Koffler exhibit investigates the immigrant experience

Lucas Jacob’s The Lookout . TONI HAFKENSCHEID PHOTOS

Yonder, a large and varied group exhibition of works by 20 first- and second-generation Canadian artists, opened on Sept. 21 at the Koffler Gallery at Artscape Youngplace located in Toronto’s lively Queen West arts district.

Curated by Matthew Brower and Mona Filip, the show investigates the immigrant experience through the works of artists from diverse cultural origins.

Both the content and the form of Yonder express the vision of the Koffler Centre of the Arts, the gallery’s parent body, which identifies as a Jewish cultural organization that promotes inter-cultural dialogue “that engages our Jewish identity with diverse perspectives and global voices.” 

The Koffler Centre seeks to realize this objective through arts-based explorations across the contemporary arts disciplines.

Composed of creations devised from a broad range of media and expressed in various styles, the exhibition spreads over three floors and spills out onto the walkway outside the front door.

Purposely mining subjective experience and personal history, the artists’ images and installations reflect on the unwanted baggage of cultural mistranslation, displacement and fractured identity as well as the discovery of new landscapes, opportunities and the freedom to redefine oneself. Inescapably, the individual narratives are embedded in political accounts that allude to what prompts the decision to leave home, what one brings on the voyage, what one leaves behind, how the destination is decided upon and what one encounters in a foreign land.

The exhibiting artists range from the well established to early career practitioners. They include Sarindar Dhaliwal, Brendan Fernandes, Rafael Goldchain, Esmond Lee, Julius Ponceler Manapul, Sanaz and Mani Mazinai, Blue Republic, Z’otz* Collective, Jérôme Havre, Luis Jacob, Divya Mehra, Zinnia Naqvi, Jose Luis Torres, 2Fik, Diana Yoo and Jinny Yu.

Each of their statements in some way adds to the conversation about immigration/migration. However, in this sizable undertaking it isn’t surprising that there is variance in depth and quality of the works. Understandably, what a viewer perceives and obtains from a work of art depends on the knowledge and experience he or she brings to it, nevertheless, the level of the exchange is to a large extent dependent on how imaginatively and skilfully an artist conveys a story or experience.

Rafael Goldchain’s black and white photographic exhibit captured my attention because of the exquisite quality of his craftsmanship and his ability to compose images that speak volumes.

A lauded photographer whose works can be viewed in major museums such as the National Gallery of Canada, the Bibliotheque Nationale de France and the Museum of Modern Art, Goldchain is a Canadian with Polish-Jewish roots who was born in Chile. In his late teens he moved to Israel with his family to escape the Pinochet regime. There he lived on a kibbutz and began his photographic explorations. He moved to Toronto to study photography at York and Ryerson universities. Given his history and his heritage, one may understand that much of his work is devoted to investigations into identity, ancestry, migration and displacement.

Goldchain’s exhibit at Yonder is entitled, I Was Here. The photos were shot on black and white film in Chile between 1968 and 1970, in Israel from 1970 to 1975 and in Toronto from 1976 to 1978, by his father and in later years by Rafael. The images reveal street life, colourful and ordinary residents of the locales, kiosks and shops, traffic and lights, local flora, signs in the language of each country, vintage clothing and cars and other things that everyday life is made from.

Rafael Goldchain’s I Was Here.
Rafael Goldchain’s I Was Here.

Travelling from one photo to the next, from one land to another, one is struck by how similar these disparate places become and begins to feel exhausted by disconnection, uprootedness and instability.

Photos of one’s travels for some serve as mementos of pleasurable experiences, but in this case the photos become evidence of places one inhabited but was not a part of.

I Was Here is as much a question as it is a statement. It may be read as a collection of impressions from the artist’s past sewn together to create a patchwork identity. However, it should be understood as the ability of a talented creator to immerse the viewer in the world of his art.

Pakistani-Canadian Zinnia Naqvi, is a young artist who already has attracted notice for her documentary-style photography and videos (Finalist: Documentary Institute Award for Best Short Documentary, 2015; Finalist: Equitable Banks’s Emerging Digital Artist Award, 2015).

According to her artist’s statement, Naqvi’s work questions the relationship between authenticity and narrative while inquiring into post colonialism, gender and language.

For me, this translates as a quest to uncover the personal and family stories within the layers of cultural and political narratives.

Past and Present II, the photographic series Naqvi is presenting at Yonder examines migration patterns of individuals and families. She began the project by submerging herself in family albums to locate photos of immigrant parents at home in their country of origin. Afterward, she worked with the children of these parents on the creation of a staged photographic session located in the family’s Canadian home. The outcome is mirror images of home as experienced by two generations. The aim is to find the similarities and differences between the two generations through a comparative study of the photos.

The astonishing discovery was not only the strong family resemblances but also how similar homes in the new country were to the homes in the country of origin. Naqvi understands this as migrants’ need to recreate the familial setting in the new world  to ensure continuity in a location of discontinuity. The images heighten awareness about the challenges of immigration and why newcomers seek foods, traditions and surroundings that remind them of home.

Yonder is on display until Nov. 27 at the Koffler Gallery located at Artscape Youngplace, 180 Shaw St. in Toronto.

*This story has been slightly modified from the original version