Immigrant Women of Inspiration 2017: the creative journeys of five female artists
Friday, February 10, 2017

Canadian Immigrant presents our fourth annual “Immigrant Women of Inspiration” special — for 2017, we chose the theme of immigrant women in the arts. In previous years, we have featured women in academia, entrepreneurship and female empowerment, but this year, we wanted to showcase how some extraordinary immigrant women are making lives and careers for themselves artistic paths.

Despite the challenges and stiff competition to make it in such creative fields, these five women — flamenco artist Rosario Ancer,  singer and TV host Ria Jade, visual artist Unaiza Karim, filmmaker Min Sook Lee and contemporary dancer Yvonne Ng —  showcase what a combination of talent, passion and determination can achieve.

While these women come from diverse cultural backgrounds, art forms and even generations, they all have inspirational stories — and advice — about pursuing their artistic dreams, and making an impact along the way.

 Here are their stories …

Rosario Ancer

Flamenco innovator

For Rosario Ancer, artistic and executive director of Flamenco Rosario Vancouver and the International Flamenco Festival, witnessing a live flamenco performance for the first time in her native Mexico set her soul on fire.

“The cry of the singer, the strum of the guitars, the female dancing — it really captured something that my soul was searching for,” Ancer explains. “I could not be at peace until I moved to Spain to study this complex art form.”

Move to Spain she did, staying there for several years pursuing a deep and meaningful education in all things flamenco, particularly on the theatrical side. It was there she also met her husband — a Canadian flamenco guitarist — and became a mother.

“We were both touring and it became too difficult as parents, so we decided to move back to Vancouver for two years, then to Mexico for three,” she says, adding that she launched a flamenco school and a performance group in her home country during that time. “In 1989, my husband really wanted to return to Canada, and I had to follow him.”

Though she left her family and, for the most part, her cultural background and heritage in Mexico, moving permanently to Vancouver sparked a creative flame in Ancer that has yet to be extinguished.

“That was July [when we arrived in Canada] and in September I started teaching,” she says. In 1990, she produced her first flamenco festival at the Vancouver East Cultural Centre. From there “everything grew,” and in a few short years her Vancouver International Flamenco Festival moved to a larger venue at the Vancouver Playhouse. It celebrated 25 years in September 2016.

“It was hard at first because there wasn’t much of a flamenco community in this city,” Ancer says. “There were some people teaching the dance, but there had never been a school in Vancouver with a progressive approach to learning, nor a school where you could learn flamenco all year round with a mentor.”

Also challenging was warming Canadians up to the idea that flamenco is not simply a folk dance, but a rich, experimental and experiential art form.

“When I came here, most people viewed flamenco as entertainment performed in a Spanish restaurant. Yes, you can do that, but there is so much more to it,” says Ancer, who received the prestigious Lola Award in August from Vancouver’s Dance Centre. “I had to start the shift to get people to think beyond the clichés.”

One method she used to accomplish her goal was to choreograph works that were deeply meaningful to her and drew from her own life experiences — in her own words, “I felt the need to say something with my dance, both as a dancer and a creator.”

One of these works, Los Cuatro Vientos: The Four Powers, was inspired by the four directional winds that bring with them gifts and spur on the cycle of life. Ancer took the theme a step further, connecting it to immigrants who come to Canada from the north, east, south and west with skills, experiences and cultures to contribute. A second work, Mis Hermanas, tells the story of her own relationship with her sisters, who all remain in Mexico.

“Part of my heart is still in Mexico and part of it is still in Spain, but I am Canadian now and this country is also part of my identity,” says Ancer. “When something very personal becomes universal, when many people connect to it on different levels, this is what art is.”

Rosario’s success tips

“I think there is a bias when it comes to women, including immigrant women, who are driven to succeed at whatever it is they do. My advice is not to give in to the critics, who may call you vicious and stubborn rather than determined. You may have to fight a little harder than others, but have no fear. Always be yourself in your creations; if you do good work, meaningful work, eventually it will be recognized.”

Ria Jade

Songstress with heart

There are lots of fabulous singers around, but what separates those who just dream of being a musical artist and those who are living it? Talent? Sure. Connections? They help. Determination. Definitely.

But, perhaps most important of all, is the willingness to put yourself out there. Over and over again, even in the face of criticism and bullying.

Ria Jade understands all this well.

Born in the Philippines, Jade, 19, has been singing for what seems like her whole life. “There’s a picture of me at two years old singing karaoke in the Philippines,” she says with a chuckle.

Her love of singing only intensified after she came to Canada as a child. She sang her heart out on the local competition and performance circuit, especially within the Filipino community. But she was bullied for her efforts by kids at school. They also taunted her about her appearance and weight.

“They said, ‘you’re never going to make it,’” says Jade, who consequently struggled with anxiety and panic attacks, as well as body image issues that led to a battle with the eating disorder anorexia.

As she grew into a teenager, the multi-talented musician — she plays keyboard/piano, guitar and bass — began to better understand her mental health issues, and decided not to let the bullying keep her from her love of music. In fact, those tough times often served as inspiration in her own songwriting.

Jade has since produced and released her own music, with the unwavering support of her manager mom, Jackie Dee. She released an EP called Miss Volcano, in June 2016, with seven original songs available on iTunes, Amazon and Spotify, and is currently fine-tuning a new single “Cherry Cola” that she plans on releasing very soon. She is often asked to perform her twist on alternative, blues, rock and indie pop at local events and venues, both in the Filipino community and more mainstream avenues like the Abbotsford Agrifair, Enchant Christmas Light Maze and the upcoming indie talent showcase RAW Vancouver on March 2, 2017.

Last February 2016, she was centre stage at Rogers Arena for the Balancing Our Minds (BOM) youth summit in Vancouver. There she sang her song “Snowflakes,” a touching melody about bullying inspired in part by the memory of Amanda Todd, a 15-year-old B.C. girl, who committed suicide after being severely bullied online.

“The song is about being fragile as a snowflake. We’re all so unique and beautiful and yet fragile,” says Jade who won a 2016 Music and/or Sound Award from Reel 2 Real International Film Festival for the song’s music video, which she also wrote and edited.

Motivated to help others dealing with mental health issues and bullying, Jade speaks out on the topic, and has even started a movement called Paint it Purple, to support mental health, equality, LGBTQ and empowerment. She’s planning a Paint it Purple Fashion Gala later in 2017.

“Since I was young, I always felt this drive to be out there for others and be vocal about what I care about,” Jade says.

Vancouverites might also recognize Jade as host of her own entertainment TV talk show, EveRIAthing on Shaw Multicultural Channel.

“I was performing at an event in the Filipino community and there were having technical difficulties with the equipment. So I just started talking to the audience so it wouldn’t be awkward. A  Filipino producer from Shaw Multicultural Channel saw me and asked me if I was interested in doing some hosting,” she says, adding it was just about being at the right place at the right time.

The busy songstress and TV host, who dabbles as a reporter on another Shaw TV show Indie MixTape, is also back in school, studying hairdressing. She says she wants to be able to support herself financially while she continues to pursue her music. “It’s such a competitive industry. While I hope to find a place in music, I don’t want to be struggling to support myself.”

Though she admits she’d love to be picked up by a recording label, Jade says, “I still have so much to learn. But I’m writing every single day, whenever I have free time.

“Everything has happened so far for a reason. Everything happens at the right time.”

Ria’s motivational tip

“I would definitely encourage people not to give up. Just because they say you can’t, prove that you can. Don’t be afraid to speak from your heart.”

Unaiza Karim

Illuminating artist

Award-winning visual artist Unaiza Karim began her career as a secondary school teacher in the United Kingdom, teaching and providing in-class support to children of refugees. Life has come full circle for Karim in Canada. She, along with a group of private sponsors, was recently instrumental in getting a Syrian family to relocate to Oakville, a Toronto-area suburb.

“Earlier last year, myself and anyone I spoke to were just shell shocked by the images of the [Syrian] people having to leave their homes. We really thought we are living such comfortable lives and I don’t know how these people are managing given the things they are facing. We decided we couldn’t just watch this without doing something,” said Karim in a recent newspaper interview.

Her selfless actions are certainly inspiring. But Karim is also inspirational in her artistic pursuits, having carved a niche for herself in the art world, specializing in decorative arts from the Islamic tradition. Armed with a master’s degree in visual Islamic and traditional arts from the Prince’s School of Traditional Art in London, she has a special interest in the art of books and illuminated manuscripts. Today, the self-employed artist of Pakistani heritage is on a mission to make such art accessible to everyone.

“Illumination is a very specific skill. It’s about the art of the book itself — the binding, handwriting, calligraphy, and so on,” she explains. “Illumination is about decorating the writing and adorning the picture books with patterns in order to illustrate the stories. I focus on the decorative element of the book: the title, margin, top and bottom of page. I want to distill what I know to make it more accessible to people who have little or no knowledge of such a specialized art form,” she says.

Karim herself was inspired by scholar Martin Lings, the author of The Quranic Art of Calligraphy and Illumination, after attendinga lecture of his. On his advice, Karim sought out a classically trained teacher in Turkey who taught illumination at Istanbul’s Mimar Sinan Fine Arts University.

Arriving in Canada in 2011, Karim started scouting out local markets and arts shows in Toronto to get a feel of the arts scene in the city.

“I set up my own classes,” she says. “I got together six to eight elementary school students and gave them an immersive experience in the arts. For example, one session would be Persian miniature painting or Ottoman art. We would sit on the floor and do drawing exercises. I did art sessions in schools, birthday parties and events at community centres.”

Her training as an educator further motivated her to devise programs for a wide array of people. “I discovered a huge interest in art by people who did not have any formal training, but wanted to have an experience. They wanted a day of relaxation — an artistic getaway if you please,” she says with a laugh.

Karim, a busy mother of two, recently wrapped up some interesting projects, including offering courses at the Aga Khan Museum in Toronto on the floral forms decorating manuscripts in the museum’s permanent collection, and a range of freehand and guided drawing and painting techniques.

Having exhibited extensively including at the Gardiner in Toronto with a collaborative exhibit called Bullets to Butterflies (inspired by Noble Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai), Karim is looking to start on a new body of work this year. She is also planning an entrepreneurship-themed event for children where they can raise funds for a cause by selling handmade works of art.

“People are interested in experiencing something unique and if you find your niche and find innovative ways to get that out to the public, the possibilities are boundless,” says Karim.

Unaiza’s advice for artists

“Find other artists — you will be amazed at the amount of information you can find. Get to know your local neighbourhood, scout out what’s going on in the art world and be proactive.”

Min Sook Lee

Meaningful filmmaker

Min Sook Lee likes to ponder complex social questions like racism, inequality and nationalism, and she uses the art of storytelling to raise awareness of these ideas. As a documentary filmmaker, she gives a voice to the voiceless, and puts a spotlight on issues that have no easy answers. She’s an artist … she’s an activist.

Chatting with Lee, who also teaches a course on art and social change at the Ontario College of Art and Design University, is like taking a master class in the issues of migration, race and belonging in Canada — themes that are central to her latest film project, Migrant Dreams.

One of the Top 10 films at the 2016 Hot Docs Canada International Film Festival, Migrant Dreamsunmasks the hidden realities of migrant-labour exploitation. It shows the human face of the exploitation that often accompanies the temporary foreign worker program. Working stealthily, with a local activist named Cathy and members of the group Justicia for Migrant Workers, Lee uncovers examples of both mistreatment and environmental hazards.

“[I made] this documentary because I hope it is used as a tool for political change,” according to Lee. “At the same time, the women who participated in the film put their livelihoods at stake. And we were always mindful of this. But the goal is worth fighting for.”

She has focused on the topic of migrant workers in Canada previously, in her film, El Contrato. For this 2003 film, she received the Cesar E. Chavez Black Eagle Award for its impact on the rights of migrant workers.

Lee’s search for meaning in the stories she tells could be traced back to her own early immigration to Canada. She came to Canada as a young child from South Korea in the 1970s, and grew up in downtown Toronto in a working-class family. “I grew up behind the counter of the family store,” she says. “It’s a familiar immigrant story. My parents didn’t speak English. My sisters and I were a bridge between our parents and the country of Canada. We had to translate not just linguistically, but culturally and socially.”

Lee says her family faced a fair bit of racism and she struggled to find a sense of how she belonged in Canada, or whether she really did at all. “As I watched my parents try to navigate the Canadian system and facing economic and cultural challenges, while being themselves targeted by racism, I saw how disempowering it could be. That really informed my place in society.”

She says she didn’t see the stories of immigrants like her reflected around her. “Early on there was an idea of Canada where I didn’t belong and I wanted to challenge that. There is a cultural amnesia that is applied to how the Canadiana story is told and crafted,” she says, explaining it leaves out the stories of certain classes, indigenous people and recent immigrants from 1960s onward. “That, I think, really has been something for me to actively counter and address.”

The medium of documentary filmmaking is effective for telling such stories, but it’s not necessarily an easy artistic path.

“I’ve been working in documentary filmmaking for almost two decades,” Lee says, who explains that sometimes her films are in collaboration with broadcasters and other producers, and sometimes she pursues them as independent productions. “Certainly it’s challenging. We all struggle to find financing and support for our projects. Or then to get it distributed.” For Migrant Dreams, she raised money from multiple funding sources and then filmed for three years. The film was then picked up by Cinema Politica for distribution.

Lee is currently mulling over ideas for a new film on the topic of citizenship, but she has also made films on a variety of topics outside such themes of immigration. She has also investigated the world of policing and politics in Toronto her award-winning film Hogtown. As a mom of two, she wrote a film called My Toxic Baby, about chemical-laden baby products.

In addition to being an immigrant, she says, “I’m a woman, working-class woman, woman in arts and all these different parts of my experience inform my view of society and my approach toward storytelling.”

Min Sook’s takeway

“Find other artists like you with which you can share stories and build solidarity.”


Yvonne Ng

Dance’s tiger princess

Dancer, choreographer, presenter, producer, curator and arts educator, Singapore-born Yvonne Ng wears many artistic hats. Of Peranakan Chinese descent,Ng moved to Canada in the late 1980s, where she completed an honours undergraduate degree in fine arts at York University. But, even before completing her degree, she co-founded dance company Dance Allegro, showing she would be a force to be reckoned with in Toronto’s contemporary dance community.

Since then, she has diligently nurtured an enduring career creating and performing works that reflect both her cultural heritage and her adoptive home of Canada, under her Tiger Princess Dance Projects.

This past November, Toronto’s DanceWorks premiered two of her newest works — a solo, In Search of the Holy Chop Suey, and a trio, Zhong Xin at Harbourfront Centre.

Her curiously named solo has a cool origin story. “In the 80s, there was a TV series called In Search of …  This TV series focused on searching for phenomena like the Loch Ness monster, the Holy Grail, Big Foot, aliens, UFOs and such. But they would never find the ‘thing’ that was the subject of that episode,” she explains. “For me, chop suey is a similar type of phenomena. The dish chop suey was created in the U.S.A. in the 19th century — its tangential relationship to Asia is the migrant workers from China of that time. As a kid in Singapore, I thought it was a Western dish and I coveted everything Western. For me, the ‘phenomenon’ that I am searching for in this choreography and performance is a meaningfulness in my own life.  I have come to believe that like the Loch Ness monster, UFOs or chop suey, the search may never yield one tangible complete thing, only fragments and glimpses.”

The award winning artist who received the Ontario Premier’s Award for Excellence in the Arts – New Talent Award among many other accolades modestly acknowledges the mark she’s made on the contemporary dance scene in Canada. “Naturally, I hope my choreography will be seen as a contribution, but that is not for me to say,” she says. “Probably my most significant contribution has been as an organizer. I run a festival called dance: made in canada / fait au canada and I used to run a monthly series called Series 8:08. Those two programs alone have given paid work to hundreds of choreographers and close to 1,000 dancers over the last 20 years.”

She adds: “It is one thing to train as a dancer and perform in school shows, but to actually work professionally is a completely different experience.”

Ng is now busy preparing for the next installment of dance: made in canada / fait au Canada festival, which is set for August 2017. The festival lineup will be announced soon.

As an immigrant female dancer, Ng is often asked how to get established in Canada’s dance landscape. She has a four-point plan laid out for aspiring dancers who may also be new to the country.

“It begins and ends with what you bring to the job as a dancer. The things to keep in mind are:

  1. Professionalism: that means coming to rehearsals prepared and leaving your cell phone in your bag.
  2. Artistry: don’t be afraid to be yourself artistically. If a choreographer wants to work with you, they want all of you: your personality, your spirit, your individuality.
  3. Technical excellence: you might be talented, beautiful and arrive on time, but that might only take you so far. It takes strong technical ability, adaptability to different aesthetic styles and grit to compete for work in this industry.
  4. Presence: this is the “X” factor and it is something that is innate and difficult to define. Some performers are more compelling when they walk out on stage — it is a type of charisma,” she signs off.

More according to Yvonne …

“Another aspect of professionalism is networking and I would suggest that this has to be done with a true heart. You have to go out and see performances and connect with other artists and audiences.”

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Source: Canadian Immigrant / Margaret Jetelina, Baisakhi Roy and Noa Glouberman

Photo: Yvonne Ng. Photo by Brianna Lombardo