It’s a bit of a sad axiom that tragedy often precedes creativity and artistic creation. War, famine, disease, they’ve all served as the backdrop for centuries’ worth of innovation and reinvention in art, serving to simultaneously channel the desperation of the artist’s circumstances and help shape and recontextualize those circumstances going forward. These days, displacement ranks among the most acutely felt social challenges, as military, political, and economic calamities give rise to the the highest volume of refugees in decades. The art has followed; one of the most visible examples lately has been Chinese artist Ai Weiwei’s recent “Good Fences Make Good Neighbors” project, which involves has scattered huge cage-like sculptures all over the city.
This tradition is on display in “People I Love Who Are Far Away,” a group show running through February 24 at E.TAY Gallery in Tribeca. The exhibition is anchored around themes of migration, an experience with which many of its sixteen artists are deeply and personally familiar. It represents a collaboration between the gallery and the New York Immigration Coalition (NYIC), which will receive 50 percent of the proceeds of the sale of every piece to further its goals of immigrant advocacy, education, and representation.
Artworks ranged in medium from oil painting to a felt tapestry to an installation; some alluded explicitly to the concept of migration and borders, while others approached the subject more obliquely through depictions of separation or intersections of culture. Maria de Los Angeles, a 29-year-old artist and Dreamer who was born in the Mexico and immigrated to the United States in 2000 before settling in New York to teach and work, had two works on display: a large, vibrantly colorful painting of a woman surrounded by flowers, and a series of pen and watercolor sketches with themes of identity and skeletal figures hounded by leering border agents.
“I mean my life is about the subject, so I don’t think my work can be out of that subject,” said de Los Angeles.
The project is largely the brainchild of artist Gina Malek, a member of the steering committee at NYIC’s Young Professionals Leadership Council, who leaned on her network of friends to find artists whose lives intersected with migration. “We’re really just bringing together like, it’s a little fragmented, our community, but just saying nobody is more than two steps away from me even though I maybe had never met them. We have all these connections with our art,” she said.
One such roundabout connection was Francisco Donoso, also 29 and a Dreamer, who joined the show late in the planning after being alerted by de Los Angeles. He was exhibiting an acrylic and ink collage of a sort of distorted map, a motif in his work. “Cartography is the tool that’s used to help people navigate the world, and as a migrant, they really become absurd because they don’t help navigate the psychological spaces that you enter and exit,” he said.
Various works featured collages or images distorted to varying degrees, seeming to make feelings of mixed heritage or nameless yearning or confusion inherent in the medium. A feeling of longing was common, evoked by works like “The Arrival,” an etching of an embrace by artist Eng Tay – an immigrant born in Malaysia who moved to New York in 1968 and now owns the gallery, in whose honor it is named– and Tenaya Izu’s series of charcoal drawings depicting computer screenshots of video chats with faraway people.
Standing in the crowded, narrow gallery space during the show’s opening on Thursday night, as eccentrics of varying ages milled about, immigration statuses for a brief few hours rendered insubstantial by the joint experience of art, it was easy to view it as an oasis of creation in the middle of the national immigration debate’s awesome destructive power. “It’s good to go to an art show and experience the art, and experience the stories of all of us, but then we also have, beyond art, we have a real critical moment,” said de Los Angeles, who is a DACA recipient and works and teaches at the Pratt Institute, where she also got a BFA. “We know that tomorrow, maybe we’re not going to be able to have a job, and also that we could maybe be picked up.”
“Right now, some of these artists can’t take to the streets and they can’t fight for their rights, so the only way they can really express themselves and protest is through art,” said Christina Papanicolaou, the gallery’s director.
This connection-through-art strategy was in full display in the form of Kate Kaiser, a 53-year-old writer from New Jersey who had come with her husband to support de Los Angeles, who they had met at a coffee shop. “I didn’t fully understand DACA until I met Maria,” explained Kaiser; now, they’re fast friends and have attended multiple shows displaying with de Los Angeles’ work. “The reality is, we believe in her.”
One highlight of the evening was a performance art piece by Victoria Udondian, a 35-year-old artist who grew up in Nigeria, as part of her her installation, “Welcome to the Republic of Unknown Territory.” The installation featured an assortment of shoes, headscarves, flotation devices, and other garments – a staple of her art – overlayed with a soundtrack. For most of the night, however, its entrance was blocked off; Udondian and a collaborator, dressed as border officers, sat at a table with a stack of papers and clipboards. To access the installation, visitors had to fill out multi-page “visa applications” that asked probing questions about citizenship status, communicable diseases, intent of entry, and personal finances. Several gallery patrons were summarily rejected from entry.
After I requested entry to the Republic as a “foreign media correspondent,” I was interrogated by Udondian, who quizzed me on my Colombian citizenship, support for abortion rights, and the paltry sum in my bank account. Once I promised to write about the insular Republic and introduce it to the outside world, I was given an approval stamp. This was a parody, sure, but I could still feel my palms sweat. Welcome to the Republic of Unknown Territory, and to 21st century America.
‘People I Love Who Are Far Away’
39 White Street
Through February 26