To/From BC Electric Railway: 100 Years looks at the impacts of migration, colonialism, and exchange

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To/From BC Electric Railway: 100 Years
At Centre A to November 10

One hundred years ago, the B.C. Electric Railway Company built a handsome, six-storey, Beaux Arts–style building at the corner of Hastings and Carrall streets. For decades, it served as BCER’s headquarters and the terminus for its extensive interurban railway and tram system. A few incarnations later, the structure still stands and Centre A occupies—although somewhat precariously—the original depot space. For the past seven years, the gallery has staged a series of provocative exhibitions there, many reflecting the cultural, social, and economic dynamics of the surrounding neighbourhood.

The latest Centre A show marks the building’s centennial and proposes its railway-station history as a way to explore ideas of arrival, departure, migration, and exchange. To/From BC Electric Railway: 100 Years is not exactly celebratory, however. As expressed by some of the show’s artists, who include Raymond Boisjoly, Stan Douglas, Ali Kazimi, Vanessa Kwan, Evan Lee, and Cindy Mochizuki, arrivals are thwarted, departures are forced, and exchanges are skewed by prejudice, injustice, and misunderstanding. “A sense of nostalgia and loss…underpins this exhibition,” Centre A director Haema Sivanesan notes in the catalogue.

Kazimi, for example, employs sepia-toned photo-collages to recount the story of the Japanese transport ship, the Komagata Maru, in which 376 South Asian emigrants were refused entry to Canada, at the port of Vancouver, in 1914. (Look for Kazimi’s award-winning film on this subject, Continuous Journey, which will be screened at Centre A at 4 p.m. on Saturday [October 20].) Similarly, Lee uses found photographs and a three-dimensional model to address the way the media handled the story of the MV Ocean Lady, the rusty cargo ship that arrived on the West Coast of Canada in 2009, filled with asylum seekers from war-torn Sri Lanka. On another note altogether, Boisjoly has created an amusing and unsettling text piece that alludes to misguided government programs aimed at mending some of the more conspicuous holes created by colonialism.

Tucked into the gallery’s northeast corner, Mochizuki’s mixed-media installation confections conjures up the bakeries and sweet shops that proliferated in Vancouver’s Japantown, before the Second World War. On a stepped, antique cabinet, Mochizuki has mounted a display of handmade Japanese confections, such as mikasa mariju, senbei, and sesame snaps. (An important aspect of the project was the artist’s learning how to prepare these confections herself.) The soundtrack to the work consists of audio interviews with elderly Japanese-Canadians, who recount childhood memories of visiting sweet shops and other places in Japantown before the war—before they and their families were interned and dispossessed, their communities destroyed. Their voices drift throughout the gallery, amplifying the melancholy mood but also sounding a note of resilience.

Douglas is represented here by four sombre black-and-white photographs from his recent “Malabar People” series, which portrays the patrons, staff, and entertainers of a fictional nightclub on Vancouver’s Hastings Street in the 1950s. The images on view depict a band leader, a waitress, a bouncer, and the club’s owner/bartender. Individually, each represents a different ethnicity—a type. Together, they symbolize the unusual social exchanges and cultural demographics of what was then a lively entertainment district of nightclubs, theatres, and cabarets.

Through these fictional people, their shadowy faces a blank screen onto which we can project our own imaginings, Douglas intersects a history of the north-south railway traffic of entertainers along the West Coast of Canada and the United States in the middle of the 20th century, with allusions to a sociological study of Vancouver nightclubs made by his uncle, Laurence Douglas. As with much of this internationally acclaimed artist’s works, “Malabar People” reconsiders an overlooked aspect of Vancouver history, particularly that of the Downtown Eastside.

Kwan’s Vancouver Family employs travel as a metaphor of longing and—paradoxically—belonging. Nearly a decade ago, she sent packages to all the Kwans she could find in Vancouver (some 300 of them), asking them to consider the question, “Is there a place you’d like to go, but have never been?” She invited them to write their responses on stamped postcards, addressed to her, and—happily—she received 51 cards back. Answers ranged from “Heaven” to “the Great Barrier Reef”, and from plain to poetic.

This is the first time Kwan has exhibited the work, which she has expanded to include five ink drawings. Although echoing themes of arrival, departure, and exchange, Vancouver Family is a sweet balm to the wounds of history. It reinforces a sense of connection with our fellow humans.

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