Think Tank on Migration and Memory: The Nature of Things by Letticia Cosbert

THE NATURE OF THINGS: ON MEMORY, LOVE, AND ART

by Letticia Cosbert

“Proust says memory is of two kinds.
There is the daily struggle to recall
where we put our reading glasses
and there is a deeper gust of longing
that comes up from the bottom
of the heart” – Anne Carson, Float

Mom,

For the past many weeks I have been thinking about art, about migration, and about you. These three coalesce in an exhibition titled Yonder which, in many ways, is about memory. I am both chronicling my observations and writing to you in hopes of contextualizing my relationship to art within my experience as an immigrant and, especially, as your child.

In the southwest alcove of the gallery, there is an installation titled “The Poetry of Geopolitics” by French artist Jérôme Havre. I think you would be drawn to this piece, like many visitors, for its reflective mylar backdrop, feverish neon sign, and Jérôme’s genuine Canadian and French passports affixed to a wall inside an acrylic box.

On opening night I learned that Jérôme’s family emigrated to France from Martinique: “oh, so do you consider yourself Caribbean?” I asked, scheming a discussion of Caribbean cuisine. “Not really,” Jérôme said. It was a small conversation but one that has never left me, because I am unable to sever my identity from yours. Though I was not born there, I am Jamaican. I must be. I am such thanks to the ackee and plantains you made for breakfast, the rice and peas we often had for Sunday dinner, the Share Newspapers stacked high in that corner of the closet, and those patois affirmations (eh heh) you would make while on the phone with mama, who to this day has refused to leave her beloved Spanish Town.

There is a series of photographs on the east wall of the third floor hallway galleries by Esmond Lee, whose parents emigrated to Canada from China. The series is called “Between Us” and they chronicle a day–any day–in the life of a suburban familial home.

You would like these photos, I believe, even though they harbour a special kind of sadness. Esmond and I have spoken several times, and I always hail Esmond as brave for addressing the isolation that children of immigrants often suffer. I’ve never told you, although I’ve told many people and have written it in many academic statements of intent, but the adolescent burden of cultural Otherness, compounded with race, was punishing. I resented that container of rice and peas you would pack me for Monday’s lunch. From my lofty Disney pink and purple striped bedroom, I rolled my eyes as far back into in my head as they would go when I heard you laughing on the phone with mama (eh heh). And so, in my adolescence I occupied two realities at once. The first, a state of overwhelming pride that you were my mother–this quiet, beautiful, powerful woman was my mother. The other, a state of embarrassment for the clothes we wore, the groceries we bought, or the melodic tune in which you’d call me down for “supper.” You were not like me, and I was not like you.

To what extent, then, does the immigrant condition have an intergenerational effect, in addition to one’s personal sociology? One person who came into the gallery during Yonder, whose family had immigrated to Canada from England two generations before, felt such an inescapable lure to London that they packed up all of their things and moved a few years ago. “It was nothing I had imagined, and I actually found everyone and everything there disappointing. I’ve recently moved back home and have a newfound respect and love for Peterborough…” I wonder, Mom, what effect you think immigration has on subsequent generations? I have always remembered Jamaica fondly, from our day trips to Dunns River Falls, to our quiet evenings on the porch drinking Ovaltine and bearing unabating assault of mosquitos. Like Sarindar Dhaliwal’s west wall masterpiece, “Weather: An Immigrant Perspective,” weather reminds me of home–no, it reminds me of you. I have memorized our beach days at Port Henderson, St. Catherine, the way the breeze lashed against my face as we taxied down the highway, and the smell of the fish we would buy for mama on our way back home. I could not go without you (though I have), and I would never risk disillusionment to endure a summer in Jamaica without you.

In the gallery, I often hear the adage “people are people”, and I always tacitly ask, “but are they?” I do not mean to suggest that aliens — or worse, clones — walk among us but, instead, I truly wonder whether my personal sociology, or yours, Mom, could be reduced to and understood as something universal? I am habitually skeptical of coherence (no thanks to your vexing optimism), but I am also hopeful (thanks to your vexing optimism) that there is something ubiquitous to the immigrant experience, and this assessment is confirmed, at least to some extent, by the artworks in Yonder. I wish that you could see these works, that we could walk down the second floor hallway galleries, arm in arm, the heels of your leather boots clicking, me searching your eyes for a reaction to Blue Republic’s vinyl tape fractals and Guyanese postage stamps in their collaborative piece, “Somewhere.”

But I’ve felt this (everything) before. Long before Yonder, before you retired from the factory, before you closed the hair salon, before you left your homeland to recreate a life. I inherited your displacement, as did Sarindar, Esmond, and Jérôme from their individual experiences, and we, collectively, process and adapt the loneliness, the dislocation, the nostalgia, the memories–all of it. You and I both are not artists, and I’ve never known you to be interested in art per se, but certainly you see now that it does not matter, because your life, your brilliantly exceptional life as an immigrant is, manifestly, art.

Letticia Cosbert is the Educator at the Koffler Gallery. You can follow her on Instagram @prettiletti.


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