‘Women Warriors,’ at Carlito’s Cafe through Jan. 19, (212) 534-7168.
The photographs hanging in this exhibit were first intended solely for the photographers themselves, six immigrant women taking English classes run by the Center for Immigrant Families, and their friends and families. Conceived to help the women with their language skills as well as provide a window into their lives and communities, the exhibit began as a project through Bread and Roses, the cultural arm of healthcare workers’ union 1199 SEIU, which provided the cameras.
When the project was completed, the photographers wanted to show their black-and-white photos to a wider audience, and Art for Change – a community-based organization in Harlem that promotes social change through art – connected the group with a venue. The photos now hang at Carlito’s Café, a small storefront gallery on Lexington and 107th street.
The six women – from Mexico, Bangladesh, Ecuador, and the Dominican Republic – have chosen ordinary subjects to document. Each photo is accompanied by a short text that is geared to strengthen the women’s English skills and also tell the viewer the photographer’s thoughts. Given that New York City is home to 1.2 million foreign-born residents without strong skills in spoken English, only 3 percent of whom are served by state-funded English programs, other educational avenues clearly are needed (for details, see this Center for an Urban Future report).
“The Center for Immigrant Families reached out to us,” said Deycy Avitia, a member of Art for Change and one of the organizers of the show. “The women who had taken the photos were looking to do an exhibit. They didn’t just want the photos to be an end in themselves, but to exhibit somewhere.” The center serves 90 women of the Upper West Side each year through its Women’s Popular Education Program.
If the gallery-going public is looking for great art, they will be disappointed. Although the photographic process in itself may have been helpful for the women’s language skills, most of the photos don’t give great insight into their makers or their daily struggles. The majority are fairly generic: images of children posing for the camera, children in graduation garb, children sleeping splayed across a bed. There are bland photos of street scenes that do not reveal very much.
The exception is the photos by Hilda Yulan de Villavicencio. De Villavicencio ties her photos to the immigrant experience in a way that combines art with social commentary, and the results are evocative in image as well as text.
Perhaps the strongest photo in the show is one of hers portraying a young woman sitting at the airport, luggage in front of her and staring ahead, slightly downward. In the background is an empty American Airlines desk. The placement of the figure in the frame and the starkness around her is a good symbol of isolation that wouldn’t need an accompanying text. But the caption makes it all the more poignant: “I feel bad when I pass the airport because of the separation from my family. I left my country very sad because my children remain.” In another of her photos, a woman sits on a sofa, cell phone to her ear. The text reads, “Each week I call by telephone home and talk with my family. I feel happy to hear them. They live in Ecuador.”
Fatima Hague, a native of Bangladesh, also has a few strong pieces in the show. The picture of a woman stirring food in a simple metal pot on a stove is framed in an original way. The viewer doesn’t see the woman’s face, only her hands, so that divorced from the individual’s identity we get a sense of the commonality of Everywoman’s experience. Unfortunately the simple text (“I like to cook”) doesn’t reveal much. Is she cooking for a large family or just for herself? Does she cook every night? Does she cook American food or that of her background?
Although a viewer shouldn’t have to rely upon text, since text is included in the show it could provide a good opportunity to learn more about the women’s lives. In another of Hague’s photos a young girl (her daughter?) stands in front of a picture from the subcontinent. It’s a nice composite of an individual united with her background yet separate from it, since the background itself is only a two-dimensional photo. This is one photo that doesn’t need text, as the image says it all.
Whether or not the women choose to continue with their photography, they have now had the experience of showing their work. “We wish to create a network for artists who might not have access, to be in a gallery,” said Avitia, of Art for Change.