As politicians threaten to build walls, this multidisciplinary artist is breaking them down

Venezuelan-Canadian artist Victoria Mata is exploring borders, migrations and identity in her new show — themes more relevant now than ever.

Victoria Mata's new show explores borders, migrations and identity — themes more relevant now than ever

(Rutas Festival)

When I was working on my Master's degree, there were several seminal texts that I would frequently quote in almost all of my papers — authors I would return to time and time again for clarity, affirmation and analysis. One of those brilliant minds was Chicana writer Gloria Anzaldua, whose genre-defying book Borderland/La Frontera: The New Mestiza became tattered and dog-eaten as I completed each of my papers. Her analysis led me to reconsider why borders are considered normal: I started to question their very existence, wondering who drew the lines on the maps we accept without contest. Anzaldua writes: "Borders are set up to define the places that are safe and unsafe, to distinguish us from them. A border is a dividing line, a narrow strip along a steep edge."

When I spoke with Venezuelan-Canadian choreographer and dancer Victoria Mata, I was reminded once again of Anzaldua's writing. Alongside multidisciplinary artist Alejandra Higuera, Mata is opening a new mixed media performance entitled ImShift on Friday at Toronto's RUTAS panamericanas International Performing Arts Festival. The show is an exploration of borders, migration and identity — and at a time when presidential candidate Donald Trump is promising to build walls and the world debates the Syrian refugee crisis, these themes seem more relevant than ever.

I spoke with Mata by telephone earlier this week.

How do you pronounce the name of your show? Is it 'I'm Shift' or...?

It's open-ended. So it can be 'I'm Shift' or 'I am Shift' — it's purposefully open-ended.

Tell me about it.

ImShift is a live staging of music, dance and visual arts, really multimedia. It's really a piece about our perpetual relationship to the border — and when I say 'our' I'm [speaking] from a Latin American perspective. But we do take into consideration a global impact because borders are crossed all throughout the world. It's about this hybridity of being from two places, from the North and the South and the constant defining of the self through the other. The whole piece is an honouring of all the people that die in the attempt of crossing borders. It's a recognition that although our parents and our elders did arrive in Canada or did arrive in the States, there are many people — both that we know and that we don't know — that are extensions of us, that don't make it in the cross.

This topic of borders is something that some would say is timely because of the election happening in the United States and because of everything going on in Syria and the refugee crisis. Do you feel like your work is responding to these contemporary issues?

I always get chills when I create a piece of art and it's reflected in current news. But my work has always focused around border and the constructions and deconstructions of identity. Right now it's not only timely but it's also very emotionally impactful to the cast.

You mention your cast. What kind of stories do they bring to the performance?

We have a very diverse cast. We're all Toronto-based and we come from different parts of the Americas. One of the stories that we're highlighting in the piece is the disappearance of one of the cast members' grandmother, who disappeared in the Civil War in El Salvador — she went missing. So Irma has grown up knowing that her [grand]mother was a very strong activist, was a nurse — she dedicated her life to saving others at the cost of her own life. Another one of the cast members, Amanda, is from Brazil, and she's talking about her experience being Brazilian in North America and the hyper-sexualization of what it means to be from Brazil. We take it as a bit of a satire; we roll with the stereotype and create a scene with it.

What did the creation process look like?

The co-creator of the piece, Alejandra Higuera, is from Colombia, and both of us have a shared experience of first living in the States and then coming to Canada and leaving our countries as children. So not having the choice to leave, but being taken to this new space. So how do we deal with our experience and migration? It started with this coffee table conversation about how we're constantly feeling like we're from there and from here and the hybridity. [There is a] list of really amazing Chicana writers that talk about the hybridity of the Latin American immigrant that we really identified [with]. And then we just started playing with images and just shifting, etching and taking out and putting on, wrapping or unwrapping. We were just playing in the studio with reflections on hybridity and borders and what happens when you remove them? Who has them? Do we have them in our minds? Is it emotional or physical? Where does one nation begin and the other end?

What does it mean for you to present it now at RUTAS in Toronto?

It's an incredible honour. The festival is bringing five international Latin American companies to share their work and create further dialogues with the Americas through theatre, dance and performance arts. These are companies that are changing policy and very much expanding the world of theatre and performance arts in their countries. So to share a platform with a tremendous honour. I think politically, it's extremely timely. Venezuela right now is in a very critical stage, and we don't know how it's going to turn but it could have serious complications. And with the peace accord [in Colombia] not being signed, it seems right now that Latin America is very much in a place of shift and a lot of tension.

This sounds like a very layered exploration — and that might explain why you decided to use mixed media to help tell the story.

Yes. The mixed media element is the same as dance. We don't need to use words — with images we can represent an emotion, an ideal, a sensation. We don't need to then describe it with words.  And it gives more space for other interpretations.

(This interview has been edited and condensed.)

RUTAS panamericanas International Performing Arts Festival is on now through October 16. ImShift plays October 7th at 8:30pm and October 9th at 2pm.


Amanda Parris writes a weekly column for CBC Arts and is the host of Exhibitionists on CBC Television and Marvin's Room on CBC Radio. In her spare time, she writes plays and watches too many movies. In her past lives she wrote arts based curriculum, attended numerous acting auditions, and dreamed of being interviewed by Oprah.