The Art of Immigration

For my last post, dear readers, I’ve decided to report on something related to the problems many are facing at the moment.

That is, the problems concerning immigration, and the allowance of people into the United States. People are of course divided on the issue, but I’ve decided to focus on another aspect: how would immigration help or hurt the rich arts and culture that people have practiced for thousands of years? How does their art and identity change and withstand that change?

Today we’re going on a journey, albeit shorter than theirs, with those who must protect their art and culture by leaving their homes. We’ll look at all types of art, from pottery to origami to paintings; each as colorful and full of stories as the last.

Art and Persecution 

When art has anything slightly controversial to it, the artist runs a very high risk of being persecuted. According to FreeMuse, there were 469 attacks on artists in 2015, with internment being the most popular punishment; however,there were 2 deaths. In 2016, there were 1,026 registered attacks on artists across 76 countries. These countries held the most incidents:

Courtesy of Freemuse under Creative Commons
Notice anything interesting? Yep that’s right, the U.S. of A. is 8th in the world for censorship of artists, higher even than Iran and Pakistan, where many of today’s immigrants are from, fleeing violence and war.

It’s not new that artists are often the targets of persecution for their art and beliefs. Michelangelo was persecuted for naughtily sneaking phalluses onto the Sistine Chapel ceiling, Caravaggio, a famous Baroque artist, was forced to repaint altarpieces for dirty feet on angels, and hundreds of female painters and artists were shunned, accused of witchcraft, or otherwise persecuted for any type of art they produced. It’s not much of a surprise of course that they trend really hasn’t left.

Of course, many artists flee before they’re persecuted, and end up in a safer place to practice their art.

Why Be Different or Inflammatory?

As an artist, I love doing things that make people uncomfortable. My last post featured a clay vagina cup, which, in turn, graced my facebook feed, and resulted in a hilarious call from my mother. It’s still up; though it was tempting to stay ‘safe’ by deleting it, I decided that it was dumb to be offended by a vagina when penises are everywhere.

This attitude is shared across many art worlds, and many believe that it’s the artist’s responsibility to visually critique the world and policies around them.

“You can’t help it. An artist’s duty, as far as I’m concerned, is to reflect the times.”  -Nina Simone

In order to practice without the hassles and battles and danger of their home country, however, many choose to move to a new place, or must take their things when they are forced to leave because of other conditions.

Practicing in a New Place

The first immigrant artists brought oils and canvas to the U.S., among them those fleeing the monarchy. Beautiful types of African Art were introduced to the Americas freely after the Emancipation Proclamation, the artists refugees of the horrible system of slavery, Chinese immigrants were instrumental in the 1920s in influencing fashion and art…the list never ends.

6. kimono coolie coat
Crepe de Chine’s from a 1920s sewing pattern, Courtesy of Marie at The Sewing Odyssey via Creative Commons
Immigration and people moving around the world has been affecting art since the beginning of human civilization.In many places, the art is spread around the fellow community of those who’ve also moved, usually religiously or culturally based, such as costumes or jewels. In other places, however, the fact that artists come from a troubled or different place sets the works apart, and allows them to be celebrated even more.

U.S. Preservation of Art by Immigrant Artists

In similar celebration and support in response to the Immigration bans, MoMA purposely installed art by Muslim artists in its permanent galleries last month. The fifth floor was slyly filled with these paintings, and Picasso and Matisse were replaced by artists such as Sudanese painter Ibrahim el-Salahi and  Iranian-born artists Tala Madani, Parviz Tanavoli and Marcos Grigorian. Each new entry was accompanied by a card that read:

“This work is by an artist from a nation whose citizens are being denied entry into the United States, according to a presidential executive order issued on Jan. 27, 2017. This is one of several such artworks from the Museum’s collection installed throughout the fifth-floor galleries to affirm the ideals of welcome and freedom as vital to this Museum as they are to the United States.”                           -MoMA curators

Immigrant art has been widely displayed in galleries major and local, and they aren’t alone in recognition of the art’s impact on society: every year in February , immigrant artists are awarded the Vilcek’s Award in they’ve made “Lasting contributions to American society through their extraordinary achievements in biomedical research and the arts.” Each artist receives $100,000. This year’s Vilcek Prize in fine art went to an artist born in Jamaica, Nari Ward.


Ward’s Liberty and Orders Via Lehmann Laupin
Canada, the UK, and many other countries have organizations, galleries, and awards to preserve and recognize art from newer citizens, and to say this helped these artists escape persecution is an understatement. Many artists would be stopped entirely from practicing art at all if not for moving to a freer place.

Immigration and Art beyond Persecution

In the case of the beloved Mary Zweemer, whose story we saw above, immigrating to the U.S. wasn’t as instrumental in her ceramic art as her husband, Neil. The two started going to the craft center some 30 years ago, and have been there on weekends ever since.

“I took a class in throwing, but didn’t really like it.” Mrs. Zweemer said.” So I started handbuilding and I love it!”

Though one could argue this: that if she hadn’t found her love and the ensuing journey in the U.S.,Mrs. Zweemer may have moved back to England, and never taken up pottery. The world would be a slightly less bright place, as her work puts a smile on my face every time I see it.

In the end, I believe that the art world belongs to all of us. As I have hopefully shown in this blog, art is a crucial, difficult and skilled world that can build friendships, begin communities, inspire others, and a thousand other wonderful things.

We are all works of art, no matter where we come from, and we should not be silenced!

Thank you for coming on this journey with me, and keep an eye out: Art Farts are everywhere, and I just might pop up again!




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