Curatorial statement

In motion, we are still.

Portuguese men waiting at the Toronto International Airport. December 4, 1967.
Julian Hayashi. Toronto Telegram fonds. York University Libraries.

A body in motion tends to stay in motion unless acted on by an outside force. So goes Newton’s first law. A body in constant motion is at rest when seen by another moving at the same speed. Even rooted bodies are passengers on this celestial body we call home, orbiting, making waves, never on the same cosmic coordinates of our elastic universe. Like the river we step in is not the river we stand in, the internal tides of our bloodstream flow back and forth, constantly departing at the moment of arrival. Perpetual movement, impossible to replicate in mechanical devices, is a constant of our human condition. In motion, we are still.

Settlers. Sojourners. Emigrants. Immigrants. Newcomers. Expatriates. Refugees. Exiles. Asylees. Legal. Undocumented. Deportees. Returnees. Residents. Citizens. Visitors. Tourists. Travellers. Foreigners. Portuguese. Canadians. Portuguese Canadians. Every term used to describe restless bodies is defined in relation to other bodies moving at different speeds and directions. Like shuttles carrying threads across the loom, these terms weave meaning into relations, turning them into personal, familial, community, national, and diasporic stories that we tell and are told about ourselves.

The story of Portuguese immigrants and their descendants in Canada can be told in as many ways as there are people to tell it. Even if one could weave all versions into one grand tapestry, it would still not tell the full story. One thing will always be missing: the past itself. But without the missing part, there is no story to tell. In the case of the Portuguese, as for all cultures grounded in histories of movement, the missing part is the story. Not missing like emptiness or longing, but as the sand lifted off the ground stuck to the soles of travelling feet, marking its place in time by being both present and absent, here and there.

When the time comes to stitch together individual memories into revealing patterns of shared experiences, storytellers arch back not so much to discover but to choose the beginning of their narratives, since the past itself has none. These decisions help make meaning of the mess that is the past and turn it into intelligible stories. It is in these imagined points of origin that storytellers usually place the idea of “home,” whose characters – sometimes the narrators themselves – seek to leave, find, or return to. Their yearning for a sense of belonging ultimately shapes their journeys and identities. In diaspora stories, the elusive “home” is both origin and destination. Not so much a place but a mindset or feeling that travels with the characters, shapeshifting like a shadow cast on the surfaces along the way.

Stories of self-discovery or confirmation of identity away from “home” are among the oldest told by and about the Portuguese. There is no shortage of poems, novels, and artwork dedicated to that theme in Portuguese and Canadian libraries and museums. Restless bodies finding stillness, reassurance, and permanence in mobility is at the heart of the romantic yearning that the Portuguese call saudade, a key cultural nerve that many come to grasp intuitively upon migrating.

Living memories die of consensus. They lie when idle. Like waves, memory is not a settled thing, or even a thing at all. It is a force that can be physically experienced with all our senses but never grasped, because it only exists when passing. This exhibition is another fleeting moment that one day will exist as a memory. Whatever force it has will be felt differently by its visitors and passers-by, who will either avoid, dip their toes in, swim, or dive into it. Some will wistfully arch back to the start of their own stories of immigration, of Canada, digging up the memory of a time when they stood with their backs towards the waves, wondering where they might end up. Some of them ended up here, for now. This exhibition looks at and with them.