Friday, August 6, 2010

Walker's Point Center for the Arts scores with photo show about refugees in Milwaukee

Here, There, and Elsewhere: Refugee Families in Milwaukee, a photo-documentary, opened on July 23 at the Walker’s Point Center for the Arts. Unfortunately, I was elsewhere myself then. But I knew I was going to like this one and made a point of going to see it recently.

I was not disappointed. This is one of the most important photography shows by local artists I’ve seen in Milwaukee in a long time. And you could even take out the “by local artists” and it still would be. The artists are John Ruebartsch and Sally Kuzma and their collaboration has produced a body of work about immigrant communities in Milwaukee that has the imprimatur of the Wisconsin Humanities Council, the Wisconsin Arts Board, and the National Endowment for the Arts, among others. (So, I’m not the only one.)

The opening of the exhibit was followed by a panel presentation (which, sadly, I also missed) by Jasmine Alinder, Assoc. Professor of History at UWM, Chia Youyee Vang, also an Assoc. Professor of History at UWM—and herself a refugee from Laos—and John Gurda, Milwaukee’s eminent historian. Here are excerpts from what each had to say about this work.

Jasmine Alinder: The photographs honor and respect subjects’ claims to self-presentation and reflect the project creators’ desires to tell the stories of these people in a manner that portrays their humanity and does not exploit their differences. The photographer, John Ruebartsch, is himself an immigrant. The Milwaukee Refugee project brings together his interest in photographic documentation, and the formal concerns of light, composition, and rich color, with his desire to examine social issues and his own status as a naturalized citizen of the U.S.

Chia Youyee Vang: Migration is as old as humankind, though the factors that prompt people to move vary. Whether pushed out by war, famine, or oppression, or pulled by the promise of economic opportunity or freedom, displaced people may take months, years, or entire lifetimes to make sense of their situation. Migration across national borders can be particularly traumatic, especially if there is little chance of returning home. The photographs in Here, There, and Elsewhere show the experiences of some of these people whose journeys away from far-off wars or conflicts have led them to Milwaukee.

John Gurda: They have come, these newest of the new Milwaukeeans, from places that most of us would have trouble finding on a map—from Burma, Somalia, Laos, Sudan, Vietnam…. As unfamiliar as they may seem to residents of longer tenure, the families pictured in Here, There, and Elsewhere mark a compelling return to one of the community’s oldest traditions. Just as the U.S. is a nation of nations, Milwaukee has long been a city of newcomers. [This exhibit] is therefore not a revelation but a return. What we see in these carefully made photographs is private lives on public view. …We see in their dark eyes…the telling blend of hope, fear, and determination that has always defined the American people.

The complete remarks from which these excerpts were taken are available in a catalogue of the exhibit at Walker’s Point Center for the Arts.

There are too many good images in this show to have a favorite, but this one is right at the top. It is a wonderful combination of staged formal wedding portrait and decisive moment. The bride, as usual, is the center of attention, but, atypically, she has no interest in the photographic proceedings. The cultural cues are also mixed, ambiguous, within a precisely framed composition.

Don’t wait too long to see this one; it closes Aug. 28.

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