New Voices in a “New” Place

Editor’s Note: The following is a review of the Toon’s Kitchen: New Voices exhibit currently screening at PAVED Arts from March 13-28. The project features video works by Ni Shao, Olha Tkachenko, Kevin Wesaquate and Yake Zhang with mentorship by Jody Polowick.

Olha Tkachenko’s work in Toon’s Kitchen: New Voices struck an immediate chord with me. Perhaps it’s due to her use of language: it’s almost as though she sums up the entire project when she says that her story is “just a small piece of a bigger story” and “how dangerous it is to be human and how beautiful it is.” And perhaps her work, the most overtly political of the four, captivated me by citing Psalm 137: “If I forget thee, oh Jerusalem, may my right hand forget its skill. May my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth if I prize thee not above my greatest joy, oh Jerusalem”. That sadness, that lament, for places that have been lost and mourning how we are to sing in a “foreign land” evokes a poetics I didn’t expect and that is often absent in contemporary art.

Tkachenko’s video is not necessarily the “best” piece, but that kind of framework doesn’t seem appropriate here, as each of the four artists in this exhibition (Ni Shao, Kevin Wesaquate, Yake Zhang and Tkachenko) are telling their own stories, and each is distinctive.

Yake Zhang’s piece, as a balance to Olha’s, has no spoken words: the hypnotic scenes are scored in a manner that carries you along, like the ethereal, superimposed silhouette of the dandelion that floats across his images. In Mordecai Richler’s Solomon Gursky Was Here, a character responds to the surprise expressed at his “immigrant” presence in a “harsh climate” (something Ni Shao amusingly and honestly touches upon, in her description of Saskatoon winters in her Christmas in Saskatoon and Shanghai), that his people are like “dandelions. Root us up here and we take root over there.”

Toon's Kitchen: New VoicesToon's Kitchen: New Voices

The accompanying statement for the show, written by mentor Jody Polowick, elaborates: What does it mean to be “new” to a place? What does it mean to be “new” to a culture? What does it mean to be “new” to a community? These are some of the questions that the participants in this project attempted to answer by sharing their experiences as new citizens of Saskatoon…Telling stories through video was a new artistic expression for all of our participants. So while they were navigating a new country, a new city and new communities they were also navigating the video making process. Participants brought their own unique experiences and perspectives to project. Each had a clear vision that they wished to share.

As I said, the works are diverse in approach: Shao’s is more like a letter between friends, like something she might send back to Shanghai, with a personal and open touch. Tkachenko’s employs large amounts of news footage – images of violence and destruction – of her former home in the Ukraine. Zhang’s is “quieter” than that (appropriately titled A Seed of Tranquility), but allows for a meditation upon place and how we define a site as much as it defines us. Kevin Wesaquate’s Pisikiwak (All Animals) is also peaceful, but employ his words to act as “chapters” (porcupines remains / forever quilted and shielded / some snouts understand or beaver lurks behind / moves in bobs and sways, for days). The usage of animal imagery indicates we’re not the only beings in a place (urban crossroads / deers crossing man made structures). The animal is metaphor for the other, for us, for how we interpret our relationship to a place: are we considerate of difference, or more likely wearing blinders to difference? The subtlety of that language mirrors the gentle fades and shifting imagery of his work.

I’d like to add another, more political point here: these are all works by “newcomers” to here (though Kevin could arguably, turn that argument around on us, being from the Piapot First Nation*), and that conversation regarding immigration can’t ignore the Temporary Foreign Worker controversy. I mention it here for two reasons that relate to New Voices: paved, the gallery / production centre that facilitates Toon’s Kitchen in its many manifestations pays appropriate fees. This is true whether they’re exhibiting Terry Billings or John Morgan (both past exhibitors in 2015, both mature and long standing artists in Saskatoon and both founders of one of paved’s “parents”, Video Vérité), experimental work by Emma Anderson exploring a blind friend’s interactions with the world or incisive and moving works by “new” Canadians. That’s important here, as it not only values these voices metaphorically, but literally.

Immigration is such a loaded debate, a minefield with too many of the same declarations of “go home” or “job thieves” or other such litanies that are ignorant and hateful. Toon’s Kitchen: New Voices enhances and expands that conversation, and to paraphrase mentor Polowick’s words, I welcome these new and insightful and rich voices.

Toon's Kitchen: New VoicesToon's Kitchen: New Voices

*Whenever I’m confronted with someone, as a recent CPC MP did, saying, “go back where you came from”, I’m reminded of a Cree Elder comment to me “Oh, NOW you people care about immigration?” Perspective is, of course, everything.