Artist Stacey Tyrell, who grew up in Toronto, wanted to know more about the life of her mother, who was born on the island of Nevis in the Caribbean. Tyrell's mother immigrated to England in the 1970s to work as a nanny before coming to Canada.
"I had first just tried interviewing my mother thinking that I would be able to delve into her past directly through her," Tyrell says. "What I got were a bunch of stiff answers and a feeling of frustration."
It makes sense that Tyrell, a photographer, would eventually find insight through images rather than words. Studying two photo albums her mother was able to bring with her, Tyrell began to glean more subtle details of her mother's past and immigration experience, while at the same time engaging with the mysterious and incomplete nature of memories. "The albums in front of me spoke volumes," Tyrell says. She went on to re-photograph, rearrange and crop her mother's photos, becoming a participant in the story and recognizing parts of herself. "I was able to play with the past in a way that I wasn't able to through a straight conversation. I realized that we have way more in common than I thought possible, and that I get a lot of my determination and drive from her."
The re-contextualized images formed a series Tyrell titled Position As Desired, after the instructions inside the albums for how to affix the loose photos to blank pages. This would in turn become the namesake of a larger exhibit bringing together ways of looking at African Canadian identity, curated by Kenneth Montague of Wedge Curatorial Projects. Position As Desired debuted at the Royal Ontario Museum in 2010, and is now appearing at the Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21. "I'm really excited with how fitting it is," Tyrell says. Adult Public Programs Coordinator and exhibition co-curator Philippa Gunn says that, in speaking with African Nova Scotians, it has become apparent that the voices of African Canadians are not always being heard. Installing exhibits like this one offers an opportunity to "reach different audiences and tell different stories," Gunn says. She sees Position As Desired not so much as a disruption of the museum's permanent collection as a sign of the direction the museum is going, with its expanded mandate as a national museum to explore the narratives of all Canadians.
The original version of Position As Desired represented mostly Ontarian artists. Gunn says that "in order to be relevant, we felt we needed to collaborate with artists here. The wealth of art that was found was amazing." Several works by local artists appear in the exhibit, such as a fragmented, still-developing portrait of Africville by Dalhousie architecture grad Shyronn Smardon.
The exhibit as a whole defies simple categorization, showcasing a diverse array of perspectives on African Canadian identity, as witnessed by African Canadians. Contemporary works include Megan Morgan's portraits of both the Euro-American and Bermudian sides of her family, and Dawit L. Petros' scenes of the Eritrean community living in suburban Saskatchewan. There are also rare vintage photographs and archival materials, from polished studio portraits to documents illustrating historically exclusionary Canadian immigration policies, to a petition from the residents of Africville to the city, requesting a new well. It all adds up to a movement towards "acknowledging areas we haven't explored," Gunn says.
Tyrell hopes the audience will bring their own interpretations and perceptions to her work. "The past is constantly up for re-interpretation," she says. "We can simply choose to resolve the gaps, or not."