Culture Lab Detroit shines a light on the work of outstanding immigrant artists

The roads to Detroit

As millions of people living in the United States hold our breath in the face of a president-elect who seems hell-bent on waging war on immigrants, a series of recent events orchestrated by Culture Lab Detroit proved themselves to be exceptionally timely.

"Culture Lab Detroit's 2016 theme is 'Walls,'" Culture Lab Detroit founder Jane Schulak says. "Participants in this year's programs are all connected by their interest in reconsidering the structures which define our lives."

This was certainly the case at "Art and the immigrant experience," a panel discussion featuring performers and artists Migguel Anggelo, Kia Arriaga, Rola Nashef, and Chido Johnson, and moderated by Gracie Xavier, director of corporate and economic development strategy at Global Detroit.

"We chose panelists whose work specifically addresses the immigrant identity, and the challenges of living between two cultural worlds," Schulak says. "This is more important today than it was even a week ago. It was particularly interesting to discuss the evolution of voting privileges for immigrants following this election. I think overall we found that we all have a deep connection to our cultural roots, but also evolve as members of the community we surround ourselves with.

"No matter what our background, we ultimately share the same human experience."

The panel, which took place earlier this month, was packed to standing room, and underscored the ways in which immigrants have an experience that is both unique and universal. Coming to the United States from Cuernavaca Morelos, Mexico (as did Kia Arriaga) is radically different than having roots in Nyadiri, Zimbabwe (as does Chido Johnson) or being born in Lebanon (as was Rola Nashef) — and yet each of these artist-immigrants can find some common ground in terms of art's power to assist in bridging the divide between their native and adopted homelands.

"The panel was interesting," Johnsonsays. "We all accepted that being from immigrant cultures as artists, we automatically felt we had roles to represent cultural context beyond our own individual expressions."

"One of the particular challenges we face as immigrants and artists is having to face cultural shock and having to find our voice in a different culture, and keep that voice alive and strong," Arriaga says. "For some of us, that voice should stay true to our values and traditions in order to communicate our ideas. In my case this is critical. It took me a while to decide that what I do is my real voice — in this case, Aztek culture and Ofrenda installations."

Arriaga takes an active role in education around misappropriations in her own culture; some of her artistic influences manifest in her work as an Aztek dancer and member of the Aztek group Kalpulli Tlahuikayotl.

"I did feel participating in the panel was refreshing," Arriaga says. "I often forget there's more immigrant artists who face the same challenges and issues. It was also refreshing to see how others based their success in hard work and never giving up.
I think having a discussion with others is a way to empathize and feel that you are not alone facing those issues and the success stories are definitely an example of how to work towards our own goals."

Filmmaker Rola Nashef's award-winning feature, Detroit Unleaded, is the first Arab-American romantic comedy portraying second-generation Arab characters specific to Detroit and Dearborn. During the panel, she touched on the struggles she confronted in trying to represent her culture through a love story when expectations were trying to push her to sensationalize her culture within media negative stereotypes — in a sense, her political stance is to be nonpolitical.

"Arab-Americans are often forced into identity politics," Nashef says. "In my work, I wanted to present characters completely outside the context of religion, nationality, and political affiliation therefor making room for interpersonal conflicts, friendship, and love."

Johnson, by contrast, is overtly political. Much of his visual art, collaborative projects — which includes his role as co-founder for the Zimbabwe Cultural Center in Detroit — and teaching is directly influenced by his activist upbringing and firsthand witness to Zimbabwe's political climate.

"Considering our Trump state, as a cultural practitioner, we should not weaken our [artistic and political] goals by changing them, but rather we may need to become more militant in how we accomplish them," Johnson says. "We can't dumb down our goals, our work is too important."

The final panelist, Brooklyn, New York-based, Venezuelan-born performer Migguel Anggelo, followed his panel appearance with a performance of his acclaimed show "Another Son of Venezuela" at the Detroit Institute of Arts recently as part of the museum's Friday Night Live! Anggelo, backed by his diverse and energetic band the Immigrants, combined personal storytelling, performance of original works and snippets of covers, and high-energy song and dance numbers to create a kind of sonic collage on the theme on immigrant identity. Like all of the artists on the panel, Anggelo demonstrated that immigrant narratives can be joyous and vibrant celebrations of life — even life that includes struggle and uncertainty.

Kudos to Culture Lab, for an ambitious season of scaling walls, and some timely food for thought in tumultuous times. On the subject of immigrant experience, Johnson says that aside from Native Americans, all U.S. residents are immigrants.

"We have to embrace and accept that," he says. "The so-called 'other' is ourselves. Immigrant artists have taken the role to represent 'other' spaces. The more we all do that, the more we blur the lines that divide our many nations."

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