Thursday, 29 June 2017 08:00

Exhibition shows the many faces of Saskatchewan’s newcomers

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The opening reception for a multidisciplinary art and social justice project took place at the West Wing Gallery in Swift Current, June 17. The opening reception for a multidisciplinary art and social justice project took place at the West Wing Gallery in Swift Current, June 17. Photo by Matthew Liebenberg

The immigration experiences of Saskatchewan's newcomers are highlighted through a new exhibition at the West Wing Gallery in Swift Current.

The opening reception for the exhibition “A rightful place: The face of Saskatchewan's newcomers” took place on June 17. Three Swift Current residents are featured in the exhibition and they attended the event.
The exhibition is the result of a two-year multidisciplinary art and social justice project by Common Weal Community Arts in association with the Regina Open Door Society, the Saskatchewan Intercultural Association and a number of newcomer welcome centres in the province.
The Southwest Newcomer Welcome Centre in Swift Current was one of the project partners. Executive Director Icasiana de Gala believes the exhibition will help to create awareness about the experiences of newcomers.
“It’s not just about pictures of people,” she said. “It’s about stories of people and the way the pictures were taken. It’s like depicting a moment in their life, the moment now, where are they right now. ... All of the pictures here are like that. Where they are right now and the stories beside them are telling them about their journey and how they got here.”
She noted the format of the exhibition will provide viewers with a sense of the diversity of newcomers who are coming to Saskatchewan.
“We come from so many different countries,” she said. “We have different stories. We have successes. We have challenges. We have difficulties coming here, but we are here and we will stay here and we will persevere.”
The exhibition features the portraits of 25 newcomers from 13 different countries who now call Saskatchewan their home. These images were taken by the project photographer Michael Bell and participants were asked to wear a piece of traditional clothing from their country of origin and/or to hold an object of personal significance.
Next to each photograph is some information about that person as well as another smaller picture, which was taken with a disposable camera by project participants to show an aspect of their current lives.
The project photographer took multiple images of each person during the portrait sessions and Catherine Brandes-Aguilar was surprised by the image he selected for the exhibition.
“I asked the photographer why did you choose that one, because of course there were pictures that have a pose,” she said. “Why did you have to show a picture of me talking and stressing a point? He said because we chose the picture for each individual that captures their personality. So they thought that picture captures me best.”
She and her family came to Swift Current from the Philippines in 2007. Her husband accepted a position as a welder at a local manufacturing company and she uprooted her life as a senior banking executive in the Philippines to join him with their two children. Despite the “roller-coaster ride” of moving to a new country, they have settled well in Swift Current and she is currently working as a relationship manager at Innovation Credit Union.
She is impressed with the variety of stories about newcomers that are presented through the exhibition and she felt it will help to create a better understanding of their experiences.
“It’s kind of amazing how they were able to capture all this different stories and just looking at the pictures you seem to have known the world because they represent a country, a place in the world,” she said. “So it seems that just reading their stories or looking at their pictures, it seems that you have travelled the world, just seeing them through their eyes, through their minds.”
A member of the first refugee family from Syria who came to Swift Current a year ago is also featured in the exhibition. They lived in Jordan for three years before coming to Swift Current in February 2016 through sponsorship by the First United Church under the Canadian government’s refugee program.
Heba Anouz immediately agreed when she was asked to participate in this project, because the exhibition is a way for people to learn more about newcomers.
“It’s important to me, because I want everybody to know my story, about my country, and how we came here,” she said. “It’s important to say thank you to everybody here, the government and the community and First United Church especially, and the people in Swift Current too. They are so generous and kind to us.”
Agnese Vilde came to Swift Current from Latvia. She met her future husband when she first came to Canada as a student. The couple lived in Germany for a while and she started her new life on the prairie in 2006.
She was already familiar with Canada from her time here as a student, she speaks English and her fiancé and his family was waiting for her, but the adjustment to life in her new country was not always easy. When she recently made arrangements for a visit to Latvia, the first time with her Canadian passport, she had to indicate her nationality and she wondered again about her identity.
“I had to think about it, because who am I now,” she said. “Am I Latvian, am I Canadian, am I both, and I realized the beautiful thing about Canada is being Canadian doesn’t mean you are the same race, ethnicity, culture. You could be anyone that belongs to this country.”
She noted newcomers might hold on a little bit more to their traditions here than when they were in their country of origin.
“I think when you’re here you’re forced to decide for yourself how much of your traditions you want to keep and how much you want to integrate,” she said. “It’s a conscious decision and it’s not so easy to integrate into a new society. You really have to make an effort yourself.”
This exhibition in Swift Current is part of a province-wide tour. Art Gallery of Swift Current Director and Curator Kim Houghtaling said the gallery is pleased to be part of this project.
“This is a traditional portrait show, and traditional portraits are an interesting collaboration between a photographer and a subject,” he mentioned. “What was particularly wonderful about these portraits is there is a nice connection that was made between the subject and the photographer.”
He noted the exhibition is as much a heritage show as it is an art show, and it will be just as appropriate to have this installation in a museum as it is to have it in an art gallery.
“I think what was Common Weal Community Arts’ intent really to make that bridge between heritage and communities, and the community of newcomers and the community of people who need to learn more about the new generations of newcomers,” he said. “Making those sorts of connections and then trying to find a way to use visual expression and then personal storytelling in order to achieve that. I think it works pretty well really.”
This exhibition is a Canada 150 project for the Art Gallery of Swift Current. It will be on display  at the West Wing Gallery, which is located at Kinetic Exhibition Park, until July 23. Admission to the exhibition is free. Regular gallery hours are from 1-5 p.m. on Friday, Saturday and Sunday, as well as on holiday Mondays. The exhibition will also be open during Frontier Days, from 1-8 p.m., June 28 to July 1.

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Matthew Liebenberg


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