Immigration is the lifeblood of this nation. And yet the dominant rhetoric in our culture is that of fear, resentment, distrust, and otherness—otherwise alienation. Despite the multitude of multicultural claims—especially in academia and the liberal arts—multicultural people are still very much the Other. Where the American Dream most frequently falls short is the societal damnation of the outsider. In a country home to and defined by immigrants, how can it be that none of the complexities of such lives are welcomed in the mainstream?
There is a gap in this country. It is the original gap—the source of the wage gap, generational gap, gender gap—it is the representational gap. It is a gap so severe that it creates dichotomies from the onset. There are mainstream exhibitions and Other exhibitions, but never both. The Other is rarely given the decency to be contextualized with her mainstream contemporaries. The gap is so rooted in our expectations that an exhibition eliminating the voice of the mainstream inherently conjures associations of activism and advocacy—and is not simply considered to be completing the story. Culture observes its contents through a singular lens, filtering perceptions and concepts through the normalizing experience, which determines what is good and worthwhile, and what is otherwise foreign and dangerous.1
The dominant mainstream distorts the extent to which art institutions can represent and reflect the diversity of humanity.2 The larger problem begins at the grassroots, community-based, local gallery level. In an early 2015 report, The Art Newspaper affirmed that “Almost one third of solo shows in US museums go to artists represented by five galleries.”3 Even at the unveiling of the new Whitney Museum, with the exhibition “America Is Hard to See,” which promised to present fresh perspectives from the collection, the overwhelming mainstream voice was impossible to miss. The online art newspaper Hyperallergic investigated the so-called diversity of perspectives and the results are that 79.5% of the exhibition is comprised of White/European artists.4
Country, Home makes us face our double standards. The works in this group show individually express the challenges and complexities of immigrant life in America, occupying the space between our lofty multicultural values and our whitewashed reality.
Through their work artists Golnar Adili, Adela Andea, Michael Borek, chukwumaa, Elnaz Javani, Alejandra Regalado, Jerry Truong, and Rodrigo Valenzuela, designate immigrant groups as the center of discussions on art, practice, American values, socio-economics, and class. The lens of the mainstream distorts its subjects to those in the center and those on the fringes—often causing rampant misunderstanding and forced invisibility of the latter. Coming out of the fringes on their own terms, these artists present their voices, experiences, and concerns through differing art forms.
Elnaz Javani (Iranian born), Rodrigo Valenzuela (Chilean born), and Michael Borek (Czech born) consider issues of outsider isolation in varying ways. Javani’s delicate fiber stitching often depicts obscured identities marred by not belonging. Her subjects are either isolated floating figures or concealed individualities suggestive of sequestration. While her materials are trans-national—simple fabrics and sewing thread—her work is distinctive of the isolating component of individuality, suggestive of the immigrant outsider. Conversely, Valenzuela’s photography actively omits the familiar—no figures or trans-national ephemeras occupy the space. These staged scenes are devoid of people and strongly evoke a sense of loss—the viewer can feel the missing presence of the suggested narrator. Valenzuela’s crafted stories conjure reflection on the Latino day-laborer with suggested builder’s tools and materials. A former illegal alien laborer himself, Valenzuela’s work feels equally of the outsider looking out and the insider looking in.
The notion of “out” and “in” is also explored in the photographic works of Borek, though to a vastly different effect. Borek notes that his fascination with urban decay has made him “able to turn the most stunning scenery into drab Eastern Europe.” Where Valenzuela’s concern is specifically with the position of the Other in America, and Javani’s saddened, unidentifiable figures express neither place of origin or emigration, Borek’s scenes vigorously bring the viewer out of America and into his place of communist, often bleak, origin. His series of captured fences and the title “And They Make Good Neighbors” considers boundaries, belonging, relationships in a direct engagement with the tension of looking in and looking out. His tightly cropped frames limit the contextualization of the scene depicted so often that the viewer doesn’t know if they are looking out or looking in. This dizzying perspective complements Javani’s sense of undeclared landscape and Valenzuela’s absent narrator, while bringing a different perspective and laden thought process to the idea of the isolated outsider.
Socio-economic issues are a deep concern within Alejandra Regalado’s (Mexican born) photography series “In Reference To: Mexican Women of the U.S.,” which positions female Mexican immigrants in relation to a significant personal object. The juxtaposition suggests the economic position of the women depicted. While much of the art world’s theoretical concerns lie within the project’s discussion of beauty, the economic element of the stark juxtaposition is a crucial factor. The women are photographed against a white background, like an official identification card, and the objects are photographed against a white background, like that of an archeological find. The distinct depersonalization of the photographic process and product suggests an unfeeling government census, which strongly highlights economic status amongst differing demographics.
Issues of official identity documentation are explored through abstracted, disembodied imagery in Golnar Adili’s (Iranian born) work. She explores personal issues of identity and documentation in photography and hand-drawn markings. She confirms in her artist statement that “as an Iranian growing up in post-1979 Tehran, I have experienced separation, uprooting, and longing in its different manifestations.” Her broken imagery in photo collages suggests an alienated, displaced, and aching personhood. The jagged edges of torn photo paper, uneven layering, and stacking system evoke a sense of building and rebuilding – specifically the building and rebuilding of identity as her images exclusively feature intimate depictions of people and bodies. While an elegant sensuality exudes from her A Thousand Pages of Chest-Curved collage, a resounding sense of identity crisis remains.
Navigation and transformation of identity are further explored by Adela Andea (Romanian born), chukwumaa (Nigerian born), and Jerry Truong (Vietnamese born). Andea’s work with neon light installation seeks transformation, variation, and disregard and reinvention of reality. Her perspective affirms ambiguity, mistranslation, confusion, and discovery. She notes in her artist statement that she believes in the adaptability of people who have lived through multiple transitions. In a similar approach but with a strong social focus, chukwumaa’s sound work brings out the awkwardness of interactions with different people. chukwumaa’s interest in culturally-charged myths and creating surreal, often uncomfortable, environments reveals patterns of navigation within audience and performer. Very differently, but equally personal and affecting, Truong’s photographic series turns to transformation and deception to explore a very personal immigrant journey. The figures in his series force the viewer to question the American Dream, and the role of the self in blended society. The viewer is placated with seemingly ordinary images of unordinary people, only to be dismayed by the underlying cruelty hidden within each scene. These artists demonstrate conflicts of navigating the immigrant experience in America. Collectively they navigate their perspectives as immigrants, as Americans, as both, in varied pathways.
Culture blooms best where the realities of people’s lives meet the discipline of artists’ creativity, and builds a conversation that bridges across nationalities, ethnicities, generations and social standing.5 While identity issues are far too complex to be neatly summarized in art or an essay, these artists provide a vital glimpse into the narrative of the “other”—and specifically the under-recognized perspectives of immigrant and 1st generation Americans. It is important that this narrative exists and that it be widely consumed to begin to undo the staggering injustice of mis- and underrepresentation that is the current norm.
No one immigrant/foreign-born artist experience is exactly alike, and thus that reality bleeds into visual narrative forms in differing ways. Seemingly unrelated artists and forms can be juxtaposed to reveal narratives of outsider isolation, economic position, identity, and navigation.
In presenting multiple narratives by differing immigrant and first-generation American artists, Country, Home explores not only the particular tensions and challenges of these culturally and socially under-recognized groups but also the ways in which we are accustomed to interacting with presentations of the Other. Void of the voice of the mainstream, these artists finally assert themselves on a platform of their own making. But the rarity of such opportunities equally defines the exhibition as much as their art.
1 Doug Borwick, “Considering Whiteness,” Arts Journal Blog, February 20, 2013, <http://www.artsjournal.com/engage/2013/02/considering-whiteness/>.
2 Nina Simone, “On White Privilege and Museums,” Museum2.0, March 6, 2013, <http://museumtwo.blogspot.com/2013/03/on-white-privilege-and-museums.html>.
3 Julia Halperin, “Almost one third of solo shows in US museums go to artists represented by five galleries,” The Art Newspaper, April 2, 2015, <http://theartnewspaper.com/news/museums/17199/>.
4 Hrag Vartanian, “Breaking Down the Demographics of the New Whitney Museum’s Inaugural Exhibition,” Hyperallergic, April 14, 2015, <http://hyperallergic.com/199215/breaking-down-the-demographics-of-the-new-whitney-museums-inaugural-exhibition/>.
5 Ben Davis, “Diversify or Die: Why the Art World Needs to Keep Up With Our Changing Society,” Blouin Art Info, November 16, 2012, <http://www.blouinartinfo.com/news/story/840695/diversify-or-die-why-the-art-world-needs-to-keep-up-with-our#>.
This essay was written in conjunction with Country, Home, on view at CUE September 5-October 10, 2015.