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Artists Reflect on Immigration and Community Building

(Somerville Wire) – Sanctuary City, a ground-breaking art exhibit at the Somerville Museum, featured local artists working in exceptionally diverse media—from installations to comic books to pillows—with the goal of “creating more welcoming and safer environments for immigrant and refugee populations.”

As the Sanctuary City exhibit came to a close at the end of its two-month run on Saturday evening, Nov. 19, some of the exhibit’s artists engaged in conversation with the public and each other. 

Moderated by the curator of the exhibit, Julia Csekö, the convivial conversation at the museum allowed participants and the public to reflect on their work and its implications for the community.

Joanna Tam, an interdisciplinary artist originally from Hong Kong, combined home building materials and household items with photos of buildings related to immigration, including places where ICE enforcement arrests happened during the first year of the Trump presidency.

“So for instance, that pillow there is a picture of a church in Virginia, where they run a hypothermia shelter in the winter, but then there’s ICE agents waiting outside and they arrest people,” Tam explained.

The juxtaposition between the pictures and objects creates a contrast between domestic comfort and institutional harshness, she said.

Ann Hirsch, one of two public artists comprising A+J Art + Design, spoke about their artwork, “SOS (Safety Orange Swimmers),” which featured red and black sculptures on the wall of the museum, as well as a video of an installation they did in 2016. Commissioned by the Fort Point Arts Community, the installation featured orange figures floating in the middle of Fort Point Channel in Boston. Originally there were 21 figures, with each one representing one million of the total number of refugees in the world.

“As you can see in the video, they float in reaction to wind and currents. They turn and they move on a tethering system that’s hanging below them in the water, which is sort of invisible,” she said.

A year after the installation in Boston, they were invited to install the artwork in Grand Rapids, Michigan, in a river instead of a tidal channel, which changed the nature of the piece, she said. They also had to add four figures, as the number of refugees in the world had gone up to 24.8 million. In 2019 they were invited to install the piece in Toronto, where the number of figures went up again.

“We think a lot about refugees, especially in Somerville. We are a sanctuary city. Part of our identity as a city is to welcome all, and we’re proud of the fact that we are a sanctuary city,” Hirsch said.

Csekö pointed out that Somerville has been a sanctuary city since 1987, but she asked, “Sanctuary for whom?”

“What do sanctuaries protect us from?” Csekö wondered. “That is not something positive to begin with. What we want to do is move away from the idea that we need the sanctuaries in the first place, and have better support systems for immigrants, for people who need shelter and support like that.”

Lani Asunción said she began working on her installation, “Duty Free Paradise,” about 10 years ago. A native of Hawaii, Asunción said the work took on more significance for her when she learned that James Dole, who established an infamous Hawaiian plantation, was actually born in Jamaica Plain, where Asunción had her studio.

That fact raised a fundamental question about the nature of sanctuary: “Who feels safe, who gets to experience that feeling,” she said, and “who gets to tell the stories.”

Kledia Spiro immigrated from Albania when she was 9 years old. An interdisciplinary, multimedia artist whose work includes performance, video, and installations, created a new piece for the Somerville exhibition.

“As an immigrant, I’ve always felt like I couldn’t follow someone else’s path,” she explained. “I use the strength of the female body as a metaphor,” she said. “I literally crawled through sand.”

In her performance video, she takes off garments one by one, uses red stilettos to move herself through the sand, until finally she’s left wearing a body suit and a weight-lifting belt.

“I shed all these identities that we’re often placed in, and conditioned to think we are, as women,” she said.

Spiro thanked Csekö for “bringing us together,” as artists working with a common theme. “Our work weaves so beautifully together, and these conversations are really rich because we are really tightly woven into this conversation.”

Raquel Fornasaro’s artwork, titled Zoomorphs, includes masked characters resembling anthropomorphized Egyptian and Brazilian mythological entities. “I did try to bring into them the feeling that we’re all connected. We’re humans but we live with animals,” she said.

“I actually realized that my work is not about the people looking for a sanctuary, my work is more about how do we treat the sanctuaries? How do we take care of the environment that we live in? Are we actually doing anything to treat those places as sanctuaries? Not only the places, but the animals, all the biodiversity that lives there.”

Benjamin Spalding described himself as “a queer Puerto Rican who was raised in Maine, and so questions of identity, how people formulate identity, community, and space really come into [my] practice.”

His artwork incorporated family photos he got from his mother, featuring generations of his family and their migration from Puerto Rico to New York. Spending time looking at the photos with his mother, he was struck by her perception of herself in the photos.

“She was able to see in hindsight how beautiful she was, but in that moment, the cultural environment did not feel as though her body was valid,” he said.

Looking at the exhibit as a whole, Spalding said, “This idea of sanctuary really comes down to a sense of comfort,” he said. “This idea of presence of body, the relationship to body, physicality, identity, I think is super-present in all these works.”

He added, “We think about the city itself, and break this down to the most granular connections, it means person to person. So I think body is a very big part of how the entire exhibition works together.”

Wen Hao Tien, who came to the United States from China in 1988, used a chair as a metaphor in her work, as many artists have done in the past, she said.

“This chair is not so innocent. This chair represents a lot of social hierarchy. It’s a chair for the elite. In America, especially in New England, we see a lot of Chinese antiques, and people use them in their house. But coming from where I come from, no one has this chair. … When you run for your life, you don’t bring a chair.”

Tien took the chair apart, removing the seat and adding a vine and other features.

“This piece is really about you,” she said. “The title is ‘Have a seat.’”

Asked by an audience member how she came up with the overall theme of the exhibit, Csekö explained: “The concept evolved through conversation with each [artist in the exhibit]. I was very careful to talk to each person about what they wanted to bring into the conversation because I think it is a very multifaceted concept.”

Asunción commented, “I’m very grateful for this exhibit, and it’s really great to be able to have these conversations. … I guess my question, in the work that I do, is what happens now? How do we continue the work, and what is the work that every single person can do?”

“The work is never done,” Csekö responded.

“As artists, we do have some responsibility,” she added. “I feel that we have a responsibility, I feel like I have a responsibility at least, to have these difficult conversations.”

Photo credit: Detail from the installation “I Just Want a Home” by Joanna Tam. Photo courtesy of Somerville Museum.

Linda Pinkow is a reporter for the Somerville Wire. She is also a development consultant for the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism

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