Art as Movement: A Conversation with Vancouver-based Artist, Hessed Torres
In June of 2019, I got hired as a Summer Student at the Migrant Workers Centre, a pro-bono legal organization facilitating access to justice for migrant workers located in Vancouver, BC. In my first few days at the office, I was struck by this painting mounted on the wall:
Figure 1. Photo of Painting by Hessed Torres, first showcased at Bahay Migrante in 2017
The painting seen above shows the silhouettes of a mother and child who are located on polar opposite sides of the earth from each other. The mother is seen with a small child who calls for her saying: “nanny!”, while the child on the opposite end calls for her saying: “nanay?” (the Tagalog word for “mother”).
Many thoughts come to mind when I see this painting. For example, it’s made me think about how family separation affects the lives of Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs) and their loved ones. I thought about how many would think that a mother who leaves her family to take care of someone else’s is simply rooted in a mother’s will to sacrifice for the people she loves—not questioning whether much of that will is actually her own.
I thought about the close spelling of “nanny” and “nanay”—the fact that it only takes one letter for these two words to become the other is not purely a matter of coincidence, but shows how easily language translates care work with motherhood.
I think about how the ability for Western women to be economically mobile and claim identities other than motherhood is enabled by the labour of migrant women of colour. More often than I expected, I would mentally come back to this painting, hoping to meet the artist whose art forced me to pause and reflect on these thoughts.
May it be through happenstance or by fate, I had the pleasure of actually meeting Hessed Torres, the artist of this painting in one of my student-led seminars at UBC, back in the fall of 2019. It was a class on Filipin/x Diasporic Literature, and much of what we read about and discussed spoke to the impacts of transnational migration for diasporic Filipinos. Because many of our readings focused on Filipino diasporic experiences through the lenses of caregiving and domestic work (occupations that Filipinos overrepresent abroad), we sought to hear from someone who lived through this particular experience. As it turns out, our seminar leader was connected with someone who knew Hessed, and this connection brought Hessed to attend one of our classes, where she came and shared her experience working as a caregiver in Canada and her journey with integrating her artistic craft with community organizing.
When I chose to write on this topic—how art and activism work together—the amount of time that it took me to relate my experiences through these lenses led me to admit that I do not have a very sophisticated relationship with integrating art with activism. In my time as a migrant justice advocate, I reflected on the ways I have adopted a very singular imaginary of what an activist looks like. Like many who hear the term “activism”, there are certain images that conjure: someone waving banners at political marches or shouting into a megaphone at rallies—but how many of us would think of a painting? How many of us would think of art as a tool for social change?
These questions brought me into a conversation with Hessed Torres, a Vancouver-based artist and migrant justice activist. During our interview, Hessed shares how she integrated her experiences as a caregiver, artist, and community organizer for other migrant workers.
The Caregiver Program, Migrante BC, and PANCIT: Hessed’s Journey towards Migrant Justice Activism
Hessed Torres is a Vancouver-based artist from the Philippines who came to Canada in 2014 through the Caregiver Program. Like Hessed, many Filipina caregivers who come to Canada through this program face isolation, exploitation, and limited access to support networks. In her search for community, Hessed joined Migrante BC in 2015—a community-led migrant rights advocacy group that provides educational sessions for migrant workers to help them understand their rights better, which Hessed first attended. Her time with Migrante led to her to be involved with PANCIT—the Philippine Artists Network for Community Integrative Transformation Art Collective, where she led painting lessons for migrant workers.
The effects of these workshops were twofold: she was able to understand her experiences as a migrant domestic worker and grow as an artist. Hessed shares:
“One of the ways they [Migrante BC] helped me was providing me with painting lessons...at the time, I was painting and getting to know the medium, getting to know what it’s like to touch the brush on the canvas. With that, they started to encourage me to express my experience as a migrant worker”.
“Having met those challenges as a caregiver, I was frustrated and I started to ask questions as to why I was feeling abused and taken advantage of” she continues. “And then I met people at Migrante and they helped me understand my situation”.
As Hessed shares, the nature of immigration streams like the Caregiver Program directly affects migrant workers and their ability to find community. The Caregiver Program in particular grants eligibility for Permanent Residency after 2 full years of work experience that caregivers must complete in 4 years. This forces care workers to work long hours under exploitative conditions, which limits their access to adequate support networks and furthers their precarity. Groups like Migrante BC help migrant workers understand their circumstances and more importantly—act on this knowledge towards better futures for themselves and their community. In the next half of our interview, Hessed shares how art configures into this political ‘activation’ process.
Art as a medium of social change
For Hessed, art is able to move people in ways that other, more direct, ways of political organizing may not do:
“Sometimes people don’t really like attending educational [sessions]. Sometimes they just like to express themselves through movement or through art, and that’s a good tool to drive home your points across” .
She continues: “Activism to me is like art in that you’re an individual coming into the movement, but more than yourself as an individual, you have to take into consideration the experiences of others around you. Like art, you move not only as an individual but also thinking and being compassionate and being thorough in what you express...making sure that you share yourself individually but you never forget your community and you never forget that there is a greater purpose to what you do as an individual”.
Art is powerful when people are able to see themselves in a work. How does it work to ‘activate’ people? For Hessed, the ambiguity with art helps open up conversations about social issues:
“Art is very subjective. It really depends on the seer to understand what they’re looking at. Compared to educational [sessions], which sometimes some Filipinos don’t have the patience to read or discuss, they would rather use their hands or bodies to express….If we strive to give other venues for Filipinos to grow and come together, it’s better….[Art] is like an open ended statement or question which people are more inclined to talk about or have conversations on. When you talk about it, you build relationships. When you build really good relationships, they start to understand why you do the work you do, and art really opens up those relationships.”
Migration is an invisibilizing and isolating experience for diasporic Filipinos, and this is even reflected in the language associated with the word ‘diaspora’. When I look up its meaning on the Internet, several synonyms appear: “disperse”, “scattering”, “away from”, and according to one dictionary website, the opposite of diaspora is “return”.
When you’re part of the diaspora, the effects of physical and figurative distance can manifest itself in different ways. The former entails the wistful feeling of not bearing a corporal presence in the homeland, as if you’re missing out on all things Filipino because you had to be there—like having major FOMO, but make it diasporic. The latter is how you feel when you arrive and settle in a new country with people who don’t look like you, who then take every opportunity to remind you of your difference in ways that make you feel like there is an obvious discrepancy between you and them—where although you might be breathing the same air, you’re still made to feel like you are worlds apart.
The seemingly rigid, literary boundaries of synonyms and antonyms does not limit their ability to allude to the material and metaphoric consequences of distance. As diasporic peoples, we may find ourselves always trying to negotiate with distance. We may find ourselves constantly trying to reconcile our feelings of being “scattered”, “dispersed”, and “away from” each other. Perhaps it’s comforting to know that the opposite of “diaspora” is the word “return”, because it explains how I have come to negotiate with distance as a diasporic Filipina: by always seeking a “return”—to the pieces of myself that migration seems to render missing, to kinship bonds that help me translate embodied experiences that I seem to never find the words for, and to the histories of resistance that have enabled us joy, love, and healing—in spite of our shared experiences of trauma, grief, and pain.
As Hessed alluded to, art enables us to make ourselves legible to each other—it enables “returning” to one another. It’s here that this ‘activation’ process happens—when people are able to access spaces that encourage them to ask questions, to foster and build relationships founded on collective experiences, and to turn these relationships into movements where better possibilities are imagined.
My conversation with Hessed leaves me hopeful towards a future where there are other opportunities for diasporic Filipinos to participate in activism—where our definitions and imaginaries of activists include painters, photographers, illustrators, and other artists that do the work to galvanize their people towards alternative futures—where creativity will continue to facilitate these processes of “returning”.
Hessed Torres in discussion with the artist, July 2021.
Torres, Hessed. 2016. Painting. Bahay Migrante, Vancouver BC.
Hannah Balba is a Filipina writer settled on the traditional lands of the Coast Salish peoples. She recently graduated from the University of British Columbia with a BA in History and Critical Studies in Gender, Race, Sexuality, and Social Justice. Her research and writing focuses on the intersections of race and gender in relation to precarious migrancy and care work. Alongside writing, Hannah is an avid boxer, reader, and macaron maker. She is currently co-editing an issue for Decomp Journal called “Translate Me Not: New Filipin/x Writing and Art” , a zine that will explore how Filipinos navigate through un/translatability. You can find more of her work on Sa Pagitan, as well as on her Instagram @missbalba.