Solo exhibition on identity and belonging, a powerful gift to visitors

Visual artist Andil Gosine assembles a non-sentimental and multilayered exhibition that reconsiders his immigration to Canada as a teenager and early encounters with racism. He skillfully interlaces this charged personal narrative with themes of both servitude and hope.

Andil Gosine

Environmental Studies Professor and visual artist Andil Gosine personifies innovative, compelling and interdisciplinary work. His artwork, while complex and deeply informed by history and scholarship, is also subjective and powerful on a personal level.

His solo exhibition, titled All the Flowers, at the Robert McLaughlin Gallery in Oshawa, Ont., ran from Jan. 13 to March 18, 2018. It was described as “an autobiography on flora.”

The advertisement for the All the Flowers show. Photo courtesy of the Robert McLaughlin Gallery

In this show, comprising more than a dozen multimedia works including videos, Gosine considers his own identity and sense of belonging at a pivotal point in his life, and draws on his research about the overlapping of labour, migration and desire. He uses indentureship – that is, the state of being a servant bound to service for a specified time in return for passage to a colony – as a theme, reflecting on his family’s history.

“I knew I had to foreground the personal in exploring the show’s themes. I wanted the audience to contend with the complexity of a personality, rather than as a flattened version of ‘the migrant’ or ‘the racist,’ for example,” Gosine explained. “We are never detached from, nor are we entirely contained by, our social histories and, as in all my work whether it’s teaching, writing or cultural production, I wanted to convey the persistence of ambivalence and sometimes contradictory tensions that we all live through and experience,” he added.

Gosine’s work related to this exhibition was funded by the Canada Council for the Arts, the Social Sciences & Humanities Research Council, the Ontario Arts Council and York University.

Multilayered work speaks to immigrant experience

Gosine, whose research, writing and arts practices consider the overlapping of ecology, migration, desire and power, emigrated from Trinidad to Oshawa when he was 14 years of age.

In this exhibition, he reconsiders his turbulent formative years through these works, which are organized chronologically. He shares his desires and vulnerabilities, incorporates reimagined archival materials and brings to light the enduring impact of the struggles that he and his family underwent.

Ixora flower, intended as offering, symbolizes his experiences

One important and repeating icon in this exhibition is the Ixora flower, indigenous to India and other parts of Asia. The flower was brought by Gosine’s ancestors to Trinidad, where it subsequently flourished. His relatives, indentured labourers, emigrated from India to Trinidad in the mid-19th century to the early 20th century after the abolition of slavery.

Using the Ixora flower to symbolize a gift, Gosine offers this flower to Oshawa – more specifically, to the people and experiences that shaped him. “He takes these lovely little flowers with him on his journey to the past and transplants them, as he himself was transplanted from one home to another,” Lanie Treen, author of the exhibition catalogue, explains. “He repurposes the flower to respond to and reflect on his experiences. In doing so, he infuses his memories with new meaning, both for himself and his audience.”

“Flowers for Oshawa,” 2017, Andil Gosine. Photo courtesy of the Robert McLaughlin Gallery

Interestingly, the flower symbolizes different things in the exhibition – some hostile, some welcoming. For example, “Flowers for Oshawa” is created from 13 flowers, made of wood, wool and metal, which are placed around the exhibition room. Each is dedicated to individuals Gosine encountered in his youth. Some of these people were friendly, some destructive and racist. The titles alone speak to the heartbreak of these early years:

  • The Neighbors who called me Paki;
  • The Neighbors with the Confederate Flag;
  • Eva, who walked and talked;
  • Lesley, who listened and laughed;
  • Leslie, who taught me how to write;
  • Sharon, the maybe not good;
  • Sharon, the good;
  • Sue, just the best;
  • Peter of the sweatpants;
  • An uni(n)formed man;
  • You, who never noticed; and
  • You, who noticed too much.

“Apu, Roi des Fleurs” reflects the artist’s struggle with identity. Gosine has described how he was torn by certain expectations and assumptions regarding brown masculinity. Two diametrically opposed archetypes characterized this uneasiness for him: The Simpsons’ cartoon character Apu, disrespected and mocked; and Gandhi, whom he describes as “saintly, earnest, hard-working, destined to make a difference in the world.”

“Apu, Roi des Fleurs,” 2017, Andil Gosine. Photographer: Toni Hafkenscheid

Arguably the most interesting piece in the exhibition tackles what’s most elusive in all of our histories. In “Tick Tock,” Gosine explores how time can alter perception or can bolster or take away the power or magic of an idea, person or place. This piece features three photographs taken at the same location, years apart. It shows how his reverence for the ideals around the Niagara Falls floral clock faded over time. What once symbolized optimism and opportunity to him as a child faded to such an extent that, in the final frame, the location seems completely irrelevant.

“Tick Tock,” 2017, Andil Gosine. Photo courtesy of the Robert McLaughlin Gallery

Show implores viewers to reconsider experiences that shaped their own lives

The best thing about this compelling show is this: the rich juxtaposition of loneliness, anxiety, ambivalence, isolation and injustice against a sense of hopefulness and the desire to connect and share experiences, to build a sense of community, to discuss or elucidate and, with this, the potential to move forward.

While on some level Gosine is reclaiming teenage traumas, this show is surprisingly non-nostalgic. It suggests the opportunity to revisit, rediscover this history, and this opens the door to reconciliation.

The show compels viewers to reconsider their own adolescence, personal narratives and mythologies, and inner landscapes to rethink the roles that they played in others’ lives and vice versa. It urges visitors to reflect upon how powerfully these experiences have shaped their own lives.

To read about the exhibition, visit the gallery’s website. To see the catalogue of the show, visit the website. To learn more about Gosine, visit his faculty profile page.

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By Megan Mueller, senior manager, research communications, Office of the Vice-President Research & Innovation, York University, muellerm@yorku.ca