Vincenzo Pietropaolo exhibit at Marilyn I. Walker

Photo Credit: Experience Brock U.

Photo Credit: Experience Brock U.

The Italian Immigrant Experience, A Photography Exhibition by Vincenzo Pietropaolo in conjunction with the Italian Canadian Archives Project is an exhibition that was displayed at Brock’s own Marilyn I. Walker building. The exhibition celebrates Italian immigrants in Canada.

This exhibition features 50 photographs from the books Ritual and Not Paved with Gold, by Vincenzo Pietropaolo. Many of the photographs pictured workers on construction sites and in factories. They are accompanied by 15 photographs of Italian immigrants working on the Welland Ship Canal. These photographs pay homage to the immigrant experience and showcases their hard work, religion and happiness.

In Not Paved in Gold,  Pietropaolo writes “My father … would inevitably point out certain buildings or sites where he had worked as part of a construction crew. And, again, he would tell me yet another anecdote about the vast quantities of bricks he carried around that site; or the overtime they were required to do, pouring cement in the wintry dark days of November; and sometimes he remembered a job site where an accident occurred because of lax or non-existent safety regulations … I began to realize that my father was not merely a worker, but a builder of my new adopted country.”

The dimly lit photographs of factory workers, both male and female, captured day to day life for Italian immigrants. The photos are from a sock factory and the workers were surrounded by towering stacks of plain white socks, reflecting the repetitive work immigrants were usually required to do.

Along with factory workers, there were many photographs of construction workers. Men both young and old huddled around for photos, posing with their tools on their job site. Photos of railway work, steelwork and construction show the hard, labour intensive work immigrants were willing to do for their new country. Viewing these photographs reminded attendees of the importance and value of immigrant labour. Their hard work, and exploitation, has resulted in fruitful industrial sites like the Welland Ship Canal.

Pietropaolo balanced these photographs of immigrants toiling with joyful photos showing the rich tradition of Italian immigrants. Young girls showing off their brace-filled smiles, laughing at each other and another picture of a senior couple smiling while dancing. The contrast of ages in this collection was striking and accentuated the multi-generational dynamics of immigration.

Religion was also a featured theme in this exhibit. Many of the photographs were filled with swarms of people surrounding religious relics and crucifixes. Other photographs showcased people knelt in prayer. These pictures highlight the heavy religious importance in Italian culture, a value that they carried with them to their new home country.

One photograph that encapsulates the exhibition is of a hand scribing a letter. The first lines read “Canada is a democracy, the govt (government) represents the people.” This captures the immigrant experience in Canada, reminding the audience of the political liberties Canadians enjoy that many others did not have in the past and are still robbed of today. Those seeking asylum often come to Canada in order to enjoy those democratic rights, as seen in the letter photographed.

In Ritual, Pietropaolo writes, “… it is a chapter of working-class culture and immigrant history that has long been overlooked, sometimes dismissively, for its surface colour and ethnic flavour. But herein lies the power of photography: to help you bear witness, and in so doing, becoming empowered to write a history of one’s own.”

This exhibition was a beautiful ode to Italian immigrants. Their labours that helped create Canada and the hardships that they endured to make a new life for themselves.

“The Italian Immigrant Experience: A Photography exhibition by Vincenzo Pietropaolo in conjunction with the Italian Canadian Archives Project” will be viewable until Sunday, October 27,  2019 at 5:00 p.m. at the Marilyn I. Walker School of Fine & Performing Arts, VISA Gallery and Student Exhibition Space. An artist talk will take place on October 26 at 11:30 a.m. at this location.

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