We are, with the exception of the descendants of the hundreds of nations who have lived on Turtle Island since time immemorial, immigrants of some kind. Whether one’s ancestors came on a boat to Port Royal, Acadia in the 1600s, or by land, sea, or air in the centuries to follow, most of us arrived. Migrated. Immigrated. Sought refuge or asylum. But there the similarities end, since those experiences were, and remain undoubtedly political—differentiated by categories of class, gender, sexuality, and race.
Hence it was with no small amount of discomfort that I accepted the challenge of curating Resistance and Resilience. This project was conceived by the Peace Centre coordinator, Diana Rice, in 2018 as an exhibition of artists from first and second generation migrant/immigrant communities of colour. Time constraints prohibited hiring a curator from outside the institution, and having dedicated much of my curatorial practice to work with indigenous artists as a way to confront my own, as well as Canadian society’s racism, I shouldered the task, aiming as I do always, to be in service to the artists and what they have to teach us. That my selections were not prescriptive in any way was a deliberate acknowledgement of the problems and pitfalls related to the limits of curation which tries to check off a globally-inclusive list. Instead, in addition to Diana’s parameters, I privileged works which were compelling, and had something to say not only to myself as a viewer, settler, and progeny of immigrants, but to one another.
For instance, two of the more established artists in the exhibition, Soheila Esfahani, and Xiaojing Yan, both make work about displacement and cultural translation. For Xiaojing Yan, having lived and traveled between China and Canada for the past 18 years, this is a matter of course. While Canada may be her current home, Chinese ideas, rituals, traditions, and mythology still exist, as she puts it, ‘in the dark recesses of my brain.’ The coexistence of these two cultures creates a distinctive alchemy, where Yan’s often hybrid objects speak to human plights and global concerns.
Where Yan’s work utilizes the traditional Chinese craft of lantern-making, Soheila Esfahani’s ongoing series, Cultured Pallets, uses found objects seldom associated with Persian culture: shipping palettes. These rough-hewn, indistinct products of transportation are generally seen as insignificant parts of a global system of commodity exchange. But for Esfahani, they symbolise the circulation of culture. This is reinforced as she reinvests them with intricately etched and painted patterns (often from Iran, but not necessarily). They are then displayed in an exhibition venue and then returned back into the chain of circulation. Each pallet is marked with an email address—and Esfahani corresponds with the curious who write. That this piece ends with a very human gesture and desire to make a link reminds me of the series by Chun Hua Catherine Dong. In Esfahani’s case, the connection is with a stranger; in Dong’s it is with someone very familiar: her mother.
Dong’s video and photo series, Mother, is a poignant re-enactment of loss and remembering. Following the death of her mother, she returned to her childhood home in China and visited her mother’s close friends and relatives. Her mother loved embroidered floral slippers, so Dong gifted each woman with a pair. In the photographs they wear the slippers, and Dong wears a piece of their clothing. This intimate, relational act reflects a need to recapture some closeness, and as she says, of consolation.
The intimate links between generations are also probed in Lux Habrich’s practice. Mother’s Tears incorporates significant pieces of cloth, beads, photo transfers, and threads in a deconstructed, yet richly-layered family quilt. These fragments, collected and laboriously stitched to channel despair and intergenerational trauma, also became spaces of healing and ancestral wisdom. Similarly, Ya-Nan Song has employed layers—a family photo, landscapes from places he has lived—to link his childhood, his journey from China to Canada as well the innumerable and ephemeral slices from the past which comprise his identity. Within them, he asserts, is the strength he has found as a new immigrant to confront uncertainty, unfamiliarity, and structural injustice.
Asia Mason fuses family archives with her photographic work as a means of unearthing both familial and collective history with astute criticism of Canadian myths and government policies. In the series 201972, Mason documents her grandmother’s childhood home in Trinidad and Tobago, collaging letters and postcards from her grandmother’s mother and sisters after she left for Canada. These matrilineal bonds of love, connection, and resilience—reassembled, reiterated, and remembered by Mason—are key to her resistance.
Resistance rooted in female strength and leadership is also foregrounded in Dallas Karonhia’nó:ron Canady Binette’s digital painting, The Prophecy. Depicting the Lakota Prophecy of the destructive Black Snake (oil and gas pipelines), Canady Binette shows a woman crushing a serpent in front of a blockade flying a warrior flag, and nature at its most breathtaking. Grandmother moon smiles down beneficently at her daughters: resistance and resilience from the perspective of his peoples. Pilar Escobar has drawn upon memories of her father’s exercise routines to create images of female strength in her video Dynamic Tension. Playing between the contradictions of protection and preparation for battle, Escobar expresses vulnerability and strength—qualities honed on her experiences growing up in Colombia, where violence was recurrent.
The strength—mental, physical and spiritual, that communities develop in the face of violence and oppression also underlies To Hold a Smile by Michaëlle Sergile. In 1895, renowned poet Paul Lawrence Dunbar wrote ‘We Wear the Mask’; Sergile has screenprinted it on a white cotton scroll, followed by an extract of Maya Angelou’s adaptation, and then her own continuation in Haitian Creole. The fabric hangs in front of a tightly-cropped video of the artist holding a broad, frozen smile—first unremarkable, then excruciating. Experiences of oppression, from slavery to racism and microaggressions in current day Montreal are movingly knit together through the resilience that Sergile foregrounds.
What is seen and unseen, and the politics of black corporeality and visibility are also interrogated in Kosisochukwu Nnebe’s installation, I want you to know that I am hiding something from you / since what I might be is uncontainable. Each phrase corresponds to one of two rooms. The first deploys transparency and opacity to resist viewer’s abilities to see and seize what is presented. The other enacts the violence of racialization when it is projected onto people’s bodies.
The racialized colonial gaze is not just present when looking at people deemed ‘other’; it reveals itself also when looking inward at itself. This was extremely apparent in 2017 during the ‘celebration’ of Canada’s 150th year since confederation, marked by indigenous outcry that 150 years of colonialism was not something to celebrate. In this context, Winnie Wu created Real Canadian Superstore, a presentation of 12 ethnic food items, all priced under $1.50. The facile celebration of multiculturalism which was also part of the narrative of Canada 150 is juxtaposed here with the economic hardship and inequalities some new Canadians face. Given the estimated half-billion dollars of government spending on the anniversary, the irony of bargain-priced food items points subtly to systemic inequalities seldom discussed.
Systemic inequality and oppression is also foregrounded in Joyce Joumaa’s video, Simultaneous Translation. In a gesture of eloquent simplicity, the artist has modified Nadia Murad’s historic United Nations address on Yazidi female trafficking; more precisely, she removes the translator’s vocal track, thus questioning standard practices of simultaneous translation at the United Nations which can distort understanding of the speaker’s message. That a male voice is substituted for that of a young, female victim of sexual crimes is evidence of how these practices remain tacit conventions that can affect the outcome of international affairs, and further perpetuate oppression of people they purportedly aim to help.
As has often been said following the onset of COVID-19, in 2020 humanity is more aware than ever of the ways in which we are interconnected. But the question that follows is what we are going to do about it? How are we going to work together for the good of everyone, and all the living things we are in relation with across the planet? Kurt Vonnegut famously called artists canaries in coal mines, warning miners of the lack of oxygen. I think this can be true. But the artists of Resistance and Resilience do more: they not only warn of impending disaster, they show the way forward with ruminations on love, loss, and healing; familial bonds, matriarchal leadership, displacement, and of course resilience. We would do well to listen like Vonnegut’s miners; all our lives depend on it.
Rhonda L. Meier
Warren G. Flowers Art Gallery