We meet in the exchange

‘Crossing Borders’ showcases immigration stories past and present

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“New Dreams,” Samuel Ronquillio
Susan France

“During this transition I imagine, that I’m standing on the floating block of ice and thinking about my previous life and try to analyze my dismay and anticipations of unknown future. … Will the flow bring me to the Garden of Eden or the ice will thaw and I’ll be drowned into the cold abyss?”

Translated from her native Russian, Boulder painter Olga Karpeisky shares the thoughts, fears and apprehension she felt when immigrating to Colorado in 1993 in her poem “Icy Transition,” accompanying her painting of the same name. As part of the Crossing Borders exhibit currently showing at The Dairy Arts Center, Karpeisky’s work describes a sentiment that only faintly echoes throughout the immigration conversation currently unfolding in the U.S., one that most of us don’t hear.

Both contemporary and historical, Crossing Borders weaves together the varied immigration stories that make up the fabric of American life, taking the viewer on a moving journey throughout time and space. The exhibit is part of the One Action Arts + Immigration Project, a countywide arts initiative running through November 2016. The project seeks to foster informed conversations surrounding the broad topic of immigration in hopes of creating a more inclusive community. Featuring 30 works by 19 different artists, the exhibit is a poignant reminder that immigration is at the heart of the American experience and has been for generations.

“There’s a lot of different stories being told,” says Rebecca Cuscaden, curator of the show. “We didn’t limit the call to just people that have immigrated themselves, it was [open to] anyone who wanted to explore and embrace the topic.”

Samuel Ronquillo’s work, for example, depicts his story crossing the U.S./Mexican border, being captured by border patrol and then deported before eventually making it to the U.S. and becoming a citizen. Ronquillo is now an immigration attorney as well as an artist, and his pieces are full of the vibrant emotion — hope, despair and gratitude — indicative of such an immigration journey.

But not all the pieces in Crossing Borders deal with migrants crossing the southern border. Artworks in the show also chronicle paths from Italy, Japan, China, India, Eastern Europe and Norway, among others. Some pieces tell immigrant stories of generations past, while others look at the families their relatives left behind.

“Unseen Restrictions,” Ileana Barbu (detail)Susan France
“Unseen Restrictions,” Ileana Barbu (detail)

In Ileana Barbu’s piece “Unseen Restrictions” depicts the lives of Romanians living behind the Iron Curtain, a world that severely limited the basic freedoms of speech and assembly, among others. But after immigrating to the U.S. in 1992, the artist realized the average American had no idea of the restrictions people living in Eastern Europe experienced at the time.

“Unseen Restrictions,” Ileana BarbuSusan France
“Unseen Restrictions,” Ileana Barbu

The works in Crossing Borders reflect not only the artists’ personal migration journeys, but also broaden our understanding of the topic in a world that increasingly attempts to polarize it.

“There’s not only the black and white,” says artist Ana Maria Hernando, whose installation “Pond” is featured in Crossing Borders. “It’s so easy to fall into the dualistic conversation [but] I think there is a loss for this society to say ‘no’ to immigration and make things so difficult.”

Originally from Buenos Aires, Hernando has been in the states for 30 years, living in Berkeley and Boston before moving to Boulder 20 years ago. When she first arrived, even though she knew English, she was struck by the varied historical and cultural connotations each person carries in their spoken language, deeper meanings often missed by others.

“And in that way I felt invisible and I felt that communication was way beyond the words,” Hernando says. “I felt that it was both sad and at the same exhilarating because I felt like I could reinvent myself and be a completely different person. But none of my history was present, my personal or my country’s history or my continent’s history and I encountered a lot of clichés from people and also I had mine.”

“Pond” features sandals made out of tires worn by the 500 residents of Mollomarka, a small Quechua village in the Andes mountains outside of Cusco, Peru.

“Pond,” Ana Maria Hernando
“Pond,” Ana Maria Hernando

Hernando first visited the village 11 years ago, working as a translator. She was quickly inspired by the people she met and the way they lived their life in community, not focusing so much on the ego but always considering what’s best for everyone.

“With all the immigration issues and the fear of immigration, there is such a wisdom in these old communities,” she says. “There is so much to give and wisdom that, here in the political realm, is erased.”

So Hernando began raising money in the U.S. to buy the villagers new sandals, while at the same time purchasing their old rubber ones.

“It’s very important in all of my work with other people, that there is dignity in the exchange,” she says. “Historically all these groups have felt robbed in many ways and I don’t want to be any part of that. So I prefer to exaggerate the other side.”

This practice is based on the Quechua word “ayni.” It means, “What I have, you don’t have and what you have, I don’t have. So we meet in this exchange of what we can give each other,” she says.

For her installation, Hernando arranged the sandals of all sizes in a circular shape, representing a pond of water, exemplifying the life people beyond our borders can bring to the American landscape.

“It’s the presence of this wisdom and these very raw, very straight-forward stories and ways of being in the world,” Hernando says. “I felt that it could be a gift for us here.”

The pieces in Crossing Borders are just that, a gift for the viewer — an invitation into a cultural exchange that leaves all parties with a renewed perspective of dignity and understanding.