After the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act mandated an end to discriminatory immigration policies that favored white Western Europeans, the phrase "Give us your poor, your hungry, your huddled masses" began to take on new meaning.
A local exhibit, Crossing the BLVD: strangers, neighbors, aliens in a new America, presents a kaleidoscopic INA update (of sorts) through a collection of photographs, stories, and sound. It's on display at the Visual Studies Workshop, a site long committed to expanding the potential of the media arts and their impact on visual culture.
Artists Warren Lehrer and Judith Sloan visually and orally documented these new immigrants and refugees living in Queens, New York --- "the most ethnically diverse locality in the United States." Queens is a modern-day Ellis Island. Different cultures regularly overlap, crossing a variety of borders --- whether actual, cultural, or just the border of one neighborhood into the next --- and 138 different languages are spoken there.
For Lehrer and Sloan, Queens is also their home borough. For three years, they "traveled the world" by walking the familiar streets, capturing the stories and photos of people they met along the way. Crossing the BLVD is thus a record of these lives, many of them unseen, unnoticed, and literally undocumented elsewhere.
The photographs, however, are not images of the poor, hungry, and huddled. Rather, each represents a glimpse into the lives of the sitter, a little "slice of life," such as it is, at a time when immigration patterns are re-shaping, if not actually redefining, what exactly is "American" in American culture. Seen together, this series of portraits is a celebration of the resiliency of the human spirit.
Accompanying the portraits are panels of narrative text and contextual information, maps of the country or countries of origin overlaid with maps of Queens neighborhoods, landscape views of text-specific sites in Queens, important objects and/or images the individual brought along from home to home, and sound stations with audio compositions by Lehrer and Sloan, and music by Scott Johnson and others. (While interesting and certainly useful, the physical arrangement on the walls was busy if not, at times, confusing. Also, the day we visited several of the sound stations either were not working at all or stopped in mid-play.)
Take, for example, Remi Ortiz. Originally from Nigeria, she now presides as prophetess over a Pentacostal congregation of Ibos, Hausas, and Yoruba in a low-income neighborhood in Far Rockaway. Although each tribe is technically from the modern nation-state of Nigeria, it is a socio-political combination that would be unlikely --- at best --- back home in Nigeria. Reflecting canniness of character, each week she wears the dress of a different tribe.
And then there is Harjinder Singh, a Sikh cab driver, politician, and entrepreneur. He is photographed straight-on. We stare at him, he looks back at us. The narrative text that accompanies his portrait explains just why it is that America is supposed to be the great bosom that beckons. Soon after arriving in New York, someone tried to rob him in his cab. But it was early in the day and Mr. Singh only had $13. So, the would-be robber not only gave him back the $13 but also reached into his own pocket and gave the cabby another $1, saying, "This is to buy your coffee." For Mr. Singh, even our criminals are good. He feels we live in "the most incredible country in the whole world."
To single out these two participant-denizens is not to prioritize their stories other any of the others, but just as their portraits allow us to consider, if only briefly, the lives of each of these individuals, then, hopefully, all of the life stories will earn a place in the pantheon that is our collective culture.
You should go if you're interested in people's stories, if you're curious about the changing definition of "American."
Crossing the Boulevard through June 12 | Visual Studies Workshop, 31 Prince Street | Hours: Wednesday through Sunday, 12 to 5 p.m. 442-8676, www.vsw.org