New World Refugees and Immigrants Photograph the Experience of a New Life in America

October 28th, 2018  |  Published in October 2018

University of Cincinnati Clermont College Park National Bank Art Gallery September 4 – October 31, 2018

Park National Bank Art Gallery

September 4 – October 31, 2018

Artists: Luke Kellett, Sadiq Onanuga, Bhim Rai, Bhimla Rai, and Lourdes Santos

Curator: Kent Krugh

nor·mal

/ˈnôrməl/

adjective:  conforming to a standard; usual, typical, or expected.

Upon stepping into UC Clermont’s Park National Bank Art Gallery to view the powerful collection of photography on display as part of the 2018 FotoFocus Biennial, normal is a word which kept coming to mind.  New World: Refugees and Immigrants Photograph the Experience of a New Life in America is a group show curated by area photographer Kent Krugh.  The photographers featured in the show are all people who are, through one way or another, immigrants in this area. The images they have created are quiet, seemingly simple captures of life’s fairly ordinary moments. One might recognize oneself, or one’s experience in the pictures.  Here, there is a young girl at dusk with a beautifully lit sparkler.

photo by Lourdes Santos

There, an ice storm, or snapshots of friends or family at the Eden Park overlook on a particularly foggy day.  Ordinary, normal moments which make up the lives of all of us.

photo by Lourdes Santos

The medium of photography permits these immigrant artists a visual channel for their hopes and anxieties and there is an inherent beauty to many of the images. While the show is journalistic in nature, it is cohesive in its presentation and framing choices, which makes the photographs work as a collection.

photo by Bhim Rai

With the assistance of a grant from FotoFocus Biennial, the photographers in this show were provided a camera to capture their daily lives.  The artists themselves were introduced to curator, mentor and photographer Kent Krugh by Sheryl Rajbhandari,  the founder of Heartfelt Tidbits, an organization seeking to improve the lives of immigrants and refugees.  The artists then met regularly as a group with Krugh to discuss their work and to build upon the photographic practices they were learning over time.  Not all of the artists who took part in the early stages of this project found themselves able to see it through to the end:

I encouraged them to photograph where you live, sleep, eat, work, worship.  Your family, friends, and the people you have to deal with in Cincinnati.  The challenges you face and the successes you achieve.  We want to get to know what life is like for you as an immigrant or refugee.  Quite a lofty goal in retrospect.  And perhaps that is why four dropped out of the project.  Some felt they could not measure-up to my expectations for the project– especially my desire to have them open up their personal and family lives through photography.  An intimate look into family dynamics is never a comfortable thing for anybody.”

Intimacy is precisely how these images and their accompanying statements engage the viewer.  Lourdes Santos fled the violence of her home country of Guatemala.  She is a mother and like many of the photographers in this show, the notion of family life features heavily in her work.  Simple pleasures such as attending Mass or watching her daughter board the bus for school provide Santos with a semblance of normalcy in her life in this new country while also reminding her of home.  Her photographs of these moments in time lend the viewer a familiarity with the artist and an understanding of her experiences.  Before this show, Santos had only used her phone to create images.  Through this project “I began to see things close up and far away that may have gone unnoticed before.”

photo by Lourdes Santos

Luke Kellett was adopted as a baby from his country of origin, China.  He credits this project with reinvigorating his passion for photography.  Like the other works in this show, Kellett’s imagery features quiet moments from his daily life.  Moments noticed, moments captured.  In one piece, taken at dawn while awaiting his friend to ride to school with him, Kellett takes notice of the colors on his dashboard display in conjunction with the early morning light and in this way, he is asking us as viewers to begin to notice as well.

photo by Luke Kellett

Another of Kellett’s works is particularly compelling.  It is of a Chinese decorative object situated on the wall of his hallway at home and there are two doorways at either side of the image.  While it is the decoration that is the focus of the picture, this photograph also speaks to the notion of two different sides of Kellett’s life- doorways to different sides of his identity.

photo by Luke Kellett

Bhim and Bhimla Rai are brother and sister and hail originally from Bhutan.  They came to this country after spending nearly their entire lives in a refugee camp in Nepal.  They too photographed moments which not only captured their daily lives, but deeper realities of life in a new country.  The piece At The Top of The Stairs shows a small child at the top of a steep staircase with the shoe of the adult  visible at the bottom.  While the image of a disgruntled toddler upstairs is likely one many parents have experienced at times, this photograph may also be read as a larger metaphor for the steep challenges faced by families fleeing strife in their home countries.

photo by Bhimla Rai

It is challenging enough to build a life in a new country, often leaving family members behind to unknown future fates, but the current immigration policies of the Trump administration magnify these challenges in many ways.  Some of the work by artist Sodiq Onanuga faces this concept head on.

photo by Sodiq Onanuga

Unlike some of the other participants in this show, Onanuga came to the project with a bit of experience with image making thanks to his father’s artistic aspirations.  A few of his pieces push beyond capturing of moments in time and have been manipulated in Photoshop to further narrate his experiences and views.  Sodiq, who is originally from Nigeria, is not shy about expressing his feelings regarding immigration policies nor about the varying degrees of racism he encounters in his life in his new country.  Under the joyful image of his brother jumping into a swimming pool on a clear summer’s day is the following straightforward statement:

“My brother and I are so happy to have a pool at our home here to swim in even though the neighbors always accuse us of not living there and are embarrassed when the landlord tells them we do.”

photo by Sodiq Onanuga

On the surface, “New World” is a show which invites viewers into the experiences of their immigrant neighbors whose lives are not so very different from our own in many ways.  Curator Kent Krugh’s goal for the exhibition was to “…open the archive of unfamiliar lives through photographs taken by local immigrants and refugees.”  This goal was accomplished not by introducing the viewer to the unfamiliar, but rather through the stunning familiarity of the work as a collective.   This is more than enough to make this collection of photographs ‘successful’ as an exhibition.  But the show goes further with the honesty, intimacy and vulnerability of the work.  It asks us to see ourselves in these images.  In his curator’s statement Krugh writes, “The stories of immigrant and refugee families are often ‘boxed away’ and out of view of most Americans. What we don’t know, we don’t care about.  This exhibition is an attempt to open the box and reveal that which is hidden to most of us….. They are our new neighbors, and we are encouraged to “ ‘love your neighbor as yourself.’ “

photo by Bhim Rai

Upon viewing this show, a natural response is “what next?” when thinking about the immigrants in our local community.  How can we be better neighbors?  The Cincinnati area is fortunate to have the work by organizations such as Heartfelt Tidbits, who helped introduce these young photographers into the New World project and to each other and which supports newly arrived families through their volunteer work.  Heartfelt Tidbits empowers refugees and immigrants with innovative programming in areas such as language, job skills and youth support so that they can best begin to build their new lives here in this country and become integrated members of the community.  Also working at a grassroots, neighborhood level in town is the Welcome Project in Camp Washington.  The Welcome Project “supports our newest neighbors with classes in fabrication and art skills as well as store management training while bringing new life to the business district of Camp Washington, Cincinnati.”  And yet another organization doing work locally in support of immigrants is the Intercommunity Justice and Peace Center.  Representatives from all of these organizations gathered for a panel discussion with UC faculty, other artists and immigration advocates to discuss challenges facing immigrants and refugees in our region as part of this project.  The forum provided further depth to the New World photo exhibition just across the hall and many attendees revisited the work with new insights.

Sister Mary Lou Kownacki wrote, “There isn’t anyone you couldn’t love once you’ve heard their story.”   In the photographs collected for New World and in the ensuing conversations the work has fostered, stories from our new neighbors are shared openly with us.  Regardless of cruel top-down policies handed down from our government, it is our duty as human citizens to recognize these stories as our own – to see ourselves in others.  Projects such as this show help us attain this goal of re-humanizing one another.

photo by Bhimla Bai

*note: Funding from FotoFocus, which made this New World show possible, also contributed to a beautiful catalog created in partnership with curator Kent Krugh showcasing many of the images from the show itself.  The catalog also includes statements by the curator and contributing artists, as well as essays on immigration and assimilation from the dean and faculty of UC Clermont.  Copies are still available. 

–Amy Bogard

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