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There’s no one refugee experience

Located on the second floor of the Art Gallery of Hamilton, Abedar Kamgari gathers an intimate crowd to give us a behind the scenes tour of her exhibition Journey West. We learn that this specific space is set up so a connection between the AGH’s collection and contemporary artists can emerge.

Before she was given this opportunity, Abedar already knew that she wanted to do a performance piece where she would walk from Toronto to Hamilton. Having friends in high places is a plus because in this circumstance the AGH was able to give her the perfect platform to build a robust exhibition not only with her work but with their historical pieces.

The exhibition actually starts outside of the gallery, on the wall as you arrive at the top of the stairs. Dundas-based artist John Hartman, known for his aerial views was the piece that would begin the conversation.

Abedar’s story begins in Iran where she was born. At the age of 8, she and her mother migrated to Turkey as refugees. After about 2 years they eventually made their way to Canada as immigrants. This migration and navigation is the backbone of her practice. Where her walk from Toronto to Hamilton is to parallel her journey from Iran to Turkey to Canada. She describes the work as a performance and “uses it as a tool to navigate the complex relationships between homeland, nationality, geography, and immigration.” Where art can bridge often complicated and painful ideas that can’t be articulated in words.

Hartman’s work with the urban landscape and using cities as landmarks gave her the perfect foundation to speak about her two adopted cities in Canada – Hamilton, and Toronto. She did note that having access to the collection was inspiring and also disheartening as the majority of the artists in the collection are white male painters. She was searching for artists like herself. This speaks to a larger issue of diversity and accessibility. She is able to combat this issue by bringing in her own personal archive of items that record the entire refugee experience which historically would never exist in an institution like the AGH. This collection would form the basis of the exhibition.

She points out the diaries written by her mother. Pictures of her getting on the plane. Passport documents and even a calendar that she made counting down the days until she arrived in Canada. This very personal snapshot really grounds the exhibition in a personal experience of being a refugee. Where she comments, “we were one of the lucky people, we were never rejected. The refugee situation is so different now. My experience as a refugee is not a marker for the refugee experience. There’s no one refugee experience. And for a lot of them, it’s considerably more painful than mine.” A woman in the crowd tells Abedar to thank her mother for letting us view her private diaries and thoughts. She responds with “I’m really lucky to have her as my mom.”

And finally to the main piece. The video that documents her the 27-hour walk from her mother’s house in Toronto to her current home in Hamilton. The walk started on the 13th anniversary of her departure from Iran. At 3pm, on Friday, her and her crew of 4, embarked on an 87 km walk that would represent her journey where she and her mother boarded a train in Tehran and after several trips on boats and more trains would end up in their destination in Turkey.

The portion of the video we all were viewing had an Amazing Race feel to it. But minus the running, challenges and beautiful locals. Abedar tells us that she wanted to show everything so there were no reshoots. Nothing was removed and everything was captured. Even when the audio guy got tired and forgot to press record. It’s all captured and documented.

She lets us in on a secret to the aesthetic of the video where she wanted the viewers to come and see nothing happen. Because as a refugee in Turkey there was a lot of nothing. A lot of waiting around, a lot of stress and anxiety. If you have the time to watch this marathon of a film. This show will close on March 18th.

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