Photo exhibit shows the cross-pollination of practice and ideas

The name Deborah means “bee” in Hebrew and true to her name, York environmental studies Professor Deborah Barndt has researched and worked in various Latin American countries drawing the nectar out of practices in one place and pollinating projects in another. Her journey was captured in photographs recently featured in an exhibit titled Cross-Pollinations: Photography and Social Change in the Americas.

The exhibit, which ran Oct. 2 to 20 at the Tinto Coffee House in the Roncesvalles neighbourhood in downtown Toronto highlighted the importance of recovering, reframing and rewriting history and of sharing stories across generations. Barndt’s photo exhibit will move to the York campus in January and will be displayed on the main floor of the Health, Nursing & Environmental Studies Building in the Faculty of Environmental Studies Zig Zag Gallery.  

Left: Professor Deborah Barndt on the opening night

For Barndt, the photographs signify a journey back in time. “The ironic thing about revisiting history is that you always see things anew, in terms of the present moment and who you are now and that digging into the past can also clarify where you are and where you are going,” says Barndt.

The retrospective exhibit spans three decades and reflects a journey of particular political movements and revolutionary educational practices linked to them. In her travels, Barndt has moved between Toronto and Latin America. She visited Peru in the 1970s, Nicaragua in the ’80s and Mexico in the ’90s. For each trip, she used her camera to conduct participatory research, capturing people’s daily lives and documenting their personal realities on film.   

Barndt sees her photographic work as challenging convention, allowing people to represent themselves and tell their own stories. “These photographs and the stories they tell are not only revolutionary because of their substance but also in how those who have historically been voiceless and invisible to us participate in the storytelling and art-making,” says Barndt. She explains how even though most of the images document experiences from over two decades ago, many still emulate the vital issues that society faces today.

Left: Barndt’s photograph of a young literacy teacher returning from the National Literacy Campaign in Nicaragua in 1980

Barndt identifies several different themes that resonate from the stories woven together in the photographs. One is the invisibility of women workers in both the north and south. Also evident is the history of social struggles captured in the images, which Barndt says show how some are lost to memory because of social amnesia as well as deliberate obliteration. As well, a radical form of education appears throughout, drawing content from people’s daily lives to think critically and collectively and to actively participate in challenging and changing conditions of injustice. Barndt also highlights the use of cameras and photos as tools in these processes, offering people an opportunity to see themselves or represent themselves, to claim the value of their own stories. Finally, the photos reflect the theme of cross-pollinations – the movement back and forth of peoples across borders, compelled by war, repression, poverty and politics.

Right: One of the 400,000 Nicaraguan peasants who learned to read and write during the 1980 National Literacy Campaign

Barndt’s unconventional research techniques bring art and research together, eliminating the gap between the two and challenging conventional notions. Using participatory research, she democratizes the arts, putting photographs and cameras in the hands of her subjects so that they may represent themselves. With her work, Barndt hopes to inspire educators and researchers on how they can bring the arts into the realm of education and research.

The Community Arts Practice (CAP) joint program of the Faculty of Environmental Studies and the Faculty of Fine Arts does just that. This program, created by Barndt, holds true to her vision of linking education, social justice and art in an effort to represent and convey important issues. The opening of the exhibit also doubled as a fundraiser for the CAP program – a book sale and silent auction of Barndt’s photos were held in the front entrance of the coffee house.  

Left: A guest views Barndt’s photographs during the exhibit’s opening night at the Tinto Coffee House in Roncesvalles

The Roncesvalles location was significant to Barndt as she also lives in the area. The culturally diverse neighbourhood and the dynamic atmosphere created in the coffee house made the location ideal for the exhibit and fundraiser. “The owners of Tinto have created a space in our neighbourhood for people to connect – across many differences,” explains Barndt. Songs sung in both Spanish and English added another dimension to the opening, bringing the photos to life as music filled the room.

Barndt plans to continue working within her community, using art and photography to represent the diversity of people in Roncesvalles and to help people share their own stories of cross-pollinations. An upcoming project will see her working with CAP students and Parkdale community members to create a mural on the front of the coffee house to reflect the diversity in the area. A second exhibit in her series of retrospectives in March will focus on community-engaged murals around the world, to inspire local residents to represent their stories on neighbourhood walls.

Submitted to YFile by Jessica Lamoglie, media/communications coordinator, Faculty of Environmental Studies