by Andrea Charise
For the past few years I have had the privilege of teaching “Aging and the Arts,” a semester-long senior seminar at the University of Toronto Scarborough. Each cohort has introduced their own new insights into the content, yet this most recent offering (Fall 2018) was especially notable. Blessed with a small group of dedicated Health Studies students, together we were able to push the creative and intellectual boundaries of what pre-health-professional university coursework could be. Using a practice known as digital storytelling, each student created their own multimedia response to the prompt, “what is it to grow old?”, drawing deeply from a divergent—yet resonant—assemblage of personal, social, cultural, and creative resources.
What you see here are the digital stories included in the exhibition Inter/Generate: Remixing Scarborough’s Stories of Aging, held at Gallery 1265, University of Toronto Scarborough, January 14-23,, 2019. How might we, both individually and as a society, creatively generate new visions of what it means to grow old? In Becoming/Aging, Kristen Cain defies the thriving sources of ageism in contemporary western society, from the youth-obsessed beauty industry to the ableist revulsion of the aging body. Yet the tenderness of Cain’s insights is evident in the reframing of aging’s temporal process as endurance, transformation, and accomplishment. “The architecture is a marvel / not for what it was, but what it is”: Becoming/Aging invites us to reclaim, and lastingly occupy, the monumental space between aging and becoming.
Like Cain, Fredriz Cantilado explores the imagination of aging outside of its conventionally limiting constraints. In Seities, the palindrome (a word, phrase, or other sequence which reads the same backward as forward, like racecar or this work’s title) becomes Cantilado’s method for disrupting the habit of experiencing aging as a one-way ticket from birth, to life’s peak, to decline and death. Just as a breath, the vital sign of one’s birth into being, also signals our final departure from life, Seities invites viewers to inhabit their own growing old as a cyclical process of generative repetition.
What does it mean to age in a world where globalization can interrupt the very possibility of intergenerational kinship? Gulamhussein Khalfan’s My Happy Days recounts the story of his own migration from Mombasa, Kenya, to Toronto, Canada, at the age of 43. Three decades later, at the age of 73, Khalfan describes the challenges and rewards that preceded his retirement: the loss and gain of a homeland, the continuity of his ancestral roots, the intergenerational transmission of culture, music, and the intricate meanings of living through time.
Kaamil Khalfan’s The Contours of Generation stands on its own as a candid, deeply sensitive, reflection on the meaning of aging. Yet Khalfan’s reflections at the age of 21 also form an evocative intergenerational pendant to his grandfather’s story (My Happy Days). From the standpoint of a younger generation, Khalfan explores how “Overcoming a physical migration like [my grandfather’s] is not my obstacle. Overcoming an imaginative migration is mine.” Exploring comparable themes, Angelus Baliwas’s Departure asks readers to grapple with how migration shapes—or erases—narratives of lifecourse, aging, and conventional assumptions regarding generational connection. In a moving lyrical exploration of pain, loss, and self-reflection, Baliwas reckons with the realization that “One generation’s pursuit of a better life / Meant abandoning another.”
How might creative responses to aging be shared across space, time, and generations? As the closing contribution to this collection, Aretina Chan’s Aging With Splendour explores the shared qualities of bodily aging and the artistic labours of sculpture. Stone, despite its appearance, is fragile under the sculptor’s chisel; likewise with aging, if we are to face the reality of bodily vulnerability, so must we accept “the risk of chipping away too much, the risk of failure, the risk of catastrophe.” The basic tools of reimagining aging are simple yet effective. As Chan instructs, “Embrace the tactility / Flow into the stone / The possibilities are endless.”