Text and Images by Laila Jafri

Salam From Niagara Falls” features a series of mixed media manipulations from the personal archives of local Afghan and Iranian artists as they rearrange their idea of home within the context of settler colonialism. The exhibit is curated by Mitra Fakhrashrafi, who credits family photographs at Niagara Falls as the defining inspiration behind the collaboration and highlighting the complexity of belonging on stolen land.

Featured artists, Zahra Rajabi, Melika Hashemi, Ferozan Nasiri and Swarm, digitally transform photographs to negotiate their complex relationship with a “home” that invokes both nostalgia and a sense of dispossession.

Hung across different sections of Iranian restaurant, Takht-e-Tavoos, the pieces seem snug at home and almost blend into the resident decor, a variety of traditional Persian art. At five paces the installations reveal their own characters above carefully recreated postcards from Niagara Falls that connect the series; each with distinct artist statements and most ending with questions like:

”How did you end up here?

“What might you be doing that perpetuates settler colonial futurity rather than considering alternative ways forward?” - Allison Jones

In identifying their intention to “complicate, reject and rethink”  the idea of Canada as “a nation of immigrants”, the artists introduce their relation to the land within the context of ancient indigenous wisdom and recognize their secondary relation to the land. Indigenous communities draw from a millennium of information that has guided cultural practices and understanding of the social and natural world.  Socio-cultural shifts (displacement, migration, asylum claims etc) often mimic shifts in natural ecosystems;  with both being complex networks that are in a perpetual flux of regeneration, moving through spaces, time and different states of organizations to survive.  The exhibit itself exposes our reality as one built upon the erasure of indigeneity and invites us to dismantle the ideas that allow the powers of structured violence to remain naturalized.

Space and Scale

Zahra Rajabi zooms in and out of spaces she has occupied while considering the assigned meanings we use to calibrate a sense of belonging. Her product design background is apparent in the use of grids and outlines across layered images of her family photos from Afghanistan, paired with Canadian landmarks. Rajabi rearranges the distance between those two worlds using her command of a third, digital world in order to recreate what home means to her today.

Time and Belonging

Melika Hashemi bypasses the restrictions of time with her participatory project, “Inja Koja”( where are we now), prompting visitors to define on paper what “home”, “ here” and “the future” mean to them. A kaleidoscope image of her family at Niagara Falls exposes the tunnel vision with which we sometimes recall the past. Reflecting what we want to see against what was, over and over again until we are left with the illusion of a symmetric past. Hashemi’s statement draws from The Audre Lorde Questionnaire to Oneself (1980) to realize the limits of language and feelings of unbelonging, the words for which change across our lifetime and those of our loved ones.

Storytelling as a means to Social Reorganization

Afghan community organizer and educator, Ferozan Nasiri weaves past and present by setting her work against the enduring patterns of Afghan textiles. Her method tells a story of arrival, home-making and inter-family dispersal that most migrants and refugees can relate to.  She identifies these patterns and relics as cultural anchors for families navigating through their distinct, “complex and non-linear experiences with migration”. Nasiri’s artist statement insists on considering ijaza (consent)  as part of that complexity and its place in the Afghan diasporas’ collective consciousness regarding the land. The exhibit is further empowered by an installation intervention on Tar Sands extraction by Swarm: an anonymous street artist based in Tiohtià:ke (Montreal) whose primary medium is wheatpaste and graffiti. Swarm’s contribution is pivotal to the exhibit, reminding us that no conversation is complete without acknowledging the environmental crisis that Canada is responsible for. She includes a digital manipulation of the Canadian flag: the red is replaced with dark landscape of oil sands, the flag itself hung upside down as a distress call that has echoed across Turtle Island since the very first wave of colonialism used radical excavation to wage war against Indigenous notions of conservation.

Solidarity Is a Verb

Curator’s Statement: “In a lot of ways this work wasn’t ready and in a lot of ways it will never be ready. It also never should be. Because our goal was to reimagine our communities claims for belonging in a way that not only acknowledged ongoing theft of Indigenous land but also acts in solidarity, this project remains incomplete as solidarity is a verb and a process that we must continue to enact through listening, learning  and action.”

What Mitra says in more present terms echoes the words of Philosopher Raya Dunayevskaya ,  that while “ great divides in epochs, in cognition and personality are crucial” in revolutionary change, we need to understand the moment of discontinuity - the break in pattern - itself as part of a continuity, for it to become a turning point in history. “Salam From Niagara Falls” becomes another point from which migrant and refugee claims to belonging are being disassembled, rejected and re-envisioned to align with the demands of Indigenous Communities.

Visitors and readers are encouraged to ground their experience by engaging with local platforms that are currently mobilizing towards value-based collaborations and community engagement. These spaces include but are not limited to: Diaspora Express, a Toronto-based platform for the creative Southwest Asia and North African (SWANA) community with an emphasis on how colonization, and the diasporic experience dictate expression; Canadian Roots Exchange, a community initiative committed to creating  resilient networks of solidarity centred around indigenous worldviews and  open dialogue.

This group exhibit is part of CONTACT Photography Festival and will be up until June 30.
Find it at Takht-e-Tavoos, 1120 College St., Wed-Sun, 10 am–3 pm.

لیلی جعفري /Laila Jafri is a Toronto-based environmental campaigner, writer and yoga instructor.  She is interested in exploring how poetry, traditional ecological knowledge and public outreach can mobilize communities contained by oppressive structures of power. You can find her on Instagram @rilkesghost.