Paths More Traveled: Youths Distill Migration

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Global Youth Media & Arts Festival, at NYU Commons Gallery, 34 Stuyvesant Street, 8 a.m. – 10 p.m. through June 20. For more information call 212-759-2307.

The ubiquity of newcomers in this city of immigrants can make it a challenge to think about immigration in terms that are startling or fresh. Add to the mix the nettlesome question of what makes one’s identity – the age old refrain of ‘who am I and who do others perceive me to be? – and the end result risks feeling overly familiar, like an old tune from years ago being dusted off and played yet again.

But the students who created artwork for an exhibition on display at New York University’s Commons Gallery have created pieces that speak about immigration in ways that are both startling and fresh while dealing with a subject as old as New York itself. To these middle and high school students, immigration is as much about moving to America from Hong Kong, Jamaica or Albania as it is about moving from the South Bronx to Staten Island or moving in with one parent after the other has died. And the question of identity is expressed by painting adjectives on their skin as much as it is through eating at a Pakistani restaurant for the first time or by trolling through Chelsea galleries in search of how best to express exactly where one has come from.

The exhibition is the culmination of a six-month long collaboration between the San Francisco-based nonprofit World Savvy, local educators and students from 20 city public schools. Known as the Global Youth Media and Arts Program, the program seeks to help young people learn to use art and media as tools for self-expression, dialogue and community engagement in furthering World Savvy’s overarching mission, which is to educate and engage youth in community and world affairs.

“In New York, a city where over 36 percent of the population is foreign-born and where nearly half – 42 percent – of public school students speak a language other than English at home, cultural competency is an essential tool for students to develop,” says World Savvy executive director Dana Curran. The program “enables students learn about issues surrounding diversity and immigration – issues which impact their day-to-day lives – through art and media.”

Individual teachers who applied to the program, which included staff development workshops and unique field trips for students, were selected based on their commitment to diversity and community engagement. Preference for the program was given to high-needs schools and agencies, where more than half the students qualify for free or reduced-cost lunches.
The artwork and media projects are grouped into presentations by school throughout the NYU exhibition space and are as varied as can be. Near the entrance, viewers are invited to map their paths of migration using yarn and points on a virtual map spanning a wall, creating a pattern that is constantly in flux as more viewers add their contributions to the mix.

Breaking up the space just beyond that is a series of hanging panels created by Bronx Green Middle School students, whose photography project resembles a graffiti-like assemblage of photos, words, poems and memories depicting the various places and experiences that forge the students’ identities. One student writes of constructing one’s identity by reconstructing the past: “Those old trees my father used to climb / When I go to Africa I shall do the same.” Another conveys a haunting memory of watching an aunt shot to death in Albania, a place “full of both beautiful and tragic” memories.

At the far end of the gallery a tightly unified collection of works by tenth graders at CSI International High School on Staten Island conveys a clear theme. The central element of every piece is a silhouette of the artist, surrounded by images describing his or her journeys and migrations, both past and present.

Wingsome Cheung, 16, surrounded her silhouette with arrows and maps depicting her migration from Hong Kong to New York, but focuses on places she has never been. “My art is about a journey, the places I still want to go,” she said.

Classmate Darlene Akanmu, 15, adds to her portrait a “staircase of life,” illustrating the major events of her life. Though she was born in New York City and has never moved beyond its borders, the steps on the staircase read like a series of migrations that go farther than one ought to travel in only the first 15 years of life: “birth,” “aunt died,” “mother died,” “move in with dad,” “graduation,” “new church.”

Other collections include a series of photographs by Flushing International High School students depicting “life on the 7 train.” The ordinary quality to the moments the students chose to capture is telling – workers loading and unloading cardboard boxes, crowds coming and going under the elevated tracks, the rooftops of buildings below as seen from the train windows.

Vivia Thompson, 13, whose “pedagogy of photography” class at Bronx Green Middle School created the hanging window panel displays, described how learning to express individual identities and hearing each others’ stories led to an interesting conclusion: “We’re all different people who have really different backgrounds but we can all relate to one another.”

– Michelle Han