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Photo credit Raeann Cheung

Navigating Immigration: Chinese Canadian artist Raeann Kit-Yee Cheung explores identity and heritage in her new exhibition

By Aimee Koristka, May 6 2024—

Her dignified stance and warm expression greet me, though her soft smile does not fully reach her eyes. Arms resting at her waist, her hands gently hold the handle of a translucent suitcase. The only things packed inside—five wide, googly-eyed goldfish—catch me off guard. 

The woman staring back at me is the mother of Raeann Kit-Yee Cheung, the artist behind TRUCK Contemporary Art Gallery’s latest exhibit, Pilot Astronauts. Referring to the term “astronaut families”, Cheung’s exhibit explores the reality of ‘astronaut households’, where one family member, often the father, remains in, or returns to, East Asia to maximize financial earnings while the rest of the family remains in North America. Representing her mother’s perspective through the seventies to the ninties, Pilot Astronauts features a dizzying collection of photographs detailing the experience of “astronaut mothers”—”pilots” with the responsibility of navigating both a new household and a new culture.

On the walls, mugshots of black-and-white household items box you inside the life of Cheung’s mother: rubber gloves and Titan Carpenter’s Glue, binding head screws and glass cleaner. In the achromatic grid of the tools of women’s unseen labour, it can be difficult to locate the person behind the travail of household maintenance. Yet in the heart of the exhibit, the pilot’s life beyond her familial duties becomes clear. She holds a screwdriver as if it’s a lit cigarette, she wears cardigans that are as soft as tofu pudding and, as her suitcase suggests, she is a lover of animals.

“As a point of departure for this series,” writes Cheung as part of the exhibit, “I recall a bazaar incident when Mother insisted on carrying live goldfish back to Canada. A baffling idea then but in hindsight, she was perhaps longing to find home.”

It is here where Cheung most aptly succeeds at the goal of her exhibition, to locate and celebrate the strength and humanity of early astronaut mothers. Though aspects of the exhibit are exceptionally explicit—frosted plexiglass hangs among the photos with phrases such as  “Split family arrangement / Solo parenting / foreign culture”—the dizzying combination of whirring gobo lights and blurred goldfish photographs forces you to wonder how astronaut mothers ever navigated both their newfound loneliness and freedom.

I can hear another exhibit from the open doorway; high-energy R&B. It is a distracting onslaught of modern North American culture. It’s invasive, isolating and unreserved; it’s eerily on theme.

Pilot Astronauts is currently on display at the Parkade Project Space at TRUCK Contemporary Art Gallery until June 1, 2024. Admittance to the exhibition is free, with more information (including accessibility information) available at TRUCK Contemporary’s website. Cheung’s workIf We Could Meet Again (2022)—can next be seen at the Alberta Foundation for the Arts Here & Now exhibition hosted by the Royal Alberta Museum, open April 17.

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