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Immigrants and the Art of Belonging

June 2010

By Ryan Pratt

I arrived early to the Shenkman Arts Centre, an impressive glass-fronted construct next to Orleans’ shopping district, and found an ottoman-sized rock to settle on.  Staring vacantly out over its neighbouring grassland, marred by fence-lines and some paved parking, I breathed deep its flat horizon with an appreciation that would’ve gone unnoticed a few years ago.  That’s what living amid the concrete towers of Toronto can do to you; with all its flashing billboards and commuter stampedes, your eyes never need to look further than an outstretched arm.

Untitled 6 (Red Boat #1). Courtesy of Vladimir Valiente.

Untitled 6 (Red Boat #1). Courtesy of Vladimir Valiente.

While this architectural stone may offer the finest seat to gaze upon a spot of commercial land waiting to be sold, it also presents a great view of Canada’s aging landscape.  I suppose you’d have to leave home to appreciate it.

The same might be said for Belonging, an art exhibition set in motion by The Coalition of New Canadians for Arts and Culture (CNCAC), which was set to debut when my eye caught the first painting decorating the entrance.  Magnificent as it looked – a sprawling oil on canvas featuring a female adorned with multi-coloured wings, born out of clouds and head back in bliss – I considered it a strange first impression for an art show celebrating new Canadians and the work they’ve dedicated to their homelands.

The piece held no geographical tell-tales among the heavenly haze, no recognizable cultural markings on its feathered wings.  It did, of course, beg the question: how does one interpret a muse carried over continents, rooted in the traditions and hardships of so many immigrant tales?

As a Canadian born and raised in a corner of Southern Ontario, that task should put me at a particular handicap.  Hell, I didn’t understand my own nationality until the age of 26, when I walked out of a Taiwanese airport and instantly recognized I was a man with a country.

We typically don’t feel the impact of our surroundings until they’re replaced, and the idea of interpreting these places that have cultured us becomes conflicted when we can’t physically revisit them at our leisure.

Ryan Pratt. Photo by Mike Levin.

By collecting 29 works of art from Canadians who have emigrated from all corners of the world, Belonging will appeal to anyone who has picked-up and moved-on, anyone who can feel the ghosts they’ve left behind. It will also appeal to anyone who enjoys thought-provoking work.

As Bozica Radjenovic’s  Dual Citizenship displays bluntly – two shoes chained together, a map of Ontario glued in the sole of one, a map of Serbia glued to the other – an immigrant’s journey can be punishing.  Signs of this struggle hang everywhere; Vladimir Valiente’s Untitled 6 (Red Boat #1) features a folded paper boat, blood-red and cross bone-branded, leaving wreckage on white-painted canvas, while Hamid Ayoub’s Confrontation by depicts a family separated by thick lines as resolute as a flag’s.

Some figures are sketched as dismembered or incomplete, while others, like the duck constructed of Lego blocks in Carlos Navarro’s Canard, appear as inauthentic stand-ins.  Even pieces of art that boast no obvious commentary seem painted in an impressionistic fog, as if captured by the artist-in-question’s vague memories.  The faces of Gabriela Condrut’s We, The Three-Voice Texture emerge warped and monochromatic, while the edges of Vladimir Frolov’s Untitled III are so dulled, interpreting its meaning is at once limitless and impossible.

By Chikonzero Chazunguza. Courtesy of Patrick Mills Gallery.

Needless to say, these are just my personal interpretations, as uncertain and impermanent as the etched lines we trust to distinguish nations on a globe.  Yet as various members of CNCAC applauded these artists for their selected works, I began studying this opening reception for its participants, not its paintings.

Eastern European music radiated from two acoustic guitars, artists traded thick accents while discussing their inspirations and children of many backgrounds furrowed their brows over crayons and construction paper.  As one of the few Canadian-born citizens in attendance (not to mention someone who mere months ago considered himself an immigrant-of-sorts to Ottawa), I suddenly felt a euphoric wave not unlike the pride I felt returning to Canada after my Taiwan visit.

Few countries would fund an artistic platform for immigrants to openly discuss their hardships and homeland, let alone celebrate it.  For Canada’s ever-changing identity, this art has historical significance.

As I began walking back through the field to Place D’Orleans’ bus-stop, I realized I’d forgotten to jot down the artist’s name and title of that first stunning piece near the entrance, the one representing no clear allegiances or nationality.  Tossing my bag open and filing through papers, I snatch up the show’s program.  Its artist, Carlos Tamayo, had named it Freedom.

Belonging: Canadian Artists Celebrating Cultural Richness runs until August 26 at the Shenkman Arts Centre and until June 12 at Patrick John Mills Contemporary Fine Arts Gallery.

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