DECEMBER 31, 2008 | BROOKLYN COLLEGE
By ALISA KOLENOVIC
Indian-American artist Nandini Chirimar smiled as she posed for a photograph in front of one of her mixed media pieces, a shelf encased in a plastic display box, featuring the various amenities necessary to an Indian wife.
“This is called `Shingar,’ “ she said. “This box shows what being married means to an Indian woman. It includes all the objects a married Indian woman needs to dress up, such as red bangles.”
The piece is part of Chirimar’s recent exhibit at Chelsea’s Allen Gallery, called “Objects of Worship,” which features watercolor and pencil illustrations as well as mixed media collages of her experiences as an Indian-born mother and artist living in America. The works hint at nostalgia and explore the question of immigrant identity.
“This exhibit is a journal of my life,” said Chirimar. “It is about my identity. It is about Indian objects of worship that I have used everyday and that are a part of who I am.”
With work that often reflects a tension between longing for homelands and a fascination with their new homes, New York City’s immigrant artists are finding their way into the city’s art world.
Although many new immigrant artists must struggle to overcome financial, emotional, and linguistic obstacles, they are increasingly being awarded with new venues for their work. Immigrant artists are working their way from sidewalk sales outside the Metropolitan Museum of Art to museum exhibits and, more slowly, major art galleries.
“Immigrant art is definitely making a trend,” said Vijay Kumar, curator of the recent “Exhibition of Contemporary Indian Art of the Diaspora: Erasing Borders 2008“ at the Queens Museum of Art. “More museums are exhibiting it and it is also more important because of America’s current political scene.”
Kumar said a recent trend toward more exposure for immigrant art has occurred because of many New York institutions’ efforts to include immigrants’ art in their exhibits.
“Queens is very much an immigrant borough and the Queens Museum of Art is offering more chances to all kinds of immigrant communities to show their work,” he said. “A lot of other museums are opening their doors too.”
Indeed, other museums such as the Bronx Museum of Art, the Brooklyn Museum of Art, Museo del Barrio, the Museum of Contemporary African Diasporan Arts, and the Museum of Modern Art’s P.S. 1, all exhibit work by and about immigrants.
It seems that now, more than ever, New York City is a place for immigrant artists.
Chirimar has only recently started doing work specific to the immigrant experience with the “Erasing Borders 2008″ exhibit at the Queens Museum and with her “Objects of Worship” exhibit.
Her mixed media collage, “Made in India, Immigrant Song #3,” done on washi paper using plastic objects, pencil, watercolor and fabric, was featured in a recent exhibit at the Queens Museum of Art, called “Exhibition of Contemporary Indian Art of the Diaspora: Erasing Borders 2008.” Chirimar said this specific piece was influenced by a poem by Purvi Shah,”Terrain Tracks.”
“There are [watercolor illustrations of] manhole covers made in India and people are walking on top of them,” Chirimar said. “There are plastic shoes of different colors pasted onto the paper, which represent the many different immigrant groups in New York City. There are also [watercolor illustrations of] grey pipes under the manholes, which may represent the veins of a person, and can state that everyone’s blood is the same color. Therefore, everyone is the same inside.”
This piece is about the migration from India to New York City. A big red apple appears in the center of the collage, between the pencil and watercolor drawings of maps of India and New York City. It is labeled “Big Apple,” and, according to Chirimar, inevitably provokes the viewer to ask if the apple is as delicious as it looks. The darkness of the pipes at the bottom of the collage also reinforces the idea of the negative aspects of moving to New York City from a foreign country.
“Made In India, Immigrant Song #3″ is a perfect example of not only the New York City immigrant artist’s experience translated onto the canvas, but of every immigrant’s experience. Chirimar, born in Kanpur in 1967, started painting in India, but only started painting about her culture when she became a student at Cornell University in 1987.
“At Cornell, I started going back to Indian subject matter,” said Chirimar. “Whenever you’re far away from a place, you can see it more objectively. You also take it for granted while you’re there. I started going back to my roots and culture.”
Chirimar said that migrating to New York City from India has changed her art.
“The most difficult thing is being away from family,” said Chirimar. “A part of me is missing but a big part of me is here. If I were living there, I would not be doing such intense art. Using these objects of worship in this exhibit, gives a nostalgic flavor to it.”
Kumar, curator of the “Erasing Borders 2008″ exhibit, said Chirimar’s piece is nostalgic. “The manhole covers are made in India and this is nostalgic and romantic,” he said. “While every piece in the exhibit cannot be tied together by one theme, a lot of the other works are also nostalgic such as the ‘Mangoes in the Morning’ painting by Kuzana Ogg.” Ogg is also Indian, and her oil painting depicts numerous orange, green, and yellow-colored distorted mangoes, painted in a hazy style, so they appear to the viewer as they did to Ogg when she saw them in the morning years ago.
Re-imagining their homelands
Kristiana Parn‘s colorful illustrations of her childhood in Estonia covered the walls of the Pink Olive Boutique in Park Slope, Brooklyn. The paintings, called “A Brooklyn Artist’s Renderings of Arctic Friends from Childhood Memories in Estonia,” render animals important to Estonian culture and to Parn’s upbringing, such as lynx, moose, foxes, and wolves and have become popular among Park Slope parents.
“My art is a combination of my childhood in Estonia with my imagination and my desire to create a pleasant world for children here,” said Parn, who relishes in the freedom of the city’s art scene.
“The more creativity and freedom that is in the air, the more likely you’ll become infected by it,” she said. “I was drawn to the artistic and free-spirited people that lived here.”
Chirimar and Parn are examples of the city’s most successful immigrant artists. However, many immigrant artists are out there struggling to simply make a living. Dozens sell their art daily on the sidewalk outside the Metropolitan Museum of Art. They mostly produce and sell art for tourists, with scenes of Central Park and Times Square flooding their canvases.
However, Croatian immigrant Nikola Cizmic paints landscapes of Croatia and other places he has lived, in addition to well-known New York City scenes.
“An ocean separates me from my home,” said Cizmic. “I do feel nostalgic and these moods come into my art when I paint the Dalmatian coastline.”
These nostalgic feelings are apparent in Cizmic’s renderings of Croatia’s beautiful coastline, but even in his works of New York City. In one painting, a pug dog and a Dalmatian, a dog native to the Dalmatian region of Croatia, play together under a bridge in Central Park. Although his works set in New York City do sell more than his works of Croatia, Cizmic says that some people like his Croatian works, and some even recognize that part of the world, whether they are Croatian or native New Yorkers.
“I believe that anyone who has beauty inside, can understand beauty,” said Cizmic. “This is why some people like the Croatian paintings.”
Arturo Arboleda, a Colombian artist, said that while he does not miss his homeland (or at least tries not to think about it), he paints memories of images imprinted during his childhood. “I may have had an impression of a flower I saw as a child in Colombia, but now that image is distorted,” said Arbodela. “It is not the same flower I saw 25 years ago.”
Arboleda said that the only way his art has changed is practically. “The texture of my art is thicker,” he said. “Because I am making more money here, I can buy more supplies.”
Hatuey Ramos-Fermin, a Puerto-Rican conceptual artist, does not sell his work by the Metropolitan. Rather, he came to New York City because of a six-month mentoring program sponsored by the New York Foundation of the Arts. Fermin was linked up with a mentor, the artist Ricardo Miranda Zuniga. The goal of the program is to get newcomers more involved in the arts community. However, the program is not only limited to immigrants. It is open to all artists in New York City.
Fermin’s experience as an immigrant clearly has had an effect on his art. He did a conceptual performance piece in which he dressed up as a banana he named Benito Banana, and wore a sign over the costume that read, “A banana from my country can travel easier than me.” This was humorous, political commentary on the difficult process of immigration itself.
“It’s the idea of globalization and nationalism and that goods can travel more freely than people,” he said. “I have always been an immigrant. It’s part of who I am. At that moment, I needed to do that project.”
Peruvian artist Kukuli Velarde lived in New York City for ten years, but moved to Philadelphia in 1997. Like Fermin, Velarde’s art is also about immigration. “My work is completely related to Peru,” said Velarde. “No matter how long I live here, I will always feel different. Everything from my way of thinking to the jokes I tell is different. This is what it means to be an immigrant.”
It seems that Velarde’s immigration to New York City led her to make more art about Peru, because she did not wish to completely sink into American culture. One piece is an altar made up of mixed media featuring the statue of a Latin American wife, Velarde’s idea of a true saint, who wears a mask of Anglo-Saxon features and whose heart is pierced with nails. This altar is a comment on how some Latin women who have immigrated to the states with their family have been forced by spouses or society in general to become more Anglo-Saxon.
In addition to dealing with homesickness and dislocation, there are the financial and professional burdens faced by all aspiring artists in New York City, immigrant or not. Many of the artists who sell their work by the Metropolitan Museum do not have access to the galleries. Their goals mostly consist of making enough money to live off of their work. Some simply look for different forms of satisfaction.
“In order to get your work in a gallery, you need to catch a lot of people’s attention,” says Arboleda. “The most exciting moments for me are the people’s looks. I can see this energy in their eyes, out of childrens’ reactions. These give me spiritual relief.”
Fermin said success is a different definition for him. “The most important thing to me is to connect to people with my art,” he said. “I want to have more time to produce art and make shows and collaborations. Other artists want to be in the market and have nice exhibitions in galleries.”
In addition to the challenge of having work displayed in a gallery, there also exists the challenge of producing art in the first place.
“Part of getting into a gallery, is how good or bad your work is, but a big part of it is having the right people hear about it,” Fermin said. “It is also difficult to find a studio. More artists are moving to Philadelphia and Boston because it is cheaper. Also, you have to support yourself. Making a living and trying to produce art at the same time is difficult. I want to one day be able to live off of my art.”
Dejan Simic, an art dealer at Martin Lawrence Galleries in Soho, said that while museums may be more open to immigrant art, galleries are definitely more difficult to break into.
“Galleries are not that open to new artists or to immigrant art, whatever that may be,” he said. “We take established and popular artists that we know will sell.”
Why Immigrant Artists Still Come
Despite the longings for home and the financial turmoil, immigrant artists continue to come to New York City because it continues to be the capital of the art world and still offers great opportunities for new artists and new art. A big market is present here, with plenty of galleries and collectors who buy artwork. There is also a very prominent art community already living here.
“New York City is the biggest metropolis in the world,” said Fermin. “In terms of the arts, it’s rich and varied. I came because of my possibilities as an artist.” And, he said, help is available. “The good thing now is that there are organizations that get the artists’ art out,” Fermin said. “There are institutions like New York Foundation of the Arts, Art in General, and Artist’s Space.”
Said Velarde: “New York is one of the friendliest places for art.”