Telling the story of Montreal through hands

The exhibit celebrates the diversity of Montreal through images of hands holding valuable objects.

Courtesy l’mmigrant

Photos of hands line the walls of Native Immigrant. In one image, a man clutches his guitar and in another, a woman holds earrings that she purchased from a Finnish thrift store while looking for wedding accessories. All of the items have one thing in common - the value they hold to the person.

“The goal of the project is to show how diverse Montreal is,” said Tetyana Tsomko, the founder of Immigrant, a non-governmental organization that inspires and supports newcomers as they integrate into Canada. “...To showcase how diverse we are and how beautiful our city is through hands and the objects that the hands hold.”

The Story Your Hands Tell aims to demonstrate the multi-nationality of Montreal, and convey the idea of “common humanness,” regardless of ethnic, cultural, or professional differences. The photos are currently on display at Native Immigrant, a community-based art collective that aims to build bridges between immigrants and First Nations. Tsomko asked the participants to bring an object that holds special significance, whether it be a traditional item or something related to their profession. 

“In this project, we have people that are first, second, third, even fifth-generation immigrants,” she said. “The majority would be the first-generation immigrants from various countries. Some have different origins, but were born here.”

One participant, Mercedes Font, brought a medal depicting Sant Jordi, the patron saint of Catalonia. Font's godmother gave her the medal after her father’s death.  Another participant, Marina Negrivoda, brought a bunch of grapes due to their significance to Moldovan society and agriculture. 

Tsomko explained that when she meets someone, she first looks at their face, and then looks at their hands. She said that hands speak to her and this became the inspiration for the project.

“It was Tetyana [Tsomko]’s ] idea to take photos of hands. It was really interesting for me because I mostly took photos of people, faces, and emotions. Something like this was new for me,” said Tetyana Kaganska, the photographer for the project. 

Kaganska is a Montreal-based photographer who immigrated to Quebec, from Ukraine in 2022. To complete the project, Kaganska held three photoshoots, photographing 22 individuals. 

She took the photos with the help of Richard-Max Tremblay, a Montreal-based photographer and painter, who donated his studio space. In addition to providing a space for the project, Tremblay also brought a valuable object. He brought a small statue modeled after ‘Lo Spinario’  or ‘Boy with a Thorn’ in Italian. 

For Tremblay, the sculpture represented acceptance from his father. While his mother was enthusiastic about Tremblay pursuing art, his father wanted him to have a more prestigious career, such as a doctor or lawyer. 

“My grandmother let me use her basement as a studio space,” he said. The space was granted to him so that his father wouldn’t know about his paintings. “One day, my photo was in the newspaper and my father was shocked. He asked, "where was this photo taken?’” 

Years later, Tremblay’s father gave him the small statue. The gesture was symbolic. Through this gift, it was as if he was “removing a thorn from the sole of his foot” and accepting his son’s art career.

While Tremblay was born in Quebec, he feels connected to England. He explained that growing up in Sherbrooke, Que., a traditionally Loyalist settlement, gave him a strong connection to England. 

“I was born in Quebec but I completed my post-graduate diploma in London. My mother was also born in England and was excited when I moved there because she had an excuse to travel to me,” he said. “So I have always felt like England was my home as well.”

The Story Your Hands Tell will be on display at Native Immigrant until Feb. 25.