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Newcomer Artist Project 

The Newcomer Artist Project reveals how immigrant artists are welcomed into Canada.

Canada’s points system of immigration favours doctors, engineers and PhDs as newcomers to the country. What if our immigration policies aimed to attract more artists instead? That’s one of the questions asked by the Newcomer Artist Project. Part art project, part curatorial venture and part activism, the project brings together a group of artists who have immigrated to Canada within the past several years. Co-ordinator Bruce Barber, an artist and NSCAD University professor, assembled the project for the 2008 Metropolis conference, a national conference about immigration, taking place in Halifax this weekend.

Current immigration policies don’t look at artists as attractive potential citizens, but Barber wants us to rethink that. “Of course there will always be those who say ‘artists are a drain on society,’” he says. Theorist Richard Florida’s research on the “creative class” suggests that artists contribute a lot to a city. “Artists help shape up and improve the city,” says Barber. “What if we provided more points to artists?”

Barber was overwhelmed by the response to his call for submissions. Applicants came from 30 different countries, ranging from former gallery directors with MFAs to marine biologists who cross-stitch in their spare time, to high school students who want to be photographers when they grow up. Fourteen artists’ work will be exhibited at Anna Leonowens Gallery to coincide with the Metropolis conference. A website for the show is also in the works which will exhibit all 40 artists who applied. The exhibition includes a diverse array of work including painting, installation and photography, as well as quilts, traditional Chinese flower arranging and Ukrainian Easter eggs.

The Newcomer Artist Project tests how artists can gain entry into the Canadian art world. Most immigrants are multilingual but may lack sufficient English proficiency to apply for grants and exhibitions and it’s difficult to exhibit without a Canadian exhibition record.

An immigrant himself, Bruce Barber came to Halifax from New Zealand through one of the popular channels for artists---higher education. Though he obtained his master’s degree at NSCAD, he has tried to focus on artists who were not educated in Canada for the project. Plenty of networking and exhibition opportunities exist for foreign students, he says. Barber is known for his socialist art performances which he calls “littoral art” and concedes that the Newcomer Artist Project could fall into this category.

Halifax artist Enrique Ferreol is one of the artists in the gallery exhibition. Ferreol works in education at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia and emigrated from Mexico seven years ago. He received a degree in fine art in Mexico and had exhibited widely there prior to immigrating, being selected for national biennales and having his work purchased for major museums and collections. His contribution to the Newcomer Artist Project is a series of “altarpieces” completed while he was waiting to receive permanent resident status, reflecting his emotions in a new country and the relationship he came to Canada for.

Ferreol found himself incorporating new influences into his work upon coming here, especially images of wildlife---he painted bears for the first time in his altarpieces after a friend asked about his experiences in the “land of the bears.” Ferreol was placed in a work term at the AGNS by the Metro Immigrant Settlement Association and was offered a job there after the placement ended. His position at the gallery has helped him make contacts in the art world and his work has been exhibited in Halifax and Toronto.

Barber would like Nova Scotians to reconsider their views on immigration. “I was concerned with all the negativity surrounding immigrants,” Barber says. “Things have changed since 2001 and they’re seen as the ‘other’...Canada needs to attract immigrants in many fields---even the film industry needs more workers. Immigrants are builders, they contribute a lot to the development of the city. We need to recognize that we’re all boat people.”

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