A photo exhibit at SUNY Oswego raises important questions about immigrants and refugees, post 9/11
By Carl Mellor
We often hear about stranger danger as it relates to those people who may frighten us and our children. Most likely, they’re not dangerous at all, merely different. A new exhibit at SUNY Oswego’s Tyler Art Gallery shows us the strangers, but from their perspective. Crossing the BLVD.: strangers, neighbors, aliens in a new America offers an extensive look at immigrants and refugees living in Queens, N.Y.
The exhibit tells stories about a diverse group of newcomers to the United States: people who fled religious or political persecution in their home countries, those who came to the United States because of economic opportunities or to unite with family members. And the show builds its narrative and sensory appeal around multiple media, using photos, text, currency from China and other nations, and audio sound stations where it’s possible to listen to music or snippets from interviews.
For example, a viewer can see a photo of Nasser El Gabry, an Egyptian immigrant, in his taxi, read text about his life and put on headphones to listen to an audio segment combining his comments about a day’s work and music.
Similarly, the story of Bovic Ideda Antosi, who fled Zaire to escape Mobuto Sese Seko’s dictatorship, unfolds through various media. There are images of the Wackenhut Detention Center, where he was imprisoned for two years before receiving political asylum, and of the apartment complex where he now lives. Text tells how he stowed away on a plane to travel to the United States; an audio piece merges his voice and a band’s vocals and instrumentals.
Another refugee, Ninotchka Rosca, left the Philippines because of maltreatment of political dissidents. She’s a novelist, journalist and member of a group advocating against abuse and trafficking of Filipino women who have moved to other nations. Her text both condemns abuses and speaks of the women’s resilience.
These are just a few of the narratives presented in Crossing the BLVD, a project cre ated by Warren Lehrer, a photographer and documentary artist, and Judith Sloan, an oral historian, audio artist and actress. The exhibition is based on a book with the same title, which began with dozens of interviews done with newcomers to the United States, between 1999 and 2003. The book and the exhibit were crafted with an assumption that there’s no typical immigrant profile. Each person, each family, has its own story.
The show certainly avoids any suggestion of a dominant immigrant story. On one display board, it details the story of Marianna and Miguel, immigrants from Mexico who have no official papers, who live and work underground. Elsewhere, it discusses people who run neighborhood restaurants or cafés. Yet another set of photos and text features teachers who came to New York City in 1997 after being recruited by the Board of Education due to a shortage of classroom personnel. Amarel Collymore, from Barbados, and Elke Walcher, from Austria, both taught in public schools.
In another vein, the exhibit focuses on a family whose life is filled with music and dance. Iskhak Gulkarov and Malika Kalontarova were both performers in their home city of Bukhara, Tajikistan; their son, Arthur Gulkarov, a teenager, says he can’t live without dance. An image of him in a dance costume is one of the exhibit’s striking photos. Viewers can look at photos of all three family members and listen to an audio report presenting the son’s voice, the father’s voice and the rhythm of his frame drum, and the mother’s vocals. In a second audio segment, Iskhak Gulkarov sings a traditional Bukharan Jewish song.
Crossing the BLVD not only accesses cultural traditions but also touches on interplay between the old and new. Thus, the exhibit presents images of Gogol Bordello, a band whose members come from Israel, Russia, Ukraine and other nations. They play Gypsy music but with a nontraditional sensibility. Again, a sound station offers several of their songs.
And this show, with its focus on life in Queens, documents various neighborhoods in that borough. There are images of various street scenes and businesses, as well as documentation of social centers. One set of photos shows participants in a senior center; a second set portrays a table-tennis club whose players come from all over the world. On a third display board, images and text document high school students, the children of immigrants.
Even with all its material and use of multiple media, Crossing the BLVD never pretends to be exhaustive, never hints that this is the last word on immigration. On the contrary, the exhibition emphasizes that this is a complex topic, with new stories continually emerging. Indeed, the show’s mobile story booth invites people to step into it, to be photographed and to keyboard a first-person story about immigration or one discussing the experience of a parent or grandparent.
Crossing the BLVD, a traveling exhibit, offers a wealth of information but isn’t overwhelming. It’s certainly possible to enjoy the exhibition without listening to every audio segment. The show is worth a visit to the Tyler Art Gallery which is sponsoring Judith Sloan’s visit to SUNY Oswego on Wednesday, Sept.14, and Thursday, Sept. 15. On both evenings, she will do a solo theatrical performance, inspired by Crossing the BLVD, at 7:30 p.m. in Waterman Hall.
The show continues through Oct. 10 at the Tyler Art Gallery, located in Tyler Hall just north of Sweet Road, which is open Tuesdays to Saturdays from 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m.
For more information, call 312-2112.