Human Capital

17 December 2020 – 18 April 2021

About the Exhibition

Curated By

Tak Pham

Organized By

MacKenzie Art Gallery


RHW, Hill & Rawlinson Galleries

Human Capital presents work that offers insight into the impact of Canada’s immigration policies and history: how it treats humans as capital, and the role it plays in shaping the complex and contested the formation of a “Canadian identity.”

Canada, like most Western nations, has a long history of immigration campaigns that promise economic prosperity to both the state and immigrants. As a result, Canadian immigration policies have historically focused on maximizing economic contributions while minimizing disruption to the “fundamental character of the Canadian population,” as remarked by Canadian Prime Minister Mackenzie King in 1947.  

Canada’s current, points-based immigration system, in place since 1967, attempts to provide a non-discriminatory framework for assessing individuals and collectives and directing them to strategic economic and geographic sectors. Once inside Canada, new immigrants are expected to boost the country’s economy by producing more for less. The system has little regard for existing marginalized communities, as it continues to reinforce “Canadian values” with an ever-growing intake of immigrants, whose admittance is driven primarily by the economic demands of the country. For all these reasons, the exhibition asks: What else is lost when human potential is measured as units of capital? 



17 December 2020
Opening Reception

14 January 2021
Digital Publication Launch: Briarpatch Magazine


Migrant Dreams by Min Sook Lee

Migrant Dreams tells the undertold story of migrant agricultural workers struggling against Canada’s Temporary Foreign Worker Program (TFWP) which treats foreign workers as modern-day indentured labourers.

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To accompany the exhibition, Briarpatch Magazine partnered with the MacKenzie to produce a special digital package of writing on migration, work, and a world beyond borders.

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Aleesa Cohen
Chantal Gibson
Brian Jungen
Jeannie Mah
Esmaa Mohamoud
Florence Yee
Shellie Zhang 



Aleesa Cohene 

All Right, 2003
6:40 minutes
Courtesy of the artist 

In All Right, we see a collection of footage from different sources, including immigration officer training videos, horror films, and sound clips from Canadian news broadcasts. By putting these diverse materials together in an interrupted six-minute sequence, artist Aleesa Cohenpresents how the perception of immigrants has been made equivalent to the fear of strangers. 

In one scene taken from a training videoa Canadian immigration officer gets progressively more aggressive as he is questioning an immigrant hopeful. The officer’s scrutiny and skepticism expose the contradiction between the workings of the Canadian immigration system and the country’s image of a benevolent, multicultural, and immigrant-friendly nation.

Esmaa Mohamoud 

Deeper the Wounded, Deeper the Roots (1), 2019, 101.6 x 152.4 cm
Deeper the Wounded, Deeper the Roots (2), 2019, 152.4 x 101.6 cm
Deeper the Wounded, Deeper the Roots (3), 2019, 152.4 x 101.6 cm
archival pigment print
edition of 5 (1 AP)
Courtesy of Georgia Scherman Projects and the artist 

In this three-photograph series, artist Esmaa Mohamoud uses the language of metaphor to capture the experience of Black bodies in Western history and to call out the unceasing exploitation of Black body labour that has persisted until today. 

Reflecting on this history of Black Canadians and the history of Anti-Blackness worldwide, Mohamoud draws comparisons between two different—but similar—fields. On both grounds, Black bodies continue to be exploited for industrial profits, crops then and sports entertainment now. The men in the photos outfitted in Mohamoud’s custom-made jerseys stand tall in the field. Having their backs to the viewers, they cast their gazes beyond the idyllic horizon as a gesture of hope and self-determination. 

Chantal Gibson 

Book/mark, 2010
mixed media hanging book sculpture, faux suede, acrylic medium, jute rope, and metal armature
approx. 91.4 x 45.7 cm circumference
Courtesy of the artist 

Visual artist and writer Chantal Gibson uses treated fabric and jute rope to create a commemorative sculpture to mark two key historical moments in 1783: the writing of the historical Book of Negroes, the largest single document about Black people in North America up until the end of the eighteenth century, and the arrival of the Black Loyalists in Nova Scotia, the largest single migration of Blacks to Canada. 

Binding together 3000 hand-crafted bookmarks, each representing a Black Loyalist recorded in the historical document Book of Negroes, the work stands as a reminder of where stories about the experience of Black Canadians  have been left out of the broader history of Canada, and where we can return today to pick up our unfinished work. 

Chantal Gibson

The Braided Book: a/Historical In(ter)vention Altered History of Canada (1935), with B/W photo of my mother (Nova Scotia, 1955) included in (missing Black) Loyalist section, 2011
mixed media altered book sculpture, book, black waxed linen thread
approx. 30.5 x 30.5 x 30.5 cm
Courtesy of the artist

Joan’s History Book: Altered Canada A Nation, 1963, 2016
mixed media altered text, black cotton thread
approx. 30.5 x 30.5 x 30.5 cm
Courtesy of the artist

Artist-writer Chantal Gibson’s altered history book sculptures are part of an ongoing project that explores the limitation of written words and questions the verity of recorded history. Altering actual history books, Gibson guts, redacts, and binds their pages using black threads. The threads puncture through papers, removing the white space, filling the gaps between the history-carrying black text.

Gibson’s intervention not only transforms the physical characteristics of the books, but it also suggests the possibility of reading and writing history in other ways. As they envelop the books, the black threads form braids that emerge from the holes on the papers and the interstices in the books’ narratives. Their sculptural quality gives form to the voices that are often lost in between the lines, not recorded, or unheard in history textbooks written by dominating cultures.

Shellie Zhang  

It’s Complicated, 2019
holographic metalized polyester vinyl
61 x 426.7 cm
Courtesy of the artist

This text vinyl comprises two words: “diaspora” and “haha.” Witty and poignant, the text speaks to both the perception and the experience of many immigrants—especially racialized folks—in Western nations, including Canada. Rising nationalistic and xenophobic sentiments have often characterized immigrants as the causes for personal economic deterioration and social unrest. Rhetoric like “job stealers,” “welfare leech,” or even “terrorists” is often used by nationalist groups to antagonize racialized immigrants.

Like a self-referential humour, the text sets up a juxtaposition of comparable ideas associated with immigrants. By finishing the text with “haha” and coating the vinyl in holographic sparkles, Zhang emphasizes the uneasiness felt by people in addressing immigrant issues in our contemporary world, as well as the violence that exclusionary rhetoric can generate.

Shellie Zhang 

Means of Exchange ($37.89), 2019
Means of Exchange ($31.94), 2019
Means of Exchange ($76.30), 2019
inkjet print
121.9 x 101.6 cm
Courtesy of the artist

In this series, artist Shellie Zhang photographs an assortment of seasonal celebratory objects that are widely available in Canadian discount stores and tourist shops.

Many of the items depicted come from the city of  Yiwu. Located about 250 kilometres from Shanghai, the city is a major supplier to dollar stores globally, producing more than 1.8 million consumer products. These “Made in China” items are then put inside large containers for long journeys on ships and airplanes before turning up on discount shelves in stores on the other side of the globe.

The monetary values in the titles reflect the prices that Zhang paid to acquire the items for the photos in Toronto, where the artist lives. This assortment of seasonal celebratory objects asks, “How are acts of labour devalued when relegated to other countries and made invisible? How do we reconcile the disparity between the worldwide circulation of commodities and increasingly restrictive migration policies?”


Untitled (detail),  2017. Courtesy of Denis Walz.


Untitled (detail),  2017. Courtesy of Tricon Capital Group, Toronto, Canada.

Brian Jungen 

Untitled, 2017
Untitled, 2017
felt marker on paper
53.3 x 76.2 cm
Collection of Denis Walz 

Untitled, 2017
Untitled, 2017
felt marker on paper
53.3 x 76.2 cm
Courtesy of Tricon Capital Group, Toronto, Canada 

Untitled, 2017
felt marker on paper
53.3 x 76.2 cm
Collection of Gilles and Julia Ouellette 

This collection of drawings resumes artist Brian Jungen’s early drawing practice, which he developed before transitioning  in 1998 to sculpture, for which he has gained critical acclaim. As with his sculptures,  Jungen uses drawings to explore and question his own identity as a queer Indigenous artist within globalized consumerism. He draws on imagery he sees in mass media, popular culture, and, in this 2017 series, selfies from social media apps for gay men. 

In this unique series, Jungen’s line-drawing figures overlap one another, creating a tableau of both self-determining and self-conforming identities. Social media is a replica of a society that trades in attention and desire. The technology’s geo-locating ability to distort distances can foster new connections, as well as provide a haven for aggression, especially  toward members of marginalized communities, whose bodies do not receive the same protection as ideal Canadians” do. 

Brian Jungen and Duane Linklater 

Modest Livelihood, 2012
super 16mm film, transferred to Blu-ray
50 minutes, silent
Courtesy of Catriona Jeffries and the artist

In 2012, artist Brian Jungen collaborated on a silent film with fellow artist Duane Linklater. Shot on a Super 16mm camera with the assistance of one professional cameraperson, the film follows the two artists as they embark on a series of moose-hunting trips.

Shot primarily in the Peace Country of the DaneZaa territories in northern British Columbia, the film shows the two artists travelling at first by all-terrain vehicle, before going on foot. The duo is also joined by Jungen’s uncle, Elder Jack Askoty, who shares with them knowledge and the history of the land as they continue looking for moose. Following their journey, the film features the region’s natural landscapes alongside areas that have been heavily impacted by industrialization.

The silent format of the film amplifies the visible absence of the animal, and the complexity of Indigenous peoples’ relationship with Canada. Through the presence of Jungen, Linklater, and Elder Askty in the landscape, the film blurs the distinction between documentary and art and resists the disappearance of traditional knowledge and the constant re-definition of Indigenous land by state-supported industries.

Whitewashed , 2018. Courtesy of the artist.

Florence Yee

Whitewashed, 2018
vinyl on found dry cleaning bag, clothing rack
137.2 x 53.3 cm
Courtesy of the artist

A Labour of Labour, 2018
hand-embroidered polyester thread on found comforter
304.8 x 213.4 cm
Courtesy of the artist

Please Reply IV, 2020
hand-embroidered polyester thread and inkjet-printed silk organza pinned on felt
30.5 x 22.9 cm each
Courtesy of the artist

Artist Florence Yee uses textile and text to explore collective histories and familial legacies in the experience of Chinese Canadian immigrants, particularly Cantonese migrants, from the nineteenth century onward. Their work traces the boundaries between utterance and materiality, sentiment and comfort, and shows where word becomes touch.

In their 2018 artworks Whitewashed and A Labour of Labour, they present how this dynamic manifests not only in the cynicism of multiculturalism that characterizes Chinese-Canadian stereotypes, but also in the socio-economic pressure that pushes them to conform to and uphold the model minority complex. Expanding on this line of inquiry, their 2020 artwork Please Reply IV uses research and hand-embroidery as methods to investigate the ambiguity—the in-betweenness—that immigrants  experience under neoliberalism.

Florence Yee, <i>A Labour of Labour</i>, 2018, hand-embroidered polyester thread on found comforter, 304.8 x 213.4 cm. Courtesy of the artist. Photo by Don Hall.

Florence Yee, A Labour of Labour, 2018, hand-embroidered polyester thread on found comforter, 304.8 x 213.4 cm. Courtesy of the artist. Photo by Don Hall.

Florence Yee, <i>Please Reply IV</i>, 2020, hand-embroidered polyester thread and inkjet-printed silk organza pinned on felt, 30.5 x 22.9 cm each. Courtesy of the artist. Photo by Don Hall.

Florence Yee, Please Reply IV, 2020, hand-embroidered polyester thread and inkjet-printed silk organza pinned on felt, 30.5 x 22.9 cm each. Courtesy of the artist. Photo by Don Hall.


Jeannie Mah 

Train: Les Arrivées, 2013
porcelain with photocopy transfers and underglazes, mirror,overhead projectorsand video
40:00 minutes
installation dimensions variable
Courtesy of the artist
Video is courtesy of Don Stein
Left overhead projector photo is MIKAN No. 3402772, courtesy of Library and Archives Canada
Right overhead projector photo is They Also Lay Tracks, courtesy of Chinese Canadian National Council Toronto Chapter
The Broadway Avenue, Yorkton postcard image is courtesy of the Saskatchewan Council for Archives and Archivists 

Artist Jeannie Mah’s multimedia installation speaks to the intertwined history of Chinese immigrants and the trans-Canada railway from the nineteenth century onwards. Using images sourced from Library and Archives Canada and the Chinese Canadian National Council, as well as personal photos from her family archive, Mah places the history of her own and other Chinese settler families in the development history of Yorkton, Regina, and Consul. Mah’s photo-transferred ceramic vases are as fragile as the moments they depict. Like the trains, which came and then left, traces of settlement and the idea of home are fading and shifting with each subsequent generation, sometimes within a  lifetime. 

In Mah’s words: 

I have placed my father in the centre of the porcelain narrative. Born in 1910, my father arrived in Saskatchewan at age 12, in 1922. The Regina train station (1912) once elegant, grand and central, saw the arrival of immigrants from many parts of the world. Regina, our capital city, is no longer served by passenger train: Union Station has become a casino and show lounge, a palace of spectacle, to distract and amuse us. 

Jeannie Mah, <i>Train: Les Arrivées</i>, 2013, porcelain with photocopy transfers and underglazes, mirror, overhead projectors, and video. Photo by Don Hall.

Jeannie Mah, Train: Les Arrivées, 2013, porcelain with photocopy transfers and underglazes, mirror, overhead projectors, and video. Photo by Don Hall.