We live in a world that relies heavily on the migration of families and individuals. What sacrifices would they have made to get to these lands of opportunity, to seek a better life away from ‘home’? What are they running from – or better yet, what are they running toward? In search of answers, I look at the exhibition Human Capital, which features works by Aleesa Cohene, Chantal Gibson, Brian Jungen, Jeannie Mah, Esmaa Mohamoud, Florence Yee, and Shellie Zhang. Curated by Tak Pham at the MacKenzie Art Gallery, the exhibition explores the legacies of Canadian immigration policies and practices and the overlapping histories of marginalized groups in Canada, and addresses pressing questions such as: who are the beneficiaries of colonial legacy? When thinking about immigrant populations, how are they setting up communities to feel at home?

 

There is immense complexity to why and how people migrate; that makes me wonder: is home a physical space? When we leave our place of birth, are we giving up a piece of ourselves in the hopes of gaining something new elsewhere? Immigrating, especially when moving from a so-called developing country to the so-called developed world, makes it hard for one to return. Cultural erasure, loss, and distillation occur with every passport stamp. As each day passes, migrants move further away from home, from our identity and sense of belonging. When immigrating to a new community, there are trade-offs that come with integration. When I moved to Canada at the age of 18, it was to Ottawa. I quickly set up systems of communication to keep in contact with family, in an effort to reclaim the sense of belonging I was losing. As I navigated my way through the culture shock, the extreme winter that my body wasn’t used to, and a school system different from the British structure I’d experienced growing up, I often felt nostalgic. I grew up in a place where there is a limit to the level of success you can reach. My parents worked hard and made sacrifices to ensure that my potential would not be restricted, and that I would flourish in ways they did not have the opportunity to.

 

However, that dream that my parents had for me did not come easy. The exhibition Human Capital brings attention to the many requirements you need to meet if you want to move to Canada. In 1967, Canada was the first country in the world to introduce a points system that allows immigrants to gain points for language fluency, education from institutions recognized by Canada, skills, and work experience, among other criteria.[1] The higher your points, the higher your chances of receiving an invitation to apply for a permanent residency, and subsequently a Canadian citizenship. The system sounds equitable in theory, but in practice it is rife with unfair biases. Poignantly illustrated in artist Aleesa Cohene’s seven-minute video entitled All Right, the immigration experience is particularly jarring for marginalized folks – especially those who have been portrayed as “Others” in Canada’s historically Eurocentric view. Combining footage from immigration officer training videos, horror movies, and news broadcasts, Cohene interrogates the “forces of global capitalism[,] a lack of self-awareness and knowledge about what Canadian citizens are taught to fear and why we fear it.” The “Others,” or the feared, are often immigrants who moved for a chance of better lives for their families in Canada. Historically, immigrants are often met with ethnic and religious anxieties and prejudice, ironically from other settlers. This includes internalized racism within diaspora communities, belief in negative racial stereotypes, and an unconscious acceptance that white folks are ranked above BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and people of colour). The type of microaggressions I faced when I arrived were around basic things such as my accent, and the fact that I could speak “good English” – bearing in mind I’m coming from Zimbabwe, another former British colony. These mundane statements have gone a long way in establishing systemic barriers that work against BIPOC immigrants. Cohene’s work exposes the policies that have historically been placed to admit mostly white European immigrants to Canada. Domineering over the static background noise, the voice of an immigration officer is heard saying that his “role is to keep the rascals out.” Who are the rascals he is referring to?

 

While Cohene’s video evokes questions, further into the exhibition the curator offers a response. Stretching over a 10-foot section of a wall, artist Shellie Zhang’s sparkling vinyl mural, It’s Complicated, shows how immigrants use humour is used as a coping mechanism to process questions about their backgrounds, like “where are you from?” and “why are you here?” The word “diaspora” was originally used to refer to the involuntary mass migration of populations from their indigenous territories, however, it has since been updated to include those who move willingly. Zhang combines two separate words – “DIASPORA” and “HAHA” – to create a visceral statement that brings up complex memories and experiences associated with migrating. Understanding language is empowering, and Zhang uses humour to make her work approachable. Zhang says, “It’s Complicated re-envisions the generalization of diasporic communities as a unifying term, which celebrates multifaceted journeys and stories.” The history of immigration to Canada is a history of white hegemony. Painful examples in Canadian history are Humiliation Day[2], which remembers the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1923, and the Head Tax of 1885. The tax was introduced to limit the entrance of Chinese immigrants even after 6,500 Chinese immigrant workers (that we know of) had risked their lives to complete the Canadian Pacific Railroad[3] – a national project that not only connected the two coasts, but also bolstered a unified identity. Human capital is valued until it is not. The standards by which people are valued are not even set by the Indigenous stewards of the land, but by generations of colonizers who have left their own distinct imprint on the physicality.

 

As a recent resident, it staggers me to learn of the trauma and damage of Canada’s colonial past. South Afrikan Apartheid[4] was based on the Canadian residential school system. This directly affected my home of Zimbabwe, a neighbour to South Afrika. The legacy of colonialism continues to be realized in Zimbabwe; and one example of this is in education. Had I not gone through a school system that offered a colonial curriculum, I would likely never have had the opportunity to immigrate to Canada. This curriculum, whether intentional or not, has contributed to cultural erasure. As I learned more about Canadian history, I started seeing similarities in my experiences and the experiences of those around me.

 

Colonial systems are set up to erase, hide, and alter histories in order to continue exploiting and marginalizing local and imported workers. To look deeper into the case of Black labour here, the exhibition displays a series of three large-format photographs, Deeper the Wounded, Deeper the Roots 1, 2 and 3 by artist Esmaa Mohamoud. Mohamoud interrogates the commoditization of Black athletes in organized sport, while paying homage to the histories of resilience and resistance within Black communities. The photo series features two men wearing football jerseys in distinctive African wax prints. They turn their backs to the viewers to reveal that their capes are made of thick chain links. Despite the chains visibly weighing them down to the fields in which they stand, the two men remain upright. Their heads look to a horizon beyond view. While the sportsmanship, dedication, and the hard work that goes into being an athlete are aspirational, the human capital of Black bodies is an intangible asset that has been and continues to be commoditized. Learning and unlearning these realities provides a way for us to take inventory of our understanding of identity and define a collective stance. From my point of view as a new settler, it is equally as important to learn about BIPOC histories, to untangle history from the Eurocentric view. In her work, Mohamoud contextualizes the everyday experiences of Black folks, showing the beauty of Black bodies and cultures, and the resilience that has existed throughout many generations. The role of Black labour continues to be a topic for discussion today.

 

I have given up many things in exchange for integration and belonging in Canada, however, I understand the sacrifices my parents and those before me made for me to be where I am. In “Home,” author Warsan Shire writes, “you have to understand that no one puts their children in a boat unless the water is safer than the land.”[5] This statement rings true for many people who leave not of their own free will. I left Zimbabwe of my free will (and privilege) with the intention to return. Since then, I have realized the differences I can make in my family’s lives by being here and not back there. It is not an easy thing to balance your own personal need to feel a sense of belonging while also ensuring that the place you call home continues to survive in the ways in which you remember. Without works such as those in Human Capital, we would not have ways to reconnect with what we have left behind. The human capital goes beyond economics; We cannot look at the numbers without addressing the emotional baggage you carry with you to survive in a place so far from home. While some like Cohene, Zhang, Mohamoud and the other artists in the exhibition have the talent to create art that challenges beliefs, sheds light on issues, and questions histories, others can come to the exhibition with an intention to unlearn and relearn, and a willingness to challenge and interrogate any biases and preconceptions they may hold.

Zviko Mhakayakora

 

Footnotes:

[1] Boyd, M. and M. Vickers. 2000. “100 years of immigration in Canada, Canadian Social Trends.” Statistics Canada Catalogue, no. 11-008: 8.

[2] Jennifer Kay Lee, “’Humiliation Day’: July 1 has added meaning for some Chinese Canadians.” CBC News. June 29, 2017.

[3] “Building Railway.” Chinese Legacy BC: History. The Government of British Columbia.

[4] Brett Popplewell, “A History of Missteps”. Toronto star.Com, October 30, 2010, https://www.thestar.com/news/investigations/2010/10/30/a_history_of_missteps.html

[5]  Warsan Shire, “No One Puts Their Children In A Boat Unless … | CBC Radio”. CBC, September 11, 2015, https://www.cbc.ca/radio/sunday/let-them-in-where-s-the-poetry-in-politics-what-is-the-middle-class-trump-and-the-know-nothings-1.3223214/no-one-puts-their-children-in-a-boat-unless-1.3224831

Aleesa Cohene, still from All Right, 2003, video, 06:40 minutes. Courtesy of the artist.

Shellie Zhang, It’s Complicated, 2019 Courtesy of the Artist. Photo by Don Hall.

Esmaa Mohamoud, Deeper the Wounded, Deeper the Roots (3), 2019; Deeper the Wounded, Deeper the Roots (2), 2019; Deeper the Wounded, Deeper the Roots (1), 2019. Courtesy of Georgia Scherman Projects and the artist. Photo by Don Hall

Zviko Mhakayakora (she/her) is a Zimbabwean designer, creative manager, and curator. She holds a BDES in graphic design from OCAD University and a diploma in general arts and science in design from Algonquin College. She enjoys researching and interrogating how contemporary art and design can be used as tools to challenge issues linked to the effects of colonization. Zviko serves on the board at DesignTO.