Expatria showcases the hardships of settling somewhere new, and finding an identity there
Migration is a rupture — lives are packed, unpacked, left behind and discovered. The photography exhibition, Expatria, addresses the conscious and unconscious suturing and sense-making that follows.
The exhibit explores the complex and contradictory memories, feelings and narratives of the migration of Mexican emigrants through portraits of their everyday domestic lives. The exhibition consists of 15 photographs of 11 people. Chosen from a pool of 40 photos, the images portray a diverse range of subjects.
These subjects, coming from small towns to sprawling megacities, hold a variety of professions — from nuns, to university professors, to the unemployed. However, the underlying current is that at one point or another, all the individuals in the photographs are dealing with the cultural wobbliness of migration.
“I found that the issue of language was a shared [theme]. How they felt when they arrived and how they had to learn a foreign language. Also food. People would bring food from Mexico, it was something that was very important to maintain for them,” explained Natalia Lara Díaz-Berrio, a Concordia student that immigrated to Montreal in 2010 and the artist behind the exhibition.
The photographs are on display at Espacio México, a relatively easy to miss gallery located inside the Mexican consulate. The project was a natural fit.
Nuria Carton de Grammont, curator of the exhibit, explained that the gallery is “a dialogue space for Mexican immigration in Canada, we wanted to speak to our local community.”
Díaz-Berrio added, “I knew that they were interested in this kind of project, and I knew for them that immigration is a subject that they find really really important.”
The portraits depict the intimate living spaces of Mexican migrants and looks at personal material and visual realities of migration, underlining how identity is performed and negotiated on the level of everyday household decisions and aesthetics. There are images of the austere and anonymous apartments of new migrants on the one hand, and the lavishly furnished homes of the settled on the other.
“I find that space has a lot to do with the personality of an individual. The objects, the size of the space, even the lighting. In this project it was clear that absences were significant as well. People would ask me questions [about the photographs] like ‘in this photo, there is nothing that is Mexican, no furniture or decorations that are Mexican’,” Díaz-Berrio said.
Like some voyages, Díaz-Berrio’s destination was quite different from where she originally intended to go.
“[At the beginning] I wanted to demystify stereotypes, I wanted to show, that we [Mexican migrants] are not what people think we are. That was my first idea,” Díaz-Berrio said. “Then it became more a reflection about identity and migration and personal experience. It became a more complex piece about how we build our identity as Mexicans.”
Much like Japanese photographer Daido Moriyama, who considered his portraits a record of his own life not the lives of others, Expatria is in fact a reflection of the photographer and how she sees the world at the moment.
In discussing her project, Díaz-Berrio said: “I feel very Mexican, but on the other hand, my father is Bolivian, my grandfather is Spanish and his father was German. I come from a history of migration. In the photos I find there is a great amount of ambiguity. We can’t really see if someone is Mexican. I declare that I am Mexican but there is a lot of complexity. Personally, I find there is a point where we become multinational.”
The project was also a means for Díaz-Berrio to explore her own identity as well as those of others.
“I met people who were living in their host country for six months and some who lived there for 20 years. They were still uncomfortable with this notion of identity,” explained Díaz-Berrio. “There is always a fracture between where I live and where I come from. I don’t think it’s possible to resolve this fracture. I saw that it was not just me, it was a shared phenomenon among immigrants.”
The exhibition is not so much about finding answers or even coming to terms with the contradictions and confusions of migration and cultural hybridity. Instead, it examines the lived experience of migration.
As de Grammont explains “I think you don’t have to deal with them, in a sense that you don’t have to resolve the contradictions, you have to accept and live with them and it’s part of life. You can’t live a clean life free from contradictions, it’s part of the identity. In my personal case, I don’t fight with that, it’s what I am.”
Expatria: Photos of Natalia Lara Díaz-Berrio runs until May 1 at Espacio México.