Orchard Street is known for great deals on undergarments and down coats. Starting this week, however, it will also serve as a backdrop for an unusual art installation called “Coming Home.” Housed in the windows of the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, the exhibit features artifacts that reflect the immigrant experience, including a jar of Nivea cream, a miniature pink elephant and a dictionary.
Coming Home was the brainchild of Lower East Side artist Aresh Javadi, who worked with two classes of 28 English as a Second Language (ESL) students from New York City College of Technology in downtown Brooklyn as part of the Tenement Museum’s Shared Journeys program. Javadi worked alongside ESL teachers Doug Montgomery and Jay Klokker to help students to identify and explore the things most precious to them. “Sometimes it was people, sometimes it was pictures,” said Javadi, whose sole rule was that the items and images had to somehow represent the student’s place of origin.
The resulting work fills four street-side windows, featuring objects, maps, flags and stories from countries including Mexico, Haiti and Vietnam. Two bicycle wheels joined by a strip of latex form an oval-shaped frame that functions like a rotating clothesline for posters and foot-high pictures of the students who created them.
A native of Shiraz, Iran and co-founder of the More Gardens! Coalition, an open-space advocacy group, Javadi said he loves “recycling, reusing and not using fancy things.” He asked the students, whose last names were withheld for privacy, to employ a similar approach. Juan’s blue tin of Nivea cream represents his mother’s attentiveness. For Jean, an English-language dictionary is a link to friend from Haiti recently killed in Iraq. An elephant-shaped lip-gloss dispenser reminds Karla of a woman she met when entering the United States from El Salvador.
According to Javadi, working on Coming Home helped students bolster their English skills—and their self-confidence. At the beginning of the project, many of the participants, who range in age from 21 to 70, were reluctant to make drawings or collages, said Javadi, who encountered comments like “’I’m not worthy of a gallery or museum’ or ‘I’ve never done art.’”
To encourage the students, he tried to emphasize the importance of the process itself. “’It doesn’t matter,’ he said. ‘You’re sharing. That’s all.’”
Coming Home opens Thurs. Jan. 5, 6-8 p.m. at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, 108 Orchard St. The windows will remain on display through June 14. For more information, visit www.tenement.org or call 212-431-0233.