Migrant Bodies

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Posted on December 10, 2014 in Migrant Bodies
Everywhere and Nowhere at the Same Time: Stories from the Migrant Bodies Project

Su-Feh Lee is a Vancouver dance artist who is taking part in Migrant Bodies, a major two-year international research project undertaken by The Dance Centre with partner organizations in Montreal, France, Italy and Croatia, which examines migration in European and Canadian societies. Following her inspiring presentation (‘magical’ was the most frequent comment) at the first Vancouver residency last month, we asked Su-Feh to share some thoughts on her experiences to date:

Here are some of the stories I have collected while being part of the Migrant Bodies project. They are here in a rather inchoate form, drifting around in my Migrant Body, connected only by the fact that I heard them, have recorded them somehow; and at this point in time, are the ones that resonate.

Arrival and Departure

In 1534 Jacques Cartier arrived on Mohawk territory. The Mohawk took them in, fed them and cured them of scurvy. He repaid them by kidnapping a few of them to take back to Europe. I have been thinking about these Mohawk, trapped in Europe, far from a home they did not choose to leave.

Montreal sits on the traditional territory of the Mohawk or as they call themselves, the Kanien’kehaka. The Mohawk are part of a confederacy of 5 nations called the Haudonosonee Confederacy. Often described as the oldest participatory democracy on Earth, the Haudenosaunee Confederacy’s constitution is believed to be a model for the American Constitution. Yet the very nice white lady who took us on a tour of Boulevard St Laurent started the tour by describing a history of Montreal that did not mention the Mohawk at all. As we walked along, I said, “But Montreal is on Mohawk territory, right?”. She said, oh, the reserve is on the other side of the river.

I thought about the migration that happens in the imagination. How we can just move people away in our minds so that there is room for a certain kind of history. A more convenient history. It’s not her fault. She has been trained to think that way. She is not alone.

To get a better understanding of where I was, I decided to go talk with some Mohawk. So Xavier Curnillon, the video artist, and I went to Kahnawake, and there we met a young man Thomas Deer who told us this story:

As a Mohawk who is proud of who he is, and who does not recognize Canada’s sovereignty over his territory and over his body, he travels on a Haudonosonee passport. As you can imagine, this is not always easy. One day, on his way back from Geneva, as he was about to board the plane from Paris to Montreal, Air France decided it wouldn’t let him on the plane because they were not sure that the Canadian authorities would let him through the Canadian border with his passport. They took him to a refugee centre where he stayed for 2 days. During this time, he was visited a few times by representatives from the Canadian embassy. Each time, they would ask him, are you ready to take a Canadian passport? Each time, he said no. Each time, they left him there. Finally, the French authorities, in accordance with the Dublin Protocol, sent him to his last port of call, Geneva. Switzerland, by the way, recognizes the Haudonosonee passport. He eventually made his way back to Montreal via Amsterdam. When he arrived in Montreal, the Canadian immigration officer said to him, “Welcome home, Mr Deer”.


The river that runs through Montreal is the St Lawrence river,
The river that runs through Bassano is the Brenta.
The river that runs by Zagreb is the Sava
The Seine runs through Paris, the Fraser runs by Vancouver.
Water, water, water.
Boats, kayaks, canoes, ferries, water, water, water.
Up to 60% of the adult human body is made of water.
We are systems of water.
We live in systems of water.

When I think of clouds, I think of planes.

It so happened that I was in Zagreb when the Malaysian Airlines plane MH17 got shot down over the Ukraine. I was confused about what to feel about it. I felt far away from both my homes. Before I came to Vancouver, I lived in Malaysia. When I go back to Malaysia, when I go to visit my mother, I speak of going home. But I have now lived in Vancouver longer than I have lived in Malaysia. And this is where I became the mother to a 16 year-old boy, who towers over me. Yet sometimes he puts his head on my lap. And when he does that, I feel I am home. But in that moment, in Zagreb, like many times during this project, I felt far away from home. I felt I was everywhere and nowhere at the same time. And I thought of those people on the plane - everywhere and nowhere at the same time.

Yet Cease Wyss, a Sḵwx̱wú7mesh artist whose work centres around indigenous plants and herbs, told us while we were visiting Stanley Park, that the cedar is our mother, holding us in her arms. That we all belong to our one mother, the earth. And if we take a moment to be with mother earth, we are home. Amongst the trees and the displaced totem poles, Cease taught us how to gather liquorice ferns and rose hips to make tea. She told us of a Sḵwx̱wú7mesh family whose house in the park had had a section of it cut up by the government’s land surveyors and were then told they had to leave.

Bodies move across borders.
Borders arrive upon bodies.
The Vancouver-based writer and activist Harsha Walia told us, “Borders are violent”.

Today, in Paris, where I am writing this, I heard Camille Schmoll, a Geography researcher, talk about refugee women in Malta who, after crossing the Sahara, or the Mediterranean, have been fingerprinted and therefore are now traceable. The state has imposed a border upon their bodies. Yet, some of them still assert their autonomy by filing off their fingerprints.

The body is what is left when nothing else remains - Jean-François Laé, 2004


Su-Feh Lee is a Vancouver dance artist and Co-artistic Director of battery opera performance

The Migrant Bodies project returns to Vancouver in February 2015. For regular updates follow the project’s Facebook page.


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