Today, artists-in-residents from SFAI’s “Emigration/Immigration” themed residency gathered under the trees in the courtyard of a building that Mexican architect Ricardo Legorreta designed to house artists at work. We were there to tackle excerpts from Harsha Walia’s 2013 book, Undoing Border Imperialism. Tings Chak had prepared copies of the book’s forward and introduction for us to read aloud and discuss.
But before reading, Chak asked us to talk about objects that we had brought to represent our personal approaches to migration. These things included a package of Irish Tea, a bag of ground coffee which had no location of origin listed, my “Beginner 2” Spanish lesson book, a bag of Brazilian tapioca, and a single dried dōnggū (shiitaki) mushroom from Hong Kong, and two artworks: folded paper monarch butterflies that were altered to include female genitalia (from Erica Harrsch’s Imagoes project), and an unfinished drawing by Osvaldo Ramirez Castillo of a guard sheathed in flora/fauna imagery. The objects and our short explanations of the meanings they carry work as geo-political cartographies: personal and experiential details that reveal the way borders are situated within all of our lives.1
Among these cartographies, the Irish Tea reveals the way signifiers of the homeland (food and drink) weaken (get diluted) for the children of immigrants. For an astute reader of trans-pacific histories the package of unidentified coffee brings to mind the migration of Japanese labourers to Brazil in the wake of slavery’s abolition. The complex development of the coffee industry is tied do American independence from Britain as well as the emergence of new cartographies of human exploitation. Brazilian tapioca, on the other hand, tells of mass internal migrations of Brazilians from the resource-rich northern regions into the southern cities –a process of indigenous displacement, agribusiness expansion, urban poverty and more. Macau, China, Hong Kong, Canada: the dried mushroom carries the distinct aroma of an Asian home –a consistent feature in a home’s migratory past that is erroneously historicized as nationalistically stable. My Spanish language workbook represents belonging en las Américas –a double-continent dominated by hablantes de Español, where border violence is largely enacted in English. Harrsch’s monarch girls are both hopeful in the tenacity of their migrations and acutely vulnerable as they traverse three nations. And, Ramirez Castillo’s drawing cautiously figures healing after war and migration –a re-figuration of the body formed by and through war.
Walia’s text encourages figuration. She writes, “Such alternatives unsettle the state and capitalism by functioning outside their reach. Decolonization is a framework that offers a positive and concrete prefigurative vision…” The current issues of migration in border regions de las Américas are about war, we’ve been reminded (thank you, Israel Haros Lopez). Put another way, Chak highlighted during the reading how border imperialism and the violence it distributes is not confined to domestic politics. It is instead produced through foreign policy. Walia’s text reads as a challenge to re-figure “Emigration/Immigration” as migration Americana descolonizada.
Readers present – Tings Chak, Erica Harrsch, Osvaldo Ramirez Castillo, Emma FitzGerald, Lois Klassen, and Israel Haros Lopez
1. I am borrowing this concept of cartographies from Rosi Braidotti’s Transpositions: On Nomadic Ethics (2006).