At the corner of art and advocacy: "Intersections" exhibit opens at Conn College
Think of the Statue of Liberty and that immortal line about "Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free." Well, what if Emma Lazarus, who authored that quote, had added one more phrase? Something along the lines of, "Give me your huddled masses yearning to breathe free — and let them create art!"
That expresses the spirit behind "Intersections," an extensive art exhibition opening Tuesday at Connecticut College's Cummings Art Center in New London. It features works in a variety of media from seven renowned and successful artists, all of whom were born outside the U.S. and now live and work in the region. Participating are Corina S. Alvarezdelugo (originally from Venezuela), Rafael Colón (Puerto Rico), Guido Garaychochea (Peru), Tedman David Martínez Onofre (Puerto Rico), Nadine Renazile (Haiti), Pierre Sylvain (Haiti) and Mohamad Hafez (Syria), and all have negotiated their career trajectories through their respective experiences — good and bad — as immigrants.
"'Intersections' comes at a time when we as a nation struggle with our collective identity — maybe more so than ever in light of the current legal and political environment post-Trump. Naturally, this has had an impact on the community of immigrants that live and work in New London," says Martínez Onofre, who also conceptualized the show.
In addition to his career as a painter, Martínez Onofre is a longtime counselor at the Bennie Dover Middle School Campus who was born in Arecibo, Puerto Rico, and moved with his parents to the South Bronx in New York when he was very young.
"There have been many episodes that have made me feel a part of — and at the same time separate from — mainstream America," he says. "To abandon an old culture and assume a new identity is not easy, and some wonder if that's even possible anymore. I like to believe it is, and that art is one way to express those hopes and concerns."
To that end, "Intersections" also serves as a fundraiser for the Immigration Advocacy and Support Center in New London, a nonprofit outfit that provides immigrants with legal services and works in the community to advocate and educate about immigration policy. The artists in the show have agreed to offer their works for sale and will donate half the proceeds to IASC.
Martínez Onofre came up with the idea for "Intersections" as a member of of the IASC board of directors and, through that connection, met Leo Garofalo, an associate professor of history and Latin American Studies at Connecticut College. The two shared numerous conversations about the personal context of the immigration process, and it occurred to Martínez Onofre to utilize his art as a way to bring attention to the situation.
"Leo put me in touch with (Conn College assistant professor of art) Chris Barnard and (Conn College professor of education) Lauren Anderson, which was huge because, without them, 'Intersections' would never have happened," Martínez Onofre says.
Barnard was intrigued and thought the concept of the show offered a unique opportunity for the college.
"We're fortunate to have this nice exhibit space, but showing work is a tough gig," Barnard says. "It's always a tough decision to allocate space because there's always more interesting art than there are walls.
"As a department, though, we all bought into Tedman's idea, particularly in these times. It's an opportunity to highlight these artists but also involve New London and our student community. What could be a finer intersection of art and activism and community?"
Once the decision was made, they reached out to a variety of artists whose work and lives were particularly appropriate, and the roster of participants was determined with careful thought to how the respective works would fit together as a whole.
"I trusted Chris' judgment on this," Martínez Onofre says. "Part of the excitement is to examine the ways to make two- and three-dimensional art work in an aesthetic context as well as a teaching tool. To that end, the color, the content, imagery and abstraction ... the material these artists have brought offers so much."
"To be honest, it's a lot of work to do a collaborative show here because we're stretched pretty thin in the context of a college art department," Barnard says. "But the potential benefits of this show are amazing."
The exhibition is expansive, with works on display in in the JYC Gallery and the Manwaring Gallery. There is also supporting work on display in the Third Floor Gallery from Conn College alumni Miles Ladin '90, Juan Flores '16 and Melissa Luen '17. The exhibition runs through Oct. 12, and several related events will take place in support of the show (see sidebar).
Throughout, the variety of styles and expression is expansive, from painting to printmaking to sculptural installation, and the source of inspiration ranges from spiritual traditions to the War in Syria to gentrification. Vibrant color is a consistent thread, providing a sense of celebration and resilience.
Perhaps the most immediately arresting works in the show are Hafez's multi-media pieces, which include wall murals, sculpture, miniatures, photography and a massive hanging installation called "Desperate Cargo." Hafez, who is also an architect based in New Haven and was recently profiled in the New Yorker, has said his art is driven by his experiences as a migrant from war-torn Damascus and frequently focus on the war and the current refugee crisis.
Like all of the work in the exhibition, Hafez's contributions resonate in a harrowing but human fashion that reaches across cultures and reflects a deeper instinct.
"Humans want to connect. We're creative beings until we're pushed away or alienated, and that includes artists and people who come to see an exhibition," Barnard says. "That relates in a big way to the idea of the exhibition. We want students as well as people from the community, who maybe have never been to an art show or been on this campus, to feel welcome."