Fuelled by an interest in socio-economic and political situations, Nadine Stijns’ long-term photographic projects focus on migration, diasporic communities, and national identity in post-colonial regions. For A Nation Outside a Nation (2012 – 14), the Netherlands-based artist draws attention to overseas Filipino workers and the evolution of their communities and cultural practices abroad. Her extensive series evolved from years of watching the interactions of her partner’s Filipino family in Southern California and the Philippines. Looking at various groups around the globe, Stijns explores this large-scale phenomenon of labour migration—an essential reality for many Filipino families—from the perspective of the small-scale exchange of tax-free goods that occurs across borders: specifically, the custom of the balikbayan box. This “repatriate” box made of cardboard is the contemporary, global version of a traditional ritual of gift giving known as pasalubong.
Stijns describes the box, and the interchange between Filipino expatriates and Philippines residents, as an ideal symbol of the tangible and intangible experiences of migrants: “More than foreign gifts and supplies, it’s an act of giving, an offering, and a sign of new possibilities.” Her images capture these pragmatically packed boxes and their diverse contents—which range from typical items such as clothing and packaged food, to large sundry objects including furniture and tires—and reveal the circumstances of their packaging, within both domestic and industrial contexts. Stijns documents the precious goods, meticulously arranged and stacked, in settings infused with the colours and patterns of homes in the Philippines or the accumulation of wrapped cargo at the transport agency.
For this iteration of A Nation Outside a Nation, the interior spaces of two adjacent shipping containers at The Bentway—pre-existing onsite with built-in seating areas—are transformed by Stijns’ site-specific installation. Photographs of seemingly random, often quirky gatherings of packaged contents—including stacks of clothes hangers, jars of Nutella, and piles of stuffed toys—cover an assortment of boxlike objects that fill one space, alluding to the original function of these shipping containers, as though they are being prepared to go back into circulation. Alongside these images of balikbayan boxes and their contents, a large-scale photograph capturing a gathering of Filipino women in the Netherlands reveals the intrinsic sense of identity formation that permeates the work, and provides a backdrop for a social space that invites interaction.
Set within the context of The Bentway—a gathering place located underneath the Gardiner Expressway and near the lakeshore—A Nation Outside a Nation opens up conversation around migration and how new communities can come together through evolving traditions. The perpetual movement of people and vehicles in this area echoes the continuous back and forth that the custom of the balikbayan box entails. Acknowledging the Filipino networks, and caregivers, that help build this city’s cultural identity, and the importance of maintaining familial bonds and connections to their homeland, Stijns illuminates one of many cultural customs thriving in the midst of Toronto’s highly diverse population, where migrants are a driving force.
The artist thanks Forex LA, Forex Manila, and the United Migrant Domestic Workers.