Arts·Video

With huge portraits and augmented reality, Madhu Kumar brings you the real voices of immigrant women

Kumar paints giant portraits of immigrant women. But she's found an even bigger way to bring their voices and stories to life — and all you need is your phone.

'When you hear them talk, when you hear their own story in their own voice, you will connect'

Sediqah Galari: A small girl with a big dream, 2016. (Madhu Kumar)

Regina artist Madhu Kumar is no stranger to the many difficulties that are part and parcel of the experience of being an immigrant woman to Canada. She herself emigrated from India to Toronto in 2001, and this journey has given her a deep understanding of the unique struggles experienced by other immigrant women. 

The inspiration for her new project The Stories of Immigrant Women goes back to 2001, when she met a woman in Toronto whose nine-year-old daughter attended elementary school with Kumar's own son. After picking her daughter up, this woman would have to take her child with her to her night job — a grocery store where she worked until 10pm every day. Struck by this, Madhu invited both mother and daughter to begin spending what free time they had at her own home, where she would sit and listen to the mother's stories. And while the resulting project is made up of massive portraits and augmented reality (just point your phone at any of the paintings and you'll actually hear the women's stories in their own words), perhaps the most important element of the project is the importance of active listening.

Watch the video:

Artist Madhu Kumar has found a way to blend portraits with the actual stories of women whose voices often go unheard. Filmmaker: Jeremy Ratzlaff 3:26

The biggest obstacle facing these women, says Kumar, is that dreaded language barrier, which creates profound loneliness. That woman who accidentally gave you muffins instead of doughnuts during your Tim Horton's rush? She's doing everything she possibly can to understand your order as you speak quickly, to understand the culture of a new place and even to understand the machines she's never worked with before. She may also be working a second job, and her children may not even know the extent to which she makes sacrifices so that she may prioritize their wellbeing.

This was certainly the case with one woman we followed up with for this video: Sediqah, a single mother who would clean at the casino between midnight and 9am before heading out again to her second job at 4pm. As the cameras rolled, she tearfully thanked Kumar for giving her a rare opportunity to be heard. In response to these kinds of situations, Kumar says, "I want this powerful tool — my art — to be a platform where these woman can shout, and scream, and tell everyone their stories."

Madhu Kumar and Sediqah Galari embrace. (CBC Arts)

Visiting her exhibit in person, you not only take in the faces painted on the large, beautiful canvases but can also pull out your smartphone and, thanks to augmented reality, watch the canvas be replaced with a recorded video where the women in the paintings tell their own stories verbally. Kumar explains that this is so "you can hear their accents. That also is important: English is not our first language."

If you download the free app Artivive available for both iPhone and Android, you can hold it up to the paintings embedded in this article and watch them come to life, just as you would in the Saskatchewan Legislative Building's Cumberland Gallery, where Kumar's exhibit has been extended into the summer months thanks to its popularity. I encourage you to not only look at their faces but listen to their stories and allow yourself a glimpse into the profound struggles faced by many new Canadians. 

Madhu Kumar can be found here or on Facebook here.

Naeila Alshatir: Hope, 2018. (Madhu Kumar)
Elsa W. Michael: Walking for peace and working hard for success, 2018. (Madhu Kumar)
Nesita Watsemwa: A story of desperation, defeats and triumph, 2018. (Madhu Kumar)

Stream CBC Arts: Exhibitionists or catch it on CBC Television Friday nights at 11:30pm (12am NT) and Sundays at 3:30pm (4pm NT). Watch more videos here.

About the Author

Jeremy is a self-taught filmmaker living in rural Saskatchewan, somehow still finding opportunities to tell creative stories with a camera. He can be found at jeremyratzlaff.com.