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Latin-Canadian Crossovers Evoke Nostalgia, Immersion

One could be forgiven if one thought that “Being Elsewhere: Seven Artists from the Latin American and Caribbean Diaspora in Canada” sounds like an exhibition that’s too esoteric and narrowly defined, even by the specific standards of the Inter-American Development Bank Cultural Center and its past thematic shows. One could be wrong, too.

The title may be cumbersome and sound more like a thesis than an exhibition, but in its sharp focus, the display says a lot about the Latin Diaspora and immigrant artists in general, while offering up an astonishing variety of artwork — particularly astonishing given the small number of works done by an even smaller group of transplanted artists.

Indeed, Canada may seem an unlikely source of musings about Latin American immigrant art, but there has been a marked increased in Latin American and Caribbean immigration to Canada in recent years, to the point that the two now comprise the largest non-European ethnic groups living in Canada today. It should come as no surprise that a number of gifted artists would be a part of that group.

The IDB Cultural Center, under the leadership of Félix Angel, held an open call in January 2009 for art proposals from artists born in Latin America and the Caribbean who are legal residents of Canada. A large number — 73 artists from 24 countries — responded, from which seven artists and 35 works ranging from painting to photography and video were ultimately chosen.

What the featured artists have in common is not so much that they attempt to define immigrant art per se, but rather raise questions about how the act of immigrating and “being elsewhere” might affect the art and the artist. Expatriate art, it’s fair to suggest, always seems to convey notions of nostalgia, longing and immersion, with social and geographical issues playing a part.

Here and there — sometimes obviously, sometimes suggestively — you see these issues move and motivate the art on display. Some of the works are not identifiably Canadian, whatever that might be, while others are because of content and subject matter.

But you can sense some common qualities among the works and the artists — whether they are from El Salvador or Barbados — in that they all seem touched by dreaming and memory of a different place. Most immigrants have a lingering, often hurtful passion for what once was, coupled with an attempt at distancing from one’s origins to lessen that pain and adjust to new surroundings. These artists are always looking over their shoulders while looking forward — which, you suspect, colors their work.

The seven artists hail from seven different countries of origin — Mexico, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Barbados, El Salvador and Colombia. They are by and large still young and establishing their reputations, and much of their work deals with their history, but from the vantage point of being elsewhere.

That history is most vividly and directly addressed by Osvaldo Ramírez Castillo from El Salvador in a series of bold, graphic drawings that illustrate his country’s woeful record of repression and civil war in the 1980s. Castillo’s own family history imprints his haunting images and also led to his arrival in Canada, a country not known for the brutal strife experienced by many Salvadorans like Castillo.

If Castillo’s work connects like an electric current to his origins, Cuban photographer Niurka Barroso deals with the connections made by coming and going, staying and leaving. Her close-ups of hands strikingly juxtaposed against moving fish evoke the idea of departure and renewal as beautiful allegories.

Joscelyn Gardner of Barbados uses lithographic prints to contemplate female Creole identity in a way that’s almost contradictory. The prints resemble the clean drawings often made by botanists or biological scientists, yet they also have a spicy hint of the fetishist, suggesting capture and torture as well as something elusively mechanical.

Meanwhile, Haitian artist Marie-Denise Douyon uses found objects (bicycle chains, sprockets) mounted on painted wood to evoke African traditions in contemporary ways. Likewise, Delio Delgado of the Dominican Republic mixes a base of old architectural drawings with modern iconic material such as large numbering to suggest the vitality of contemporary living.

Mexican artist Laura Barrón ventures even further into the contemporary, exploring her own feelings of nostalgia in a series of puckish, beautiful videos, while Colombian artist Oscar Danilo Vargas tackles the reality of displacement in big, tender yet terrifying paintings depicting a small human figure cast adrift.

The work, like all the others in the show, is a testament to the power of new environments to instill confusion and emotional weightlessness — as rendered by immigrants who have used art to ground themselves in their new reality.

About the Author

Gary Tischler is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.

Last Edited on July 7, 2014