Titled after the theory of third space (a concept of claiming a third position in terms of negotiating one’s conflicted identity) the installation is a literal interpretation of this theory, reflected in a bedroom setting.

The idea was inspired by my experiences growing up as a second-generation Canadian of Chinese and Vietnamese descent. At home, my parents had passed down certain practices and traditions particular to the cultures they grew up in. Outside of home, especially in school communities, societal culture is framed predominantly around Western Canadian ideals and values which do not always include people of colour. Despite growing up in Canada – I couldn’t identify completely with Western Canadian traditions. nor with the cultural traditions passed down through family members, instead, the idea of a hyphenated Canadian culture best fit my experiences. Thus, this inbetweenness of cultural identity became the focal point of my thesis work.

I decided the best way to approach a discussion of the hyphenated Canadian identity was to explore my own experiences, in a way that others may relate. I interviewed other Asian-Canadians that shared similar feelings of inbetweenness in cultural or ethnic identity. From these interviews, I drew out anecdotes that alluded to the un-obvious, vague, or indefinite experiences of race and culture.

Through my research, I had learned about the sociolinguistic theory of the third space, described by English scholar and critical theorist, Homi K. Bhabha. This  ambiguous area that forms when two or more cultures interact, explains the uniqueness of an individual’s identity. From this theory, I had taken the metaphorical third space to create a literal space that examined the multiple cultures many individuals living in Canada identify with. The bedroom became the appropriate setting for intimate narratives to be shared.

The staged bedroom is dressed with furniture items such as a bed, chair, and a desk, as well as donated artifacts of memorabilia, clothing, postcards, and books that allude to the respective stories shared by participating interviewees. Five different audio pieces play from hidden locations in the space while timed lighting effects change to suit the tone with each respective interview segment. Visual clues and anecdotes from each individuals’ stories are covertly integrated into the objects, yet are very present in the interactive space. The traveling voices and lighting act as guided reading throughout the immersive room of each narrator’s experience.

The bedroom as a stage and the objects like performers, anecdotes from the interviews that allude to experiences of being in-between identities, or acts of discrimination were extracted as appropriate quotes to tell these stories. These quotes  were inscribed onto items that could represent or symbolize each story, transforming the room into an analogy of how microaggressions are present in everyday life. The inscriptions were meant to blend in and be unsuspecting until the viewer reads them and is confronted.

Such as the tote bag hanging on the clothing rack, the quote reading, “I was walking my dog in my neighbourhood and these 2 little kids came up to me and asked if I were a nanny.” Although appearing to be an ordinary bag, the inscription actually  reads as an account from an uncomfortable personal experience of negative stereotyping this particular individual received.

Some of the anecdotes followed audio segments from the interviews, cued by orchestrated lighting and accompanied by diegetic sound effects like drawers opening, pages flipping, and handwriting. A new scene is set creating a tone appropriate for each narrative. Through setting up a story to be shared in this manner, audience members are immersed in the environment, making the experience of the stories more provocative. With the quote on the mug sitting on the bookcase for instance, all the lights turned off while the desk lamp was left on and changed to a cooler colour. Sound effects of pen scribbling played from a speaker near the desk and the sound of a spoon stirring in a cup played from the bookcase, while the interview respective to the quote on the mug played. From seeing the quote, “I feel a responsibility to address racism in my art.” on the mug to experiencing the story, the audience is gradually pulled into an immersive setting making a strong impression on visitors of the issues and particularities of the Asian-Canadian experience.

As Grad Ex ends, the halls of the art school are stripped bare of students’ thesis projects. It was like a sad goodbye at the end of a great party. After the show, I had resumed working my part time jobs on the weekends. From the excitement of showing ambitious art work concerned with issues on racism, to the quiet little family owned restaurant of a predominantly white town. I felt stuck again in the same surroundings I had been fighting in my art practice, feeling slightly defeated, as if my work was for nothing.

I dwell on the quote that is on the mug, feeling resonance to this responsibility of making work on race as a woman of colour. The bane of my racialized experiences have galvanized my feelings to commit to defending a minority voice, but can be emotionally exhausting. Recognizing this, I began allowing myself more liberty to broaden my artistic practice with various themes, interests, and enjoyments that do not necessarily pertain to social issues, as I learned that rest, self-care, and celebration as people of colour can be a radical and important form of activism as well.

This stagnant feeling I am experiencing is yet only another state of being in-between, however it is the in-betweenness of being an artist of colour and the choices I decide to make for my practice looking into the future.


Janet Tran is an emerging Toronto based artist creating relational works that examine social issues within multiculturalism, racism, feminist issues, mental health, and cultural identity in the Canadian context. Her works usually call the audience into participation or interaction. Tran identifies as a Canadian of Chinese and Vietnamese descent. Born and raised in Toronto, she majored in Integrated Media at Ontario’s College of Art and Design University, receiving her Bachelors of Fine Arts in 2017.

Movement in tradition: how mothers and daughters relate to the Sudanese tobe.

Photographer Ebti Nabag noticed how second generation Sudanese women in Canada had a complicated relationship with the Sudanese traditional garment, the tobe. Her sensitive photographs of mothers and daughters in their most comfortable states is a testament to changing traditions in the diaspora between generations.

It’s truly an intergenerational story that speaks about the mother daughter relationship, tradition and dual identity tied to the the tobe.


This is Worldtown [TIWT]: Can you explain a bit about the tobe and the role it plays in Sudanese identity?

Ebti Nabag [EN]: The tobe meaning “bolt of cloth” is the national dress for women in North Sudan. Sudanese women are expected to wear the tobe once married. The 15-foot long material comes in many colours and patterns. The style of tobe that is selected by the woman is governed by the age of the female, and the type of occasion she is wearing the tobe to. A young, newlywed female at a social gathering is more likely to wear a vibrant, heavily beaded tobe, while an elderly woman might feel a subtle colour and stitched design is more appropriate.

The tobe represents modesty, it represents womanhood; marriage and fertility, it is an indicator of economic status depending on the style, and embellishment of the design, or lack of. Above all, the tobe is patriotic and is the most valuable gift to gift a Sudanese woman after gold.

TIWT: How have you found the tobe to have been adapted in the diaspora?

EN: The garment has adapted differently: to the mothers the tobe is a reminder and a link to Sudan. The tobe is freely donned by the women in the community centre, at weddings whether Sudanese or not, and social gatherings. It is a piece of home that they can have with them anywhere they go. Seniors tend to be the only ones who are seen wearing the tobe in public spaces such as the mall, restaurants etc.

As for the daughters, the garment t is worn occasionally during weddings, or formal parties. For them there is an extensive thought process behind the decision to wear a tobe.  

TIWT: How did this project come about? Why did you want to document the connection mothers and (second generation) daughters have to the tobe?

EN: This projected originated in my personal experience. My mother constantly asked my  sister and I for our opinions on which tobe to wear for her outings, and how to match it. It first started off as a chore, but later opened my eyes to how important the tobe is to my mother.

While I was finding out how valuable this garment is to my mother, a friend of mine was getting ready for her wedding. My friend was not pleased with her mother spending a large amount of money purchasing tobes (plural) for her. She preferred [her mother] bought her something she would actually wear. It was then clear to me that our connection to the tobe is quite different than our mothers.

TIWT: How is this connection different from their mothers?

EN: Our mothers embrace the tobe and see it as fundamental to the identity of a Sudanese woman. The mother’s connection to the tobe was fueled by their experiences growing up in Sudan. When women were given the right to education, the tobe was the thing that protected the modesty, and integrity of the woman as she traveled from home to school. The tobe is what linked the woman from the domestic space of the home to education and work. While some might view this as a way to regulate and control women, I believe most women viewed the tobe as their ticket to public spaces, and continued to celebrate the garment. The tobe also served as a platform for women to express their political views. The process of naming each new style of tobe was an indicator of women being active participants in Sudanese society, a society that tried to exclude women from a rapidly changing Sudan. Example ‘The Diplomatic Corps,” “The Political Corps,” , ““The Sound of Music” (1960s”.

For the daughters, Sudanese heritage does not occupy a large portion of their lives. Growing up in Canada allows them to embrace a dual identity, in this case Sudanese-Canadian, can play a role in the decision of embracing the tradition or rejecting it. Identity is a very nebulous dynamic—a fluid idea, that can be linked to generational change and relocation.

TIWT: Who were the women who participated? How did you find them?

EN: Being an active member of the Sudanese community helped me start a conversation about this tradition and get my questions answered. During a community gathering,

I would ask a group of women a question such as “how would you feel if your daughter didn’t wear the tobe after marriage?” Women would then chime in with their remark. I had similar conversations with the younger women using the same discussion technique. It was then easy for me to ask the mothers and their daughters to participate in the project.

TIWT: Is there any story that stood out in particular as portraying the pain of loss in the diaspora? (i.e. losing tradition, losing identity).

EN: What stood out the most to me is the fact that the essence of the tradition has been overshadowed by the [status symbolism] of the tobe.  A fashionable tobe in Sudan can range anywhere from 127-212 Canadian dollars. During my 2015 visit to Sudan, I heard a woman ask the owner of a tobe shop if he knows of any second-hand purchasers for her used tobes. The owner replies, “No, but you can donate them to this store around the corner.” Upset the woman replies, “Donate what?, they’re in great condition and some are only worn once.” To my surprise, the rest of the women in the store weigh in on the conversation and their shared dilemma. This luxury market has worked its way into benefiting from the tradition and while doing so it divided the women in social events.

In terms of in the diaspora, one of the last discussions the mothers and daughters had was around the longevity of the tradition. The daughters were asked if they will pass the tradition down to their daughters. It was interesting to hear them say yes, it is something they will do their best to pass down. After all it is their roots. The mothers on the other hand were doubtful of its longevity with future generations, in and outside of Sudan.

TIWT: What is your own personal relation to the tobe?

EN: My personal connection to the garment is my mother. Seeing a woman in a tobe is an automatic reminder of my mother. Without my mother holding on to this tradition and including me in her tobe selection process I would not have any connection to the tradition. Her tobes are what is valuable to me. This is my relationship to garment now. It might change in a few years, it might not.

TIWT: You’ve previously photographed the tobe in abstraction, can you speak a little about why you’ve chosen to do that?

EN: I began the project by producing abstract images of the tobe. The photographs are captured in a way that exalts the tobe. They strip the tobe from its context to show a beautiful abstraction unbound from meaning. It is photographed against the sky, isolated from any human elements. This helped divert any presumptions that a viewer can have if the tobe is worn by a Sudanese woman and is then an obvious cultural symbol. Photographing it as an abstraction gives the audience the freedom to interpret the garment in any way they wish. My first photographs of the tobe were created to capture its beauty, something that we—the younger generation—tended to overlook. The images became a conversation starter for the piece by raising questions about what this garment represents and why first-generation Canadian women have a tenuous relationship with the tradition.

The conversation between the mothers and daughters was loaded with information and contrasting views about the garment, that is why I wanted the images to be unbound and free.

TIWT: What were some of the most surprising things you found about this?

EN: The colonial exchange between Sudanese women and manufacture Tooal, Broadhurst, and Lee based in Manchester is something that stood out to me. Sudanese women bragged about having their tobes made in London, or Switzerland. In the late 1950’s Tooal, Broadhurt and Lee solicited suggestions of tobe names from members of the leading activist group, the Sudanese Women’s Union. This colonial exchange resulted in names such as Aspou Al-Mar’a “Woman’s Week.” Manufactures went through great lengths to anticipate the desires of their distant customers and the women anticipated high quality material tobes, and new fashion trends.