Exhibition Reflection: “Shrouded Gaze” Conversations Between Friends

Edited by: Nawang Tsomo Kinkar

With Freida Wang, John Delante, and Ananna Rafa

In a student-run gallery at 401 Richmond, love persists as a thematic arc for a two-person exhibition presenting works by Toronto Metropolitan University alumni, John Delante and Ananna Rafa. When I asked Freida Wang, guest curator at Artspace Gallery, about this pairing, she responded, “both John and Ananna’s works span ideas of what love and intimacy can be, and I found this aspect very important to explore.” Presented as part of the 2023 Scotiabank Contact Photography Festival, shrouded gaze explores notions of home and belonging for diasporic identities, with love as the foundation. The liminal space, within which diasporic identity often exists in, is stretched out and carefully attended to by Delante and Rafa. Upon arriving at a crossroads at which they grapple with the social and political realities of living between two different worlds, the artists courageously use personal memories to negotiate an alternative future where love is not only a feelingbut an action, a choice, and a promise. 

Delante’s photographs in Repose and Renewal serves as a basis for his longing for reconnection with his childhood friends in Cebu. Drawing from the emotional sensibilities portrayed in the work of artists like Wolfgang Tillmans and Oscar yi Hou, Delante hopes that his image-making “imbues symbolic densities that tie the past and present together.” Depicting these shared sentiments, Rafa yearns for a sense of autonomy in the South Asian community that encourages, sustains, and forgives love. In her upcoming photobook project, Searching For Mustard Fields, she portrays couples experiencing relationships of taboo, or what is commonly referred to as ‘secret’ relationships. Using Bollywood as tropes and fantasies of romance, her interest in narrative and myth making was nurtured by artists such as Vasantha Yogananthan, Meera Margaret Singh, and Laura Letinsky. Graciously exercising sensitivity with their subjects, Rafa and Delante, wield the power of the camera, yet are also placed in a position of vulnerability as they come to terms with their own identities through interactions with their loved ones. 

In contemporary culture, love is increasingly commodified, and exploited beyond recognition. Love, then, feels like a bold topic, and perhaps why Wang gestures towards the urgency of such an exhibition. The conversation which follows below includes thoughts on love, loss, art, and communityan earnest exchange amongst friends looking toward the practice of co-creation in order to carve space for love. 

Freida Wang: Both Ananna and John explore belonging through the lens of migration. More specifically, the artists share similar experiences of immigrating to Canada during an integral period of coming-of-age. Coming into your identity as a young person is made even more difficult when conflicting cultural identities are in play. With lived experiences both in their motherlands and Canada, the artists feel torn between two places. This tug-and-pull of the diasporic identity is a recurring theme at the heart of both their works, which I find very important to acknowledge when thinking about the exhibition. 

Nawang Tsomo Kinkar: Diasporic identity is another overarching theme that grounds this exhibition. And while immigration is primarily and more apparently about physical migration, our society often shies away from discussing the lingering and residual effects that migration has on an individual’s emotional, mental, and spiritual counterparts. Ananna and John, I know that a large part of both of your practices, and specifically your current works, involved going—migrating—back, even temporarily, to your motherlands. I’m interested to know more about this desire to go back to your ancestral homelands? 

John Delante: After moving to Toronto in 2015 from Cebu, Philippines, I didn’t have a chance to see my friends from the island for quite some time. When I went back in 2022, I wanted to spend time with my friends because I was hoping to regain a sense of familiarity with my homeland. Being back in Cebu with my childhood friends made me realize that I had changed since immigrating to Canada, and I struggled to describe my experience living in diaspora to them. In the beginning, there was an unspoken awkwardness that felt like a barrier between my friends and I. But I think that became the interesting part of this process because I was trying to navigate those tensions in real time, while also seeing how those feelings would be performed in front of the camera. Photography helped me get closer to some semblance of an answer. 

Ananna Rafa, Scarred / The moon also has its marks (Diptych) , 2022, C-print, 16x20in, Courtesy of the Artist

Ananna Rafa: I think sometimes there is a tendency to question creative work that is about diasporic lives. As a South Asian artist, when I’m making a series about the motherland and notions of belonging and nostalgia, or any exploration of my South Asian identity, people question my intentions because it has been “done before”. However, people have differing lived experiences within the Asian Diaspora, even if they belong to the same cultural group, which is why I think there is still a need to facilitate conversations about these residual effects of migration. For me, going back to Dhaka, where I was born, and where I spent my childhood, is an integral part of understanding my identity. 

NTK: Ananna, your project Searching for Mustard Fields is about love and the complications that arise when the seemingly universal sentiment is entangled with socio-political realities that deny what we value most: freedom. Can you speak about your project in relation to love, and the freedom to love? 

AR: In Western society, the idea of love is taken for granted, yet, arranged and forced marriages still carry a lot of prevalence in the global South Asian community. Being denied the freedom to choose your partner is very much a reality for many people. Even courting or dating someone is not always an option because prejudice around caste, religion, or socio-economic status is a deciding factor in who your parents and family approve of. Being part of a traditional Bengali society, I am also unable to date openly. The first time I asked my grandmother if my parents had a “love marriage” she swiftly told me to “never utter such shameful words.” The first time I fell in love I could not tell my community. For me, the photographs in Searching for Mustard Fields encapsulates what it feels like to be in love. Borrowing from Bollywood cinema, specifically the quintessential 90s film Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (DDLJ), I investigate themes of love, intimacy, and secrecy within South Asian society. The project ultimately also examines control and surveillance in our communities. 

Ananna Rafa, Showing skin, 2022, Lightbox, Courtesy of the Artist 

Ananna Rafa Kiss Concealed, 2022 archival pigment print matted, Courtesy of the Artist

Ananna Rafa Under the veil of the night, 2021 Lightbox 40 x 30in, Courtesy of the Artist

FW: Oftentimes, when we speak about love it’s usually the romantic kind, but there is an importance to the kind of love that comes from long-term friendships. Love for friends and family are not always seen as meaningful as romantic love, which is why I think exhibiting Ananna and John’s projects in the same space, where they are both blocked by barriers and boundaries, is really important in creating a dialogue  that portrays the similarities and differences in the various kinds of love that exists in the world.

NTK: John, in thinking through love as an anchor for friendship, what are some reflections you’ve taken away from reconnecting with your old friends in Cebu? 

 JD: In Repose and Renewal, I explore ideas of what was once home for me. By rekindling old relationships, the project helped me understand my identity through my friends in Cebu. Facilitating intimate conversations with my friends was a significant part of the process because we were able to acknowledge not only our shared pasts, but also the shifts in our present identities. Our conversations allowed me to understand the different parts of their worlds and reconcile the gaps between us. I’m also aware that my subjects are primarily male, and there are two reasons for that: One is because of my limited time in Cebu, I couldn’t get in touch with all of my female friends. The second, I believe, is  because we all attended a private Catholic school where rules and regulations were very strict, and I spent most of my adolescence hanging out with boys. I also remember that the boys were very good at Math, a subject that I struggled in, and I remember always exchanging answer keys with them. I held onto them for answers even then. 

NTK: Like John, Ananna’s series is also rooted in friendship. I think Searching for Mustard Fields reveals a kinship that emerges between the couples portrayed, and solidarity naturally transpires through. In search for the right to love openly, the various couples that Ananna depicts are also in search of an in-between place that is perhaps a kind of utopia. 

AR: It’s interesting that you use the word “utopia” because I was thinking a lot about creating an imaginary space for myself and my subjects throughout this series. For me, Bollywood is that kind of utopia. Bollywood is central to the creation of many South Asian identities because it’s often how we learn about love and I find myself living vicariously through these films—where love is a possibility for all. I’ve become engulfed in these love stories of close friends, because in our reality, love is a privilege that is not always afforded to all, and for generations we have carried the fear that romantic love is akin to shame.  

FW: Both of your works also evoke feelings of warmth. I think you have a good grasp on how to capture these moments of tenderness, connecting your own relationships with your subjects as part of the process, and your ability to place yourselves as the lens—inviting the viewers into the relationships as well.

John Delante, Tulang Diot, Repose and Renewal, Photography, 8 x 10 inches, Courtesy of the Artist

John Delante, Shannia, Repose and Renewal, Photography, 5 x 7 inches, Courtesy of the Artist

JD: I love photographing my subjects outdoors because I spent most of my childhood being outside. The outdoors was my playground, and I always ended up going to the beach and to the highlands. That’s why I gravitate towards photographing in the natural environment. The waters hold a lot of nostalgia and meaning for me. My family used to go to the beach almost every Sunday, it was like a holiday for us. I’ve seen our trips in my family photographsthe candid moments of myself with my cousins and being held by our parents.

AR: Water and river bodies are very essential to Bangladesh and I feel that I’m immediately drawn to these natural elements. They make me feel more at home. There is a sense of belonging to the earth. I also think the memories of home exist within other people. There are aspects of my identity that are carried by others, who have been part of my upbringing. When these people perish, I also lose parts of myself. And I think that is why I photograph people and why I’m interested in these relationships. 

AR: I have a question for you John: how did your family and friends respond and react to the works you were making?

JD: It was a mix. My close friends were very supportive and felt honoured to be photographed by me. And some people were pretty indifferent to it. I feel humbled by my friends in the Philippines in many ways. They don’t really care about being an artist. They just want me to be happy and to be there for one another in the ways we can. On the other hand, my mother’s understanding of my career choice has become better over time. Four years ago, she genuinely couldn’t understand why I wanted to pursue photography because in traditional Filipino culture, practical professions such as doctors and lawyers are admired. But she has seen some of my work now and one time, she actually re-posted my exhibition announcement on her Facebook page. This made me really happy. It felt like a stepping stone in our relationship.  

John Delante, Nicole, Repose and Renewal, Photography, 5 x 7 inches, Courtesy of the Artist

John Delante, To Highlands, Repose and Renewal, Photography, 8 x 10 inches, Courtesy of the Artist

NTK: So many aspects of both your projects stem from collaboration with your subjects, whether family or friends. The exhibition is also a collaborative project, and to add further, this conversation that we’re having today has been another form of collaboration. Throughout these experiences, what has  collaboration meant to you? 

FW: Working with Ananna and John, the collaborative aspect of this exhibition came naturally since we’re all friends and have worked together in the past. As a result, we were able to talk openly with each other about our ideas for the exhibition without the hierarchy that comes with institutional respectability politics. In other terms of collaboration, we’ve talked about having aspects of the exhibition be more installation-based, perhaps a space that fosters intimate conversations, so viewers can feel more connected to the artists’ perspectives. We want to explore the role of the viewer in the exhibition space as a whole—intrinsically they are in part the recipients of the conversations being created. 

AR: Photography is such a lonely practice sometimes. The collaboration that happens while you’re taking a photograph is one of the only times that we interact with others at such an intimate level. Everything that happens afterwardsdeveloping, printing, and editinghappens in solitude. Sometimes, I have a hard time calling myself an artist. How do I justify being an artist when there is a lack of representation for people that look like me in the arts? Earlier John shared that his mother re-posted his exhibition on her Facebook. I think these are the small victories that we cherish. Worldbuilding is such an important part of being an artist. Otherwise, how do you make someone else believe it, if you don’t believe it yourself? Who actually has the power to call us artists? 

FW: Not everyone can afford an art school education. Much of how these systems work stems from colonial ways of thinking, and there is a lot of gatekeeping as a result. In larger institutions, art has become very inaccessible, often very structured around academia. I think art in and of itself is supposed to be for the community, and really, there is no art without artists.

Ananna Rafa, Untitled (floral arrangement), 2022, archival pigment print, Courtesy of the Artist 

Ananna Rafa:
Instagram: @ananna Website: http://anannarafa.com/

Freida Wang:
Instagram: @everyone_ Website: freidawang.com

John Delante:
Instagram: @jmdelante Website: jmdelante.com

Nawang Tsomo Kinkar:
Instagram: @nantsolaz