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Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Immigration and the arts

Hormuz Minina
  • Photo: Ian Cone, J.R. Ward, Stan Woodard
  • Hormuz Minina
One of the Beltline’s recent temporary artworks consisted of a thin, brown-skinned man who stripped himself naked, painted his body gold and inserted himself into a crevice in the hillside. There he remained until sunrise, literally becoming embedded in the Georgia earth in a performance both haunting and moving. The artist was Hormuz Minina, an artist of rare insight, whose even rarer works have been known to generate discussion for years afterward.

The work, titled “Promontory,” was arguably the standout work on the Beltline’s public art roster, and highly anticipated by Atlantan Senior Editor and former CL art critic Felicia Feaster, who said the performance was “virtually guaranteed” to be “a memorable experience for the mix of solemn poetry and conceptual elegance Minina brings to his work.” So far, it’s the work most likely to linger as significant long after it’s gone.

But “Promontory” might easily have remained an idea, never coming to fruition.

Minina hails from Bombay, India, and after 9/11 he and millions of other immigrants around the country were launched into a harrowing national anti-immigration nightmare that still reverberates today. Although being a South Asian immigrant in the American South was hardly a picnic before 9/11, the bureaucratic purgatory of visa paperwork and stiffened regulations designed to soothe a jittery American public upended lives and killed dreams for thousands.

Fortunately for Atlantans, Minina stayed in the country and the next nine years of artistic excellence, including “Promontory,” did happen. But as immigration has been thrust back into the forefront of our national conversation, the art world has remained predictably silent.

Let me be direct: Immigration is an arts issue. The history of art has been the history of the free exchange of people and ideas from a multitude of cultural experiences. Art thrives in open societies that welcome strangers. Closed societies that regard strangers as enemies produce art that is insular, parochial and largely irrelevant to the modern world. Take most Soviet art from the ’30s through the ’80s. That dreariness? That insipid quality? That’s what art looks like when the state has a thing against foreign ideas.

Undoubtedly you can hear Arizona’s new immigration law Senate Bill 1070 rattling around in the background. It’s a piece of legislation that, among other things, makes it illegal for legal immigrants to be caught in public without immigration papers on their person.

But it’s not SB 1070 in particular that should be keeping arts organizations up at night. It’s what SB 1070 says about who we are as a society. Even in an age of globalization, we find ourselves becoming a smaller, narrower and more fearful people. As the U.S. becomes a less welcoming place, artists and artists-to-be will go elsewhere. To see our future we need look no further than Great Britain, whose xenophobic immigration policies are making the island nation increasingly less attractive to cultural creatives who are now heading for places such as Berlin and even Beijing at an increasing rate.

Atlanta’s immigrant artists — both extraordinary and run-of-the-mill — have enlivened the cultural dialogue. Artists from Cuba, Czech Republic, Italy, Korea, Mexico, Nigeria and Venezuela have raised the local standards. Several of Atlanta’s most engaging shows recently have derived their energy from these far-flung locales. Spruill Gallery’s underappreciated LatinGA comes immediately to mind, as well as the cross-cultural conversations almost always in evidence at Saltworks or Kiang Gallery.

According to nonprofit public policy think tank the Brookings Institution, Atlanta has the 10th fastest growing immigrant population in the country — in fact, nine of the top 10 are in the South. It’s only a matter of time before the front lines of the immigration wars shift from Phoenix and San Diego to Atlanta and Nashville. And we’re sure to be confronted with the typical anti-immigration legislation that often accompanies such social transformations.

When that happens, we in the arts community will have a choice: Stand aside and let the usual suspects fight the fight, or recognize that the immigrants’ vitality is our vitality, their success our success. The Atlanta art world is starting to emerge as a community that matters to lots of people in lots of places. We can't afford to turn our backs on the world when the world is just beginning to turn its face toward us.

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