There and Here: Identities in Diaspora at the Contemporary Moment

By Abedar Kamgari

It is easy to think of immigration as an experience that begins at the time of leaving the homeland and ends at arrival to the host country. Immigrant experience, however, continues to affect migrants for most if not all of their lives following the physical act of migrating. In fact, the experience often exceeds the first generation of migrants to affect their children and grandchildren as well. The term diaspora encompasses this complex multi-generational navigation of social, cultural, and political systems that continue to impact the lives of persons with immigrant histories.

In the process of researching for and organizing this exhibition I became aware of the vast and varied experiences of migration. It would be impossible (and foolish of me) to try to pare down the complexities of diasporic experience into a singular definition. The three artists in There and Here – Nikkie To, Nedda Baba and Diana Hosseini – engage with their immigrant past and present in unique ways, addressing diverse perspectives on what it means to be a woman and a visible minority living in Canada. To this end, these artists use their studio practice as tools for dissecting, challenging, and reconstructing their ever-shifting identities.

Nikkie To’s painted figures float in ambiguous spaces somewhere between the real and the imagined. The textural surfaces of her paintings wrap around her fragmented and amorphous figures, alluding to ideas of memory, human connectivity, and loss. In Self Portrait: Child (2014), To considers the different values placed upon male and female children in the traditional Chinese household, and the resulting behavioural expectations of young girls, by fragmenting her body and collaging it onto a man’s torso. In Drawn in Space (2015, she creates a highly ornamental yet mostly empty space in which the figure(s) seem to become one and yet remain separate. To refrains from making the gender of her figures obvious, and instead embraces a sense of ambiguity to allow viewers to question their initial assumptions.

Second generation Assyrian-Canadian Nedda Baba critically analyzes her family’s desire for cultural preservation. Her photographic diptych, 14 (2014), depicts a pack of Iraqi cigarettes and a box of matches her grandmother brought back from her last visit to Iraq 14 years ago. Baba’s grandmother freezes the cigarettes to keep them fresh and only takes one out to smoke when she is feeling particularly homesick. Capturing these mementos of loss and longing, Baba reflects on her family’s sense of displacement. Her series Home (2015) is especially potent given the recent turmoil brought on by ISIS in Iraq and Syria. Baba pairs images of her family in Kirkuk, Iraq from the ‘50s and ‘60s with images of ISIS in the region today. Home addresses the sense of helplessness that many Canadians now face as their home countries are destroyed and terrorized while they remain in the safety of the West. In this way, Baba reminds us of the multifaceted and protean nature of identities in diaspora.

Diana Hosseini’s Magic Carpet (2013) references the size and motifs of the traditional Persian carpets of her ancestral homeland. Bright and colourful, Magic Carpet seems at first like an innocent electronic rendition of childhood fairytales. When it flashes its message however, it is as if the temperature in the room drops 20 degrees. Hosseini made the carpet as a way of reflecting on her experiences with discrimination and othering because of her appearance. By using the word “HIJACK,” – a term that is closely tied to ideas of terrorism and often used exclusively to refer to visibly recognizable Muslims or Middle Easterners – Hosseini opposes the problematic stereotyping of Middle Easterners in the West. The title Magic Carpet, references many stories (1001 Arabian Nights, King Solomon in the Koran, and of course, Disney’s Aladdin), and considers the effect of cultural appropriation as a form of hijacking: a hijacking of colonized cultures. For example, cheap, mass-produced Persian carpets have diminished the demand for authentic Persian Carpets (a commodity through which many Iranian women artisans make their livelihood). Through her work, Hosseini contemplates the perception of her identity through the lens of preconceived notions concerning women of colour, calling viewers to reconsider their biases.

To, Baba, and Hosseini each present a facet of their complex and ongoing experiences in the diaspora. To challenges the heteronormative gender roles placed upon Chinese women, celebrating her identity as one that exists within and breaks out of conditions that confine it. Baba investigates the multigenerational experience of diaspora by drawing on her family’s desire to preserve aspects of their native culture. Hosseini entices our senses while subverting the recognizable Persian carpet as commodity by refusing to allow the object to be read in the way she feels she was, through biases and prejudice.

When I proposed this exhibition to the artists with the question “What does it mean to be a woman and a visible minority living in Canada?” I did not expect the artists to give me a straightforward answer, nor was I interested in receiving such a response. There and Here thus came together as a means of embracing and representing the diversity of experiences and perspectives on identity and immigration. And of course acknowledging that there is no such thing as a singular experience of migration; it is ongoing and ever-evolving, and so requires constant re-evaluation and re-investigation.