The current installation art exhibit at the Godfrey Dean Gallery in Yorkton has a strong local element.
The installation by Regina artist Jeannie Mah, draws on her own family heritage as well as that of the Mark family from Yorkton to help tell the history of rail in Saskatchewan, and the part Chinese immigrants have played in that story.
“Projected onto the east and west walls are two historical black and white photos of Chinese workers building the railway. Framing the moving image on both sides, these create a disjointed ,landscape. The oblique angles of the tracks broaden a perspectival view which traverses time and space across Canada. Present and past, motion and stillness, this oblique view acknowledges the arrival of the many Chinese men who came to work on our national dream. Disrupting this landscape of the Chinese labourers, frozen in time, are two small family portraits from the homeland. Trimmed in red, these photos act as “chop” marks, as signature, and as a memory of home. These photos are a reminder of the underlying reason why young Chinese men were sent to Canada; to work, to send money home, to support family and country,” explained a hand-out for the show entitled ‘Train: les Arrivé es’.
At an artist reception for the show Sunday, Mah said her own father “came to Canada from China to work.” He was 12 when the family arrived in Regina.
“I wanted to look at the railroad as it crosses Saskatchewan,” explained the artist. “I wanted to tie the past to the present.”
And Mah said there is a definite element of the installation which looks ahead. The video projection shows the view of a train heading down the track, which she said is a metaphor “for us going to the future.”
The railroad, said Mah, holds so much history for both the province, and for people of Chinese heritage.
“The passenger train, which once connected us from coast to coast, from town to town, from city to beach, has almost vanished, and the labour and lives lost in the construction of the railway seem to have been sacrificed for nothing. From the Last Spike of 1886 to the demise of the passenger train in 1990, we were unable to maintain our national dream for more than 104 years, despite the human cost of the the construction of the railway and our nation,” explained the show hand-out.
In time the Mah family would move to Consul, SK., and the artist said family photos from those days became part of the installation.
To help the show resonate more profoundly with Yorkton viewers, Mah said she was actively seeking photos from here.
“It had to have that,” she said, adding a local aspect makes the show resonate more locally.
Mah met up with Lilly (formerly Mark) at a swimming pool, and found out she had ties to Yorkton, and access to photographs.
Mah said it was great to be able “to work with these images of this very large family.”
Willie Mark, one of eight Mark children who grew up in Yorkton as their parents were part owners of the Broadway Cafe, said seeing their family history as part of the show was interesting.
“It was a pleasant surprise that this has been done,” he offered. “… It’s very humbling to see something like this has been done.”
Mark said his father arrived in Canada when he was 12 with his grandfather, initially working in British Columbia to pay the $500 head tax on Chinese immigrants. They would eventually move to Prince Albert, and then he made his way to Yorkton 1943 purchasing the Broadway Cafe with five partners.
“That one restaurant raised six whole families,” he said, his father taking a mail order bride from China.
“It was very different then. There was no support like there is today. It was a hard learning experience.”
Mah said having members of the Mark family at Sunday’s reception was great, adding “I’d been working with these little faces (children in photographs), and to meet them as grown-ups was amazing.”