Nfld. & Labrador

'Thinking of you': How an artist from Mexico formed a bond with N.L. history

Visual artist Faune Ybarra connected her own national story to her time in Newfoundland, writes Eva Crocker.

Artist Faune Ybarra connected her own national story to her time in Newfoundland

Artist Faune Ybarra's video Thinking of you, railroad near 6th Ave. is a response to a photograph of a railway track taken over a century ago, on the opposite end of the country. (Submitted by Eva Crocker)

Artist Faune Ybarra's video Thinking of you, railroad near 6th Ave. begins with her standing in the middle of a railroad track in Vancouver. Cars rumble by and birds chirp in the background.

She carefully unfurls a long trail of translucent paper and begins slowly approaching the camera. She lets the breeze lift and twist the paper as she steps over the railroad ties.

Warm summer light makes her silhouette visible through the delicate paper as it wraps itself around her and then flutters toward the sky.

As she gets closer to the camera we see a phrase — "thinking of you" — stamped all over the diaphanous paper.  

Thinking of you, railroad near 6th Ave. is a response to a photograph of a railway track taken over a century ago, on the opposite end of the country in Newfoundland.

Originally from Mexico, Ybarra spent four years in Newfoundland developing meaningful relationships with the people and landscape of the island before moving to Vancouver to begin a master's degree in interdisciplinary studies at Simon Fraser University.

The video is part of an ongoing project called The Archive of Embodied Displacement, in which Ybarra responds to images pulled from the archives at Memorial University.

Right now she is focusing on photographs from a book called Through Newfoundland with the Camera by R.E. Holloway, published in 1905. Ybarra describes each of the responses as a  "diasporic gesture," a term she has coined for describing acts that help one feel connected to places they have visited and/or called home. 

"When you're in a place you're not just seeing it; you're sensing it, you're experiencing sounds in your body, the vibrations in the air. I am asking, does that place still exist? Can I still recall that from a distance?" Ybarra asked.

Disrupting the idea of time

The project is also an investigation of how places change when you're not present to see them transforming; both before your arrival and after you've left. During her time in Newfoundland, Ybarra visited Memorial University's Centre for Newfoundland Studies, where she asked to see Through Newfoundland with the Camera.

This Robert Holloway photograph of railway near the Humber River inspired Ybarra, more than a century after it was taken. (Memorial University Digital Archives Initiative)

She was given gloves to wear as she turned the pages, and was asked to avoid breathing too heavily on the fragile book. 

Ybarra found it powerful to interact with this artifact and she says Holloway was a masterful photographer. However, she notes Holloway was able to take photos at that time because he was someone who came from a privileged background. For her, creating this archive as someone who identifies as a diasporic subject is also a way of questioning who gets to define what belongs in an archive. 

"Of course I'm trying to disrupt the idea of time and the idea of neutrality inside institutions that collect these archives and pass them as the 'realest' version of  history," Ybarra said.  

Looking through Holloway's photographs, she found a stretch of railroad track in Corner Brook that she recognized. Ybarra was struck by how much the island must have been changed by the closure of the railway.

Originally from Mexico, Ybarra spent four years in Newfoundland developing meaningful relationships with the people and landscape of the island. (Submitted by Eva Crocker)

A connection with railways

She was also reminded that Mexico had similarly been connected by a cross-country rail system that no longer exists. 

"All those stops are no longer there, so what happened to all those places and spaces that defined multiple generations that I never got to meet?" she said.

"I started thinking that the spaces I was a part of are not the spaces they were a long long time ago."

Ybarra had been looking forward to returning to Newfoundland this spring to continue work on the Archive of Embodied Displacement through Eastern Edge Gallery's artist in residency Program.

This is R.E. Holloway's photograph of an iceberg in St. John's harbour. (Centre for Newfoundland Studies)

However, the COVID-19 pandemic made travelling to the island impossible. She found herself poring over digital scans of Holloway's book instead of flipping through the physical copy.

This unexpected distance adds to the feeling of longing that permeates the work and also allowed Ybarra's newest home to find its way into the Archive of Embodied Displacement.

Another piece in Ybarra's archive is a response to Holloway's striking photograph of an iceberg in St. John's harbour. Ybarra projects the image onto the wall above her bed in Vancouver, her crumpled blankets like a choppy sea beneath the photograph. She is planning to film herself dancing between the wall and the projection with a white sheet wrapped around her, turning the iceberg into a moving sculpture.

Ybarra explained that in this performance her own body will represent her connection to Mexico, weaving together three places that she has forged deep connections with through her relationship to the people there and the landscapes she explored. 


Faune Ybarra will be giving an online artist talk about the Archive of Embodied Displacement on June 27 at 6 p.m. NT. You will need to register in advance. Details are available on the Eastern Edge Gallery website or its Facebook page.

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

About the Author

Eva Crocker is a writer living in St. John's.

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