The commercial areas of Toronto’s suburbs are weird and wonderful experiments in postcolonialism. In many ways, they’re blank slates, plazas filled in gradually with a combination of big-box stores and shops and restaurants that are representative of the area’s predominant cultures and ethnicities. Morris Lum calls them ethnoscapes. Here, he says, “you may encounter a Chinese restaurant beside a Caribbean roti house and a Tim Horton’s.”
But as day turns to night, these car-centric areas of commerce grow quiet and lonely. It’s in this still, brightly-lit period, in these “monumental signifiers of North America,” that Lum documented New Cultural Topographics, a commentary on his self-proclaimed hybrid heritage.
Lum is part of the first-ever DOC/now, Ryerson University’s MFA Thesis Festival. Organized by its students, the festival celebrates work by the first graduating class of Ryerson’s new documentary media program. The festival opened on Thursday, June 11 and runs until June 23. MONDO had a quick conversation with Morris about his series.
By Kerry Freek
MONDO: Tell us a bit about your project.
Morris Lum: Well, my initial proposal for the program talked about trying to make sense of my hybrid heritage. My upbringing essentially culminates three different countries: I was born in Trinidad and Tobago, but moved to Canada when I was five. My dad was also born in Trinidad and Tobago and my mother was born in Macau, China.
Essentially, I had wanted to—through photography—make sense of this hybrid heritage. It took me a year-and-a-half to figure out a mode of image making that would best represent my heritage.
MONDO: The busy bright lights contrast with the late-night, abandoned suburban locations in your images. How do these images represent your hybrid heritage?
ML: They represent my Chinese heritage and my suburban Mississauga upbringing. The spaces metaphorically represent the wave of Chinese immigrants that have moved to Canada’s suburbs and have adapted to western culture.
Shooting these spaces at night represents how I see myself in relation to my Chinese heritage. I’m not necessarily inside of the culture, but I’m not necessarily outside of it, either.
MONDO: Is it okay to be half-in and half-out? How do you feel about this particular convergence of cultures?
ML: I think there are advantages and disadvantages. I can love the culture, and at the same time I can critique it.
Growing up it was very difficult. After moving to Canada, my mother wanted me to learn Cantonese, but I hated it. I went to Chinese school and felt like I didn’t fit in because for the first five years of my life I lived on an island, speaking English slang and drinking coconut water.
So, it was difficult not being able to fully understanding one culture. But I would rather think about it as growing up in a great position. Now I know many cultures.
I guess that’s why I’m still making work about my heritage. I’m still trying to figure things out.
MONDO: Do you think you’ll ever figure it out?
ML: No. But it’ll be a freaking great ride trying to figure it out.
MONDO: What would you like to explore in future work?
ML: I think I’ll being taking vacations away from my heritage. I’d like to live in a place foreign to me and explore how I see that space in relation to what I know.
MONDO: Where would you go?
ML: Japan, specifically Okinawa. I would revisit it from time to time, documenting its evolutions.
You can see Morris’ images, represented on a giant panoramic scale, at Toronto Image Works (80 Spadina Avenue, Suite 207) until June 27.