Growing up in Toronto’s Little Portugal, connecting with his cultural roots wasn’t all that important to Danny Custodio.
“I was immersed with it, but I never really felt very connected. And then again, growing up and becoming a teenager, I sort of found myself sort of fading away from that a little bit more,” the 39-year-old artist told CBC Toronto.
It wasn’t until his last years at the Ontario College of Art and Design that the photographer and visual artist got interested in exploring the culture and what it meant to him.
“I started to incorporate some of the Portuguese traditional art practices into my work, where I started to really sort of connect back and instead of looking back into the past and thinking about my family’s experience within the culture, I started to really connect and make it my own,” he said.
Custodio, who now lives in St. Catharines, Ont., began researching Portuguese tile work and flower carpets and used his medium of photography to capture the essence of Portuguese culture through his lens.
“I was also looking at some of these practices that weren’t done really for art making,” Custodio said.
“So, the Portuguese tile work … done in front of buildings, the sort of homage that you would see in front of Portuguese homes, with what’s called Azulejo … and some of these flower carpets that are made. [I’m] thinking about how these non-traditional artists are making artworks and continuing these art practices in a cultural way.”
He says that helped him bridge art and his culture and connect that back to Canadian contemporary art.
For example, traditionally, flower carpets from Portugal are made with flora found nearby in the region. In the same way, Custodio gathers materials from his backyard or his neighbourhood in St. Catharines to make art that speaks to him and reflects his Canadian personality and where he lives now.
He says his parents inspired him to dive into his culture when they questioned what he was going to do with art school.
“It was really a bridge between connecting me and my family and my culture to my current practice, in my current language of photography and visual arts that really sort of solidified that connection back,” he said.
Custodio’s journey of rediscovery included consulting family stories, past photographs and albums to learn more about his family history. In 2004, he took a trip back to the Azores, a region in Portugal, to learn about the histories and laws of the region. It inspired him to create a photography series called leave/remain/return.
“I looked at how Portuguese immigrants, specifically, but immigrants in general, come to a space, take up physical space in that context and then share those traditions with their families and their children,” Custodio said.
He says through this journey, he’s learned a lot about his heritage.
“I think what I learned is that there is definitely a rich sort of cultural passion when it comes to arts and culture,” Custodio said.
“They’re making these carpets as homage to some of the religious deities, but also as a way to create community. Neighbours will come, our families will come out, and there’s a whole event surrounding these flower carpets.”
“I found that context really interesting because, here I am in Niagara doing this sort of cellular, insular piece working frame-by-frame versus in a larger context within a community. I’m here sort of reflecting on that based on my experience as an individual within that community.”
Custodio says along the journey of rediscovery, he’s reinterpreted his culture into a language that he understands.
“Now I’m sharing these traditions with my own children who come and pick flowers with me and gather materials and they ask questions as to why we’re doing this,” he said.
“I feel more within the culture than I ever have, Custodio added.
“And not just because it’s important to my family to know that we have this culture and we’re sharing it, but to reinterpret that and create a new sense of what it’s like to be a Portuguese Canadian.”