Woman as Migrant

In 1980, I was invited by the Women’s Committee of the Etobicoke Civic Centre to be part of a group exhibit, Artists’ Choice, to be on display in the galleries of the Centre.

I decided this was an opportunity to revisit photos I had taken of women over the previous decade, both through working with ESL classes and migrant women in Toronto, and through travels to Asia and Latin America.

The theme, “Woman as Migrant,” emerged as I noted the broader context of my subjects, each responding to economic, political, or cultural forces that compelled them to move: whether it was down into the valley to sell their goods at a rural Ecuadorian market or being forced off their land to the regional capital of Huanajuato or the federal capital Lima, Peru; there were Vietnamese women who had fled the Hué offensive and were stuck in refugee camps and refugees from war in Central America working in Toronto factories.

Most of my photos, while portraits of these women, hinted at their social contexts; this has always been a principle of my work – linking the personal and political. I also noted that many showed women as individuals, seemingly stuck in oppressive situations; yet I had witnessed them as part of communities, and often acting collectively and proactively to protest or address their situations. So the order of the exhibit moved from the most isolated woman who never left her valley to the most disperse, who had to leave their countries of origin; it also moved from framing these women as resigned individuals to portraying them in groups taking action for structural change.

In fact, it was the last image, which epitomized the power of collective response, that provoked the strongest reaction. On mounting the exhibit, the women’s committee took seriously an oft-handed comment by then mayor Dennis Flynn, who uttered in passing “This photo seems to be a political statement, which doesn’t belong in public buildings.” When I attended the opening and realized that the final image had not been mounted in this group exhibit ironically entitled “Artist Choice”, I protested, and argued that it was critical to the integrity of the whole. I gave them a few days to reconsider their decision, or I would remove my pieces from the group show. When they refused to mount the controversial photo, I, along with dear friend and fellow artist dian marino, removed our art work from the exhibit, and received massive media coverage of our action. Both politicians and anti-censorship artists made a hey-day of the controversy, and I had my 15 minutes in the media.

Text for Exhibit:

Woman as Migrant

Women have always been integral to social change – sometimes taking an active part, sometimes merely carried along in its wake. In either case, women are on the move – physically, psychologically, socially.

For some women, the journey may only be to the marketplace down the valley, or to the large plantation where they must work. For others, war has forced them to move to safer, yet alien places. All over the world, industrialization of agriculture, and of the economy in general, has driven women off the land and into towns and provincial cities, seeking work, often not finding it. More opportunities exist in the capital cities, but those cities bring other demands of a market economy.

Women in the Third World are forced to respond to a global economy which they often cannot see or understand. In a few cases, these dependent countries have challenged the forces of power and taken control of their own destiny; women have had an active part in these struggles.

Of the millions of women migrants today, those who make the longest and more dramatic move are those who leave their countries to build new lives in a foreign land. They leave for economic reasons, or political reasons, or both. Many arrive in Toronto to live in a large city for the first time, to speak a strange language for the first time. They are drawn into the economy as producers and consumers.

They have different responses to this new experience – some work hard to integrate themselves into a new culture, others work hard to keep alive their own traditions. Some become resigned in the face of forces beyond their control; others try to understand those forces and act upon them. In any case, women as migrants are part of a similar process of change. And they make a particular mark on it.