By Kesang Nanglu
Edited by Melina Mehr
In 1980, the Ontario Ministry of Industry and Tourism launched a campaign titled “Yours to Discover.” Whether heard spoken in a commercial or read across a provincial license plate, every Ontarian is familiar with the now iconic phrase. Its enduring success can be credited to its marketing approach, which was aimed directly at locals and encouraged Ontarians to explore their own province. Evocative imagery highlighted stunning natural landscapes, quaint historical sites and bustling urban areas.
Zinnia Naqvi’s 2019 photo series borrows its title from the campaign, playfully critiquing the fabricated sense of a unified Canadian identity it sought to foster. Centering her still lifes around found images from her family’s photo archive, she subverts the genre of tourist photography to explore issues of colonialism, immigration, and nationalism.
Each work features a well-known tourist attraction Naqvi’s family visited in the 1980s while contemplating moving from Pakistan to Canada. Arranged as centrepieces, the photos are placed among seemingly disparate materials ranging from board games and childhood memorabilia to theoretical texts. Read together, they create new meanings and connections from otherwise innocuous family photos. Some of these objects are balanced precariously, hinting at the unstable position of immigrant newcomers to Canada living within its rigid societal systems.
Tourism Ontario newspaper advertisement, May 1980:“Welcome to the world around you, blue skies and breath-taking Northern vistas, rolling hills, towering forests, 400,000 inland lakes, glorious gorges, thundering falls, and miles and miles of untamed wilds.”
Printed on a mug in The Wanderers – Niagara Falls, 1988 is an image of Caspar David Friedrich’s Wanderer above the Sea Fog. Painted in 1818, it has since been reproduced widely, evolving into an iconic symbol of exploration and the spirit of adventure. Despite being motivating factors of colonialism, ideas of exploration and discovery are often romanticized in art, contributing to the myth of European claims of ownership over inhabited land and even natural phenomena.
At the centre of The Wanderers – Niagara Falls, 1988 is a photo of Naqvi’s family visiting the falls. Like the lone figure in Friedrich’s painting, they are explorers in an unfamiliar place. Along with the board game The Settlers of Catan in the foreground of the still life, the inclusion of the printed mug serves as a reminder that immigrant newcomers also play a role in Canada’s colonial history as progressive settlers on stolen land.
Tourism Ontario newspaper advertisement, May 1980:“Welcome to our gentler nature, fields, and pastures, market gardens, vineyards, orchards, winding by-ways and all our smaller, quiet places.”
Performance plays a significant role in Naqvi’s practice and this is true of Yours to Discover. Each photograph features a game in play, though arranged neatly as if being reenacted for the viewer. Even the way the still lifes are composed evokes the semicircle of a stage.
Performance, in the sense of socially constructed behaviour is also explored. In Keep Off the Grass – Cullen Gardens and Miniature Village, 1988, meticulously designed models portray neat homes, gardens and railways. Exemplifying rural and suburban ideals, the gardens leave a wholesome impression, but their underlying motive brings this reading into question. These are, afterall, idealized representations, selected carefully to speak to traditional Canadian values like orderliness and civility. These values are again embodied in the work’s title, Keep Off the Grass—a common expression found on lawn signage, both on private and public property. Wooden peg dolls painted like soccer players are placed around the open Monopoly board, representing the conflicting priorities of communities versus corporate entities.
For immigrant families, not only public social behaviours, but also personal cultural practices like language are threatened by the demands of assimilation—whether forcibly or subtly imposed— and can be lost in only a few generations. In her book of essays that accompanies the series, Naqvi asks “How do we carry the legacies of our unique identities forward, when our relationship to them might be frail and thin?”
Tourism Ontario newspaper advertisement, May 1980:“Welcome to the celebrations, plays, […] fairs and festivals, and city lights — a feast of cultures, yours to enjoy, Ontario — yours to discover.”
A Whole New World – CN Tower, 1988 takes its title from the 1992 Disney movie, Aladdin (a VHS copy of which is present in the arrangement). Sung as a duet by Jasmine and Aladdin as they fly through the night sky on their magic carpet, the song is used in connection to the experience of viewing Toronto from the top of the CN Tower. In this context, it speaks to the state of wonder prompted by exploring a new and unfamiliar place, but also the destabilizing feeling this shift can cause.
To move across the world and start a new life means adventure, but also risk, whether it be to financial security, lifestyle, or personal and cultural connections. In a broader sense, there is also significant sacrifice associated with industrial progress that places entire communities at risk. Rice is poured in a curved line along building blocks as a tribute to Chinese railway workers who constructed the Canadian Pacific Railway under inhumane conditions and without basic rights throughout the 1880s. Like the CN Tower, the railway is a significant feat of industrial engineering that had massive implications for Canada’s progress and status as an international power. Long known to be the tallest tower in the world (and later surpassed in 2009 by the Canton Tower in China), the CN Tower remains a symbol of Canadian identity. The concept of multiculturalism, popularized by Pierre Trudeau’s 1988 Multiculturalism Act, is also emphatically accepted by many Canadians as a defining aspect of Canadian identity, despite being at odds with contemporary attitudes towards immigrants and their historical treatment.
Yours to Discover is an ambitious project that tackles complex issues in a way that is accessible and relatable. The photographs from Naqvi’s family archives are ambiguous, but are contextualized through clues and visual metaphors. It is tempting to assign a sense of nostalgia or sentimentality to these works just by virtue of their featuring personal photographs, but their arrangement reveals a methodical approach concerned less with personal memory, but rather with examining shared ideas of place in order to reconcile established notions of Canadian identity with the actual lived experience of immigrants living across Canada.