Circumstantial Portraits, a multi-media exhibition by Margarita Fainshtein, saw a well-attended opening at Studio 21 earlier this month.

Fainshtein, a Jewish artist, was born in the Ukraine. In an interview with CBC Radio, Fainshtein said that her family was othered in their home country, a region with a long historical record of antisemitism. Moving from the Ukraine, they hoped that Israel, as a historically significant centre of Jewish faith, would be where they could find a safe sense of home. After living there for a few years, ongoing conflict necessitated that the search for home continue.

Leaving Israel, Fainshtein settled in Canada, another country attempting to navigate the ramifications of its settler-colonial origin, while simultaneously negotiating its relationship to newcomers. Responding to the intersection of international conflicts as experienced on the human level, her experience complicates familiar narratives of diaspora.

Feinstein’s work is deeply personal, drawing on a cross-generation familial archive and connected to a distinct experience of history. The work itself is made up of a mix of punchy resin objects, nesting dolls, and large-scale fabric and paperworks, imbued or etched or printed with identifying documents personally sourced reaching back five generations.

These documents (ID cards, visas, boarding passes, Communist party tickets, passports, birth certificates etc.) are archival way-markers in the search for home. Showing everything and nothing, Fainshtein digitally layers these documents of different languages to the point of illegibility, creating a new visual language or impressionist collage of the experience of an immigrant, as recorded in government paperwork acquired through the process. In obscuring the markers of these identities, Fainshtein renders them universal.

The use of archives is of particular interest for Jewish artists responding to their family history, as the power of the archive is twofold in its role in the Holocaust: the meticulous documentation of Jews and other parties by the Nazis facilitated not only highly organized massacre, but also ultimately acted as evidence against them in trial.

Recreating memories of Ukrainian laundry lines hung with clothespins, the large-scale double-sided relief prints, Thinking With An Accent, evoke the mess of bureaucratic stamps. Layered into submission and pressed into shape, the crushing overlap of the text implicates the material weight of maneuvering immigration, suggesting the paperwork amounting to a human experience.

In lived experience, these kinds of documents are arbitrary and restrictive markers of (state-mandated) identity. But, with so much lost as subsequent generations continue the search for home, sometimes these documents are all we have left of those who came before. The wooden hydro-dipped Nesting Dolls, one doll to represent each of the five generations, establishes a view towards the development of a multicultural experience. Opening up to reveal their interior memory, the many-layered journey towards home is understood as a family affair.

Margarita Fainshtein, Thinking with and Accent Part 1.1, relief print on canvas, 60 x 36 inches (Photo: Ilgar Grace)

Fanshtein’s Self portrait Containers take the form of faux crystal candy dishes, tumblers, and platters. They are recognizable household objects, beloved heirlooms you would pass down through the generations, and carry with you from home to home. But Fainshtein’s containers have been physically imbued with the archive. Clear resin acts like glass, suspending scraps of frayed print within. Here, the medium in service of the aesthetic, offers a blank slate: the nothingness of the file. The crystalline quality is essential, again showing everything and nothing, as further illustrated in her Self Portrait[s] (On Suitcase), where she has laser-etched identifying documents into acrylic suitcases. There is no privacy to be had— where these suitcases to be used to travel, everything inside would be visible to prying eyes. And in theory, they could be used. The objects are apparently functional and fully articulated, a point the gallerist informs me is important to the artist, as I can imagine it would be—immigration demands utility. As an interpreter at the Museum of Immigration at Pier 21, I always pointed out their collection of suitcases to visitors, as they perfectly illustrated the immigrant’s dilemma—often it’s impossible to bring what you really need.

The archival aesthetics Fainshtein employs are universal props of immigration under nationalist bureaucracy, suspended and etched into objects that signify home and travel. The layering of her recovered documents reproduces the layering of identities dictated by each phase of migration, or the layers of culture that may amount to one’s identity.

This exhibition is on view until March 28th, 2023 at Studio 21 Gallery.

Margarita Fainshtein, Self portrait 3 (The Suitcase), etched acrylic, 16 x 22 x 8 inches (Photo: Ilgar Gracie)