Ruptures in Arrival
At the Surrey Art Gallery until June 15
Most immigrants to Canada have brought with them tales of distant lands and cultural traditions, of fraught departures, difficult journeys, and complicated arrivals. Many of their narratives are hung with pain and suffering, with poverty, hardship, and injustice. For some of us, tales of migration may also be inflected with romance, comedy, and sorrow: a great-grandmother reunited with a long-lost love; a great-grandfather, the son of a clergyman, who ran off with a barmaid; young children dead from scarlet fever, diphtheria, influenza, peritonitis. What most forcefully distinguishes my ancestors from those whose stories are told in Ruptures in Arrival, however, is that my kin were never refused entry to this country because of their ethnicity, their religious beliefs, or the colour of their skin. They never encountered systemic racism, societal hostility, and legislation designed to keep them out.
Subtitled Art in the Wake of the Komagata Maru, Ruptures in Arrival marks the 100th anniversary of that steamship incident and the fate of its passengers. In 1914, curator Jordan Strom tells us in the show’s introductory panel, the Komagata Maru was chartered to bring 376 Sikhs, Hindus, and Muslims to Canada from India. Once the ship arrived at the port of Vancouver, however, more than 350 of its passengers were denied entry, and after two months stranded on board the anchored vessel, they were forced to return to India. The 15 artists represented in this Surrey Art Gallery show have responded not only to that history but also to recent incidents of attempted mass migration and hostile responses by government and media. Their work, Strom writes, speaks to “ruptures—tears, gaps and flash points—in the fabric of society.”
Raghavendra Rao, Jarnail Singh, and Haris Sheikh have each reinterpreted historical photographs and documents from the Komagata Maru episode through representational paintings. Singh’s series of four large oils on canvas also include an ugly postscript to the Komagata Maru story: the violence, deaths, and incarceration that occurred when the ship and its passengers returned to the Calcutta suburb of Budge Budge. Singh delivers collagelike images of people, newspaper clippings, telegrams, and government documents in a style that seems to mimic British Empire posters of the time.
Ali Kazimi’s 3-D video Fair Play imagines scenes of unnamed South Asian immigrants who had already landed and settled in Vancouver at the time of the Komagata Maru’s arrival in port. His wordless vignettes pose fictional individuals in small rooms, in moments of quietude—reading, drinking tea, winding a turban, sitting on a bed—often in the company of people from other cultures. The mood ranges from contemplative to melancholy: most of the individuals here appear to be profoundly isolated, despite their companions. Although the 3-D component didn’t function at all when I visited the show, the eloquent soundtrack—with everything from steamship horns and train whistles to hooting owls and barking dogs—carried the visuals into a place of intense encounter.
Roy Arden’s reproductions of archival photographs reveal not only the South Asian passengers waiting out their days on the deck of the Komagata Maru but also the hordes of whites who gathered round the scene: soldiers, sailors, immigration officials, newspaper reporters, and—most offensive—gawking sightseers in sailboats and rowboats. The Vancouver Public Library accession numbers that appear in this series of found images pose questions about how we frame history and catalogue its sometimes widely separated parcels of evidence.
Using digital photography and digital modelling, Evan Lee’s series “Migrant Ship Project” improvises on media representations of ships carrying “illegal” migrants from China’s Fujian province to Canada’s West Coast in 1999. And in their video installation Mass Arrival, Queen Street, Farrah Miranda, Graciela Flores, Tings Chak, Vino Shanmuganathan, and Nadia Saad record a large-scale performance work in downtown Toronto in 2013. This performance was intended as a response not only to Canadian government and media hostility to the arrival of Tamil refugees in a cargo ship in 2010, but also to other attempted arrivals and shameful refusals in Canadian immigration history.
It’s not a happy story, but it’s ours—and this show asks us to own it.