Home: Stories From Here and Away

Linda Chen, Toni Hamel, Rehab Nazzal, Souvankham Thammavongsa and Wing Yee Tong
June 6, 2013 to July 20, 2013

"There cannot be one cultural policy for Canadian of British and French origin, another for the original peoples and yet a third for all others. For although there are two official languages, there is no official culture, nor does any ethnic group take precedence over any other. No citizen or group of citizens is other than Canadian, and all should be treated fairly..."
- Pierre Trudeau announcing the policy of multiculturalism in 1971

"In the real world, equal respect for all cultures doesn't translate into a rich mosaic of colorful and proud peoples interacting peacefully while maintaining a delightful diversity of food and craftwork. It translates into closed pockets of oppression, ignorance, and abuse."
- Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Nomad: From Islam to America: A Personal Journey Through the Clash of Civilizations

Putting together an exhibition that takes as its starting point artists and their experience(s) of immigration comes with a unique set of challenges.  Immigrants to this country come for a variety of reasons not always solely based on the freedom to choose. Some leave their homeland for survival as refugees as their countries are consumed in conflict. Others are exiled by oppressive regimes that strip their people of their citizenship, while still others come to escape the oppression that can sometimes accompany certain traditional familial and cultural frameworks. Many of these circumstances can be associated with the last 400 years of colonialism followed by the decolonization that has occurred over the past century.  The results of two world wars followed by the cold war and the onset of globalization have created a situation where an unprecedented number of people have left their home countries in hopes of finding a better life elsewhere. It is our desire at The Latcham Gallery to provide a venue for the voices and perspectives of new Canadians to be heard and seen. However I feel the need to move cautiously lest I fall into the pitfalls of trite generalizations and/or tokenism. Where ever possible here I want to let the artists’ voices speak for themselves with their words and their works.

Linda Chen is a Taiwanese- Canadian artist living in Unionville. In HOME, Chen's two bodies of work – Conversation and 100 Faces succinctly sketch out the sometimes opposing and sometimes complimentary forces that can accompany the experience of moving to a new country leaving behind friends, family and a way of life. Conversation is an ongoing project that began while visiting her parents in Taiwan – something she has done once every year since she arrived in Canada 16 years ago. A few years ago Chen's aging father had a stroke and became infirm. When she visits him she sits with him and draws. She chooses something out of his environment and these objects and their representations became a starting point for conversations. Now after returning back home to Canada she continues the process with objects from her own life and finds that it is a point of contact and connection – a way for her to stay connected when family is so far away. The 100 Faces project is an ongoing study of the people in the community where she lives. Almost every week Chen meets with other members of Painters Six - a collective of Unionville painters of which she is part – and paints a new portrait of someone from their community. This ongoing project has the cumulative effect of producing a portrait of Unionville that illustrates the diversity found within its people. 

Rehab Nazzal is a Palestinian born artist who now lives in Markham. Her powerful documents of life in her homeland of Israel/Palestine are a testimony of life under occupation.  In her own words: "I left my home, Palestine, after high school to pursue my undergrad study at the university of Damascus, Syria. After obtaining my degree I was denied entry to my home country by the Israeli occupation forces that confiscated my citizenship. During 25 years I was able to visit home twice as a foreigner with a one-month permit each time. In 2006 I obtained back my citizenship documents from the Israeli occupation forces, since then I visit home whenever I can." Nazzal's connection to family and community are evident even in the hushed tones we hear in A Night at Home - a conversation with her son and mother recorded while visiting family in the Occupied Territories. Awoken in the middle of the night, by Israeli Security forces conducting a nighttime raid into the community, their conversation punctuated by gunfire betray a careful tenderness in the face of terror and oppression.  While life in Canada may be easier in some ways for Nazzal and her family, the choice to emigrate was not made in the same way that others may have made that choice. She and her children's father, also a Palestinian refugee, needed a safe place to raise their family as they were both denied the right of return to their homeland. Even while that is true, Nazzal has written: "My home lives within me, the memories become more alive year after year. I miss the sky, the mountains, the warm weather, the people, even the chaos..I miss the terraced mountations of olive trees, fig, cactus, green almond, thyme and sage. I left home physically, but it lives within me."

Wing Yee Tong has created three sculptural works and one photo work for the exhibition. The whimsical and cobbled together Mutual Sympathy dominates the space as it rises from the floor like a cartoon Tower of Babble built by squirrels. Domestic discards, industrial detritus mixed with found and gathered natural elements hold the structure together.  In fact the piece had its genesis a story of a squirrel that somehow had made its home on the top floor balcony of a downtown condo tower. As well Mutual Sympathy is a tongue-in-cheek reference to the history and ritual of Hong Kong's Cheung Chau Bun Festival. "Cheung Bahl Sahn"—literally, "bun-snatching mountain," is an annual competitive bread tower climbing festival that was banned in the 70's due to a collapsing bun tower that injured many people. However it was recently revitalized through the popularity of a Chinese animated TV series centering on the life of a Hong Kong based single mother and her piglet son. Tong's If uses mass produced blue gloves and other found blue material. She writes:"The gloves I used for this blue chandelier-like sculpture were factory made in China. On the sales rack they hung in uniform rows, a multitude of pressed teal fingers. In the process of taking them apart and re-purposing them I thought about the fact … that every unvarying pair had passed through the hands of people I am likely to never know—the workers who had produced these in factories. The character of the gloves’ sameness is concomitant with the condition of their mass production and eventual disposability. Their reshaping through my hands into unrepentantly irregular and useless forms was a symbolic ritual of resistance against the homogenization characteristic of mass industrial production." The single photo-work in the exhibition, A Work History is a photo reproduction of a handwritten document of Tong's mother's early work history in the sixties and seventies in Hong Kong which at the time was a powerhouse of export commodity production. At the age of thirteen she began to take in piecework that was paid by the pound for a factory manufacturing parts for dolls. She worked successively in many factories, soldering, packaging, producing radio and other electronic parts."The mechanistic and repetitive work of divided, unskilled labour was one of the few arenas of work available to young women workers. She told me stories about looking through a microscope all day, about doubling up on eight-hour work shifts and speeded-up work conditions. A Work History is an enlarged facsimile reproduction of her handwritten document and a portal to understanding the personal experiences and social history that was formative of my mother’s identity and informative of the values she has tried to impart to me."

Toni Hamel's mixed media drawings find their beginnings in a personal biography. Emigrating to Canada from Italy as a young woman she found like many leaving their home countries for a better life elsewhere, that integration into new cultural realities can sometimes be a long and challenging process."Isolation and estrangement, loss of culture/ identity and familial bonds, as well as isolation due to either perceived or real intolerance, and the difficult integration into the new social fabric are all hardships that I have experienced in the first person." The Disturbance, a mixed media on panel work shows a group of children and adults sitting around on what appears to be a bombed out structure. They all have their attention firmly placed on a flock of Canada Geese. The geese look as though they are in a migratory pattern – a manifestation perhaps of the collective desires of these war weary people trying to imagine a "normal life". Hamel grew up in an oppressive family environment: "My father was the typical 'padre-padrone' (father-owner), a character role unfortunately still alive and well in southern Italy. In his view, women are chattels or domestic slaves, whose sole role in life is to serve their man (first their father, than their husband). As a father, he felt that his only duty with regard to his daughters was to assure that they would be kept "pure", so as to appeal to acceptable and duly pre-approved suitors." The need to escape from this family oppression was the reason Hamel ended up in Canada. This factor and the subsequent challenges encountered as a result of her immigration mentioned above have been a continuing force within her work.

Souvankham Thammavongsa was born in a Laotion refugee camp in Thailand and moved to Canada with her family when she was three years old. Her PowerPoint video called How to Pronounce Knife tells the story of her family’s journey to Canada and her subsequent coming of age in the land not of her birth. Both a writer and a visual artist Thammovongsa approaches her narrative with an economy that strips away any and all superfluous language leaving us with a minimal telling of a complex and rich history. Struggling with identity can be a challenge for all immigrants trying to find a balance between a new culture while maintaining a connection to the past and families and traditions. For Thammavongsa it is even more challenging in that finding a connection to her past has not been easy. When asked how often she's travelled to the country of her birth she replies: "Never. Though I think of it all the time. A lot of people tell me they've been to Thailand or Laos and tell me how beautiful it is and what great people are there. And this makes me sad because I have no idea what they are talking about. When I think of making a trip there I get scared because I'm afraid I don't belong there. In Canada, I always get asked "Where are you from?" and I know the answer is not Canada and even if I said so, they say, "No, where are you REALLY from?" But what if I go where I say "I'm REALLY from" and see that I'm not really from there at all. I also wonder what it would be like to be around people who look like me and to whom I never have to explain what my name means or where I'm from or what it is I am eating for lunch. Once, I asked my father where I was from and he said Laotians won't think you are Laos because you've never been there and Thais won't think you're Thai because you don't speak Thai. Then he pointed at my mother and said, "That's where you are from. Inside her."

Chai Duncan

Linda Chen was born in Taiwan. She graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in English Literature from the Soochow University, in Taipei, Taiwan. Linda moved to Canada in 1997 and completed a diploma at the Toronto School of Art. Linda feels it is only as an artist that she can express the experiences of immigration and living within a new culture, a feat achieved without the impediment of language. The struggle of forging a new life reminds her everyday that both as a person and an artist, she will ceaselessly be under construction. Her voice is shaped by this reality and it is the subject and theme of her entire body of work. She has shown her work in galleries in Ontario and Taiwan.  http://www.painters6.com/?page_id=27

Toni Hamel  is an Italian born Canadian artist based in Oshawa. She holds a BFA from the Academy of Fine Arts in Lecce (Italy), a post-graduate Certificate in Computer Graphics from Sheridan College in Oakville (Ontario, Canada), and the Golden Key Award from the University of Toronto (Ontario, Canada) where she attended the Specialist Program in Psychology. After a successful career as an interactive media designer and developer Toni has been focusing exclusively on art making. Recent exhibitions include Whitby Station Gallery, The Peterborough Art Gallery and the Robert McLaughlin Gallery in Oshawa. She has awarded  a number Ontario Art Council grants. http://www.tonihamel.net/

Rehab Nazzal is a Palestinian-born multidisciplinary artist based in Toronto. She holds an MFA from Ryerson University, a BFA from the University of Ottawa, and a B.A. in Economics from Damascus University, Syria. Nazzal’s work has been shown in Canada and internationally in both group and solo exhibitions and screenings including Gallery 101, SAW Video, X Photography Festival, A Space Gallery, Art Gallery of Mississauga, CONTACT Photography Festival, One World Film Festival, International Durzfilmtage Oberhausen. Located at the boundary between documentary and video art, Nazzal’s work explores new forms of representation of atrocities of war and colonialism. Nazzal has received a number of awards including the Edmund and Isobel Ryan Visual Arts award in photography (U of O) Documentary Photography for Social Justice Award (Ryerson), Ontario Graduate Fellowship, Ryerson University Scholarships, Ontario Art Council and City of Ottawa grants. http://www.rehabnazzal.com/

Souvankham Thammavongsa was born in Nong Khai, Thailand in 1978. Her work is primarily interested in language and words, the way they look, what they sound like, the shapes they make, the mechanics of story and the way in which we are limited in our telling. In 2011, a series of her paperclip paintings appeared in a group show, Next, in Dallas, Texas. Recently, a photograph, What I Saw After I Ate Everything #3, won an honourable mention prize in the Latcham Gallery's Annual Juried Art Exhibition. Thammavongsa is also the author of three poetry books, Small Arguments (2003), Found (2007) and Light (2013). Found was made into a short film and screened at festivals worldwide, including TIFF, L.A. Shorts Fest, and Dok Leipzig. http://souvankham-thammavongsa.com/bio.html

Wing Yee Tong is a Chinese-Canadian artist working in drawing, sculpture and intervention. Her work is focused on processes of cultural location through actions of learning, work and play. As an object maker Wing Yee tinkers with everyday materials and throwaways of mass consumer culture to make hybrids inspired by folk art and domestic crafts, narratives of de-schooling and cultural membership. As a part of the ARTIST WANTED collective, Wing Yee participated in the 2013 Mayworks Festival with the project Shop Talk Shop, exploring the value of cultural labour and the agency of artists. Wing-Yee emigrated with her family from Hong Kong to Scarborough at the age of ten. She majored in drawing and painting at the Ontario College of Art and Design and received her MFA in Studio Art from the University of Saskatchewan. http://iatethered.blogspot.ca/