Cut and Pasta

Through a deconstruction of Western advertising conventions, mixed media artist Tonia Di Risio presents audiences with a commentary on the construction of identity.

For many children of diasporic communities, the mind can be a battlefield. Though born and bred with roots in one country, it is nonetheless incumbent upon them to preserve the language and traditions of another, distant land of which they usually only have secondhand knowledge. As a result, they often struggle to articulate a simple answer when asked what they are. It is this crossroad that serves as the basis for Tonia Di Risio’s “Parts and Labour” at Toronto’s Red Head Gallery.

The collages that comprise the series are informed by Di Risio’s ongoing investigation of her identity as a first generation Italian-Canadian. Here, she seeks to maintain connections to her heritage through a means to which she has easy access: mainstream Western media. Her collages are assembled from snippets she has gathered from the pages of various food and design magazines, resulting in a body of work which stimulates the appetite as much as it stimulates contemplation.

Falling Roll, via Tonia Di Risio

Upon entering the exhibit, viewers are met by a piece called “Knead”. Not only does the title refer to the work’s depiction of kneading dough, but it is also a play on the word “need”, which epitomizes the driving force of the show; the artist’s own need to maintain ties to her culture, even as those ties grow increasingly tenuous with the passage of time.

The collages become more eccentric as the exhibit unfolds, featuring mountains fashioned from bricks of cheese as seen in “Eclipse Lounge”, as well as a chandelier emerging from a pasta maker in “Thin Strings”. Yet, despite the apparent playfulness of Di Risio’s works, they are nevertheless tinged with an underlying melancholy. The butterfly-like farfalle in “Farfalle and Fauna”, flying from a saucer-shaped light fixture towards a landscape dotted with grazing deer, takes on a darker air when considered in tandem with the suspicion with which many Italians in Canada were perceived during World War II. Viewed as “alien spies”, many were separated from their families and sent to internment camps, where some were detained until the end of the war.

Opera Crust, via Tonia Di Risio

This dual nature of Di Risio’s collages, their ability to be both whimsical and unsettling, speaks to the conflicted upbringing of many first generation children. In a society fixated on definitive labels, there is little tolerance for identities that are not easily defined. Thus, a need often arises among children of immigrants to “prove” their ethnic authenticity to the world around them, as well as to themselves.

Indeed, issues regarding cultural authenticity loom large over “Parts and Labour”. Jars of pre-packaged tomatoes and sauces span several of Di Risio’s collages, the advertisements from which they were gleaned likely all promising readers “real” tastes of Italy. Bernini-like busts perch on top of fireplaces as kitschy home accessories in “Cream”. In “Opera Crust”, the Tower of Pisa threatens to collapse upon the melted cheese and chocolate mousse from which it has been partially constructed. Dozens of pairs of disembodied hands, scattered throughout many of the images, work tirelessly to cook and bake. As much as they celebrate the trappings of the Italian people, Di Risio’s arrangements reveal a rich and long-standing culture reduced to the things it produces for consumption, and the irony that these items are gradually becoming the artist’s most direct means of connecting to her own background.

“Parts and Labour” brings to light the complexity of living between cultures. As her Italian heritage is increasingly mainstreamed, bought and sold, Di Risio expresses a desire to be seen as part of something, rather than merely the sum of her parts.

Tonia Di Risio’s “Parts and Labour” was on display at Red Head Gallery from April 29 — May 23. Visit for more information about the artist and her work.

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