Art on the side of immigrants

July 31, 2008

Elizabeth Lalasz introduces an exhibit that shows what the art of a real movement looks like.

THE ART exhibit A Declaration of Immigration, currently on display at the National Museum of Mexican Art, reflects how the immigrant rights movement has impacted whole sections of the population, particularly artists who felt compelled to create work speaking on behalf of the movement.

With over 70 works in varying mediums, from paintings, prints, drawings and photographs to videos and installations, the exhibit is dedicated "to all who have marched and petitioned against anti-immigrant legislation."

Declaration combines art and politics in a stylistically varied, exciting and powerful way. The works demand your examination--to get up close--utilizing strong lines, intense colors and a wide variety of genres and methods, from conventional to folk art to the experimental.

There are oil paintings on canvas and acrylics on metal sheets, photographs reproduced on vinyl and soft leather sculptures. The lithographs and woodcuts of the well-known left-wing artist Carlos Cortez have the twist of being printed on T-shirts or plain paper.

Detail from “Sueños Humedos/Wet Dreams,” by Juan Carlos Macías
Detail from “Sueños Humedos/Wet Dreams,” by Juan Carlos Macías

Declaration is also refreshingly unapologetic in its message. In opening on July 4, an appropriate date to raise questions about freedom and equality for everyone, the exhibit's opening statement reworks the American "Declaration of Independence," concluding: "Immigrants have endured patient sufferance; and as such, it behooves our government to redeem itself from repeated injuries and usurpations."

Expressing frustration at the inactivity of both political parties--Democrats and Republicans--in enacting legislation in favor of immigrants after over two years of struggle, the exhibit declares the solution is discussion, debate and providing "a platform from which many immigrants can speak out--especially at a time in our history when, once again, countless immigrants are being scapegoated and blamed for many of the nation's problems."

The name of the exhibit is also a spin on the "Declaration of Immigration Status by Non-U.S. Citizens" cards, which need to be filled out when people enter the U.S. It is hypocrisy that over 12 million undocumented immigrants work and pay taxes, but receive none of the benefits that go to native workers. But unfortunately, as the exhibit shows, this group of 12 million is not the first to suffer injustices.

Upon entering Declaration, a quote on the wall is juxtaposed to a small, but extensive collection of historical artifacts from 13 different cultural associations. The quote reads, "The Presidents' Council of Economic Advisors report largely highlights the positive affects of immigration on the economy. It concludes that 90 percent of native-born workers have benefited from immigration, providing annual wage gains of $30 billion to $80 billion."

This quote is from a 2007 Wall Street Journal article, and most of the artifacts are from near the turn of the 20th century. The message is clear: Generations of immigrants played a part in building the U.S, creating enormous wealth, but they have constantly been treated as second-class citizens.

This reality is starkly portrayed by a single wooden shovel and pick ax placed together. These well-worn, basic tools symbolize the lives of Irish immigrants who built the Illinois and Michigan Canal, paid $1 for a 15-hour day. In 1838, 1,000 out of 1,500 canal diggers lost their lives.

When completed, the canal connected the Mississippi watershed with the Great Lakes, and by 1882, transportation of goods through it surpassed the combined shipping totals of the ports of New York, San Francisco and New Orleans.

DECLARATION HIGHLIGHTS difficult issues facing immigrants, such as border crossing. "Welcome to El Norte" by Nicario Jimenez utilizes a traditional retablo, or three-dimensional box, from the Peruvian highlands. It has three tiers depicting different groups of immigrants--Mexicans, Cubans and Haitians.

On the far left, miniature figures start in their home country, and move to the next box, which depicts the experience of crossing for each. The Mexican and Haitian figurines are met with border guards, dogs, helicopters and jailing. The Cubans' passage, however, is calm and welcoming. The retablo is a smart choice for translating the blatantly unfair treatment of one immigrant group versus another by the U.S. government.

Jaishri Abichandani's recent work "Newyorkmumbai" is a composite photograph on a large vinyl banner, which blends the images of slums in two different places--Mumbai, India, and the West Point neighborhood in Queens, the last remaining place in New York City without sanitation.

It's difficult to differentiate between Mumbai and Queens in the piece. There is open sewage in one section of a crowded, narrow street, lined with shops with aluminum awnings and razor-wire overhead. The cut-and-paste images overlap, and the colors blur. This could be either place--that is the artist's point--and there is certainly no "American Dream" for immigrants.

One of most arresting works in the show is a large-sized, realistic-style photograph titled "Deportation Center" by Adrian Paci. It depicts a packed line of people on a boarding metal staircase in the middle of an airfield. But there is no plane, and the airfield is otherwise empty. The people are stuck on the stairs, not going anywhere, in the middle of nowhere. With the photo dominating a whole portion on the wall, it creates a sense of helplessness and the unknown in the experience of detention.

Declaration also displays works opposing these conditions. "Who's the Illegal, Pilgrim?" by Yolanda López is a popular poster image from the Chicano rights movement. It is a powerful drawn image of an angry Aztec Indian warrior, jabbing a finger at the viewer, while crushing papers reading "Immigration Plan" in the other--clearly a spoof of the "Uncle Sam Wants You" poster. It encapsulates defiance with just ink on paper. The poster was used in the late 1970s to protest the KKK's plans to patrol the San Diego border and apprehend "Mexican-looking" individuals.

Tucked in one of the later rooms is a small-scale aerial shot taken by a Chicago Tribune photographer of a massive crowd overflowing Chicago's Federal Plaza at the March 10, 2006, demonstration of close to 300,000 for immigrant rights. Looking at it gives you a jolt, with an ocean of indistinguishable dots--people's actual heads--jammed into the Plaza.

The photo shows, off to the side, the only thing capable of showing up out of the throng--the Alexander Calder public art sculpture found in the middle of the Plaza, looking like giant orange metal boomerangs thrown into the crowd.

This image brings back the memories of standing in wonder in downtown Chicago as a sea of humanity streamed by, with no end in site. Over two years later, the struggle continues, and this photo is a reminder of what is possible again.

THE POWERFUL message of A Declaration of Immigration echoes off the exhibit walls and flows out into the streets of the Pilsen neighborhood where the museum is located.

Along with La Villita--or Little Village, where ICE conducted a raid of the Discount Mall in late April 2007, and residents responded immediately with a sizeable protest--just to the southwest, this is one of the key communities for national immigrants rights movement organizing today.

The New York Times recently ran a story on Pilsen, which mentions Declaration, in its Sunday travel section, titled "Chicago's fashionable Latino neighborhood." What this article fails to mention is that the neighborhood is one of oldest in the city of Chicago, where subsequent layers of newly arriving immigrants have always lived--Czechs, Poles, Mexicans. St. Adalbert's, a Catholic church two blocks from the museum, still has Sunday mass in three different languages--Polish, Spanish and English.

Pilsen also has a long history of political radicalism among immigrants--from striking and battling police around the 1886 Haymarket tragedy, to neighborhood and workplace organizing in the 1930s, to the struggles of the 1960s. The current immigrant rights movement is no exception to this long tradition--organizing for the struggle takes place in coffee shops and meeting places blocks to the east of the museum.

Declaration gives a glimpse of what the art of a real movement can begin to look like today. It is not about, as the Times puts it, "whether to be pro-immigrant or not." A Declaration of Immigration demands taking the side of immigrants, and nothing less.

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