Deborah-Koenker-Visual-Artist-Vancouver-Kelowna_Grapes-and-tortillas

Grapes & Tortillas

2016


Grapes & Tortillas continues a concern with social justice, celebrating the presence and contribution of hundreds of Mexican seasonal agricultural workers currently in vineyards, greenhouses, orchards and on farms across Canada. Under the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Program (SAWP), a program co-sponsored by the Mexican and Canadian governments, workers come for up to 8 months to work 6-7 days a week for minimum wage; they pay taxes, CPP and EI—though they don’t receive benefits. The majority of these workers are poor and uneducated, with families—insurance that they’ll return to Mexico. Economic necessity motivates these men and women to sacrifice for the well-being of their families. ‘Parachuted’ into a foreign culture, their presence is largely invisible to permanent residents. Barriers to social interaction, such as language, gender, race, physical isolation and lack of transportation, distance them from inclusion in local communities and an inter-cultural understanding.

Focusing on workers in the Okanagan Valley of BC, participants were asked to write--on flattened tortillas—their name, place of origin and a thought or wish to share with gallery viewers.  The great majority spoke of how much they miss their families, and that they are working for their benefit.

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One hundred sixty men and women were photographed, holding their tortilla with text.  Other elements of the installation included a replication of a typical Mexican kitchen with images of indigenous Oaxacan activist Doña Vicky, and a recorded interview with her; also a shrine alcove with a large banner of the Virgin of Guadalupe—patron saint of Mexico--surrounded by chairs holding enlarged traditional Mexican lottery cards—representing fate in combination with faith.  Vintage wooden orchard ladders framed the walls, and black Oaxacan pottery urns held fresh marigolds, a flower sacred to the Aztec s and still used in Mexico for the Day of the Dead.  Bisecting the gallery, a transparent “wall” of orchard netting holds over 2,000 ribbons, giving a visual sense of the number of seasonal farmworkers in the Okanagan Valley alone.  Ribbons are often tied onto shrines in Mexican churches. Three walls are hung with Tortilla Wall, a photographic mural documenting the wall on the Mexican side of the border from Tijuana to Mexicali;  included are text excerpts from US poet laureate Juan Felipe Herrera’s poem, 187 Reasons Why Mexicanos Can’t Cross The Border, used with permission, and a selection of photos from my archive on Mexican culture. A strand of barbed wire creates a vicious line above the text and images.  Music by Lila Downs and Lhasa de Sela plays in the gallery space (with permission).

These workers contribute enormously to the agricultural industry and economy across Canada. This work aimed to increase worker visibility, to highlight the richness of Mexican culture, especially as related to food, and to build a bridge of to appreciation and understanding in viewers/consumers. 

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