Reporting on ‘Immigrant Arts in America’

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How it’s New York: The Museum of Jewish Heritage is located in Battery Park.

Panelist Daniel Kahn and Moderator Ann Curry – Photo by Julia Osen Averill

How it’s Irish: The panels included representatives from the Irish Repertory Theatre, the Irish Arts Center and Irish artists Carrie Beehan and Larry Kirwan.

On July 17th, an all-day summit entitled Immigrant Arts In America was held at the Museum of Jewish Heritage, presented by National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene. The morning panels (which I unfortunately missed) featured a wide array of representatives from the New York arts and culture communities, including the Kairos Italy Theater, the American Federation of Musicians Local 802, the Turkish American Repertory Theater, the Irish Arts Center and Cumbe: Center for African and Diaspora Dance.

In the afternoon I attended two panels moderated by journalist and former “Today” co-anchor Ann Curry. The first was entitled Curating The Immigrant Experience and included Rocio Aranda-Alvarado  from El Museo Del Barrio, Elissa Cohen from the Museum of Jewish Heritage, Hanna Griff-Sleven from the Museum at Eldridge Street and Andrew Rebattta from the Museum of Chinese in America.

Griff-Sleven spoke about the unique position that the Eldridge Street Museum, which is housed inside the 19th century Eldridge Street Synagogue, has held for the last century on the Lower East Side and well beyond the little stretch of street.

“We’re an anchor in the neighbourhood. The faces have changed but they’re still immigrants with the same problems. We’re a country of cast outs. We’ve reached out to the community when we’ve had to and it reinforces the notion that we come together.”

Both Cohen and Rebatta spoke of the need to find commonalities.

Cohen said that each year the Museum of Jewish Heritage has Muslim fifth-graders visit. The students bring in objects from their culture and explain why they brought them on their journeys to America. Rebatta said that when creating themes for exhibits at the Museum of Chinese in America,

“we look for familiar stories that exist and the stories attached to them, like a basketball uniform. Our current exhibit is on Chinese food. Lots of Americans have their first-time exposure to culture through food. People learn operatively that we share similar experiences when they come to the museum.”

The Cast of Amerike The Golden Land – Photo by Victor Nechay

The second, equally diverse panel was on Immigrant Artist Practitioners. The guests were Irish-born artist Carrie Beehan, Irish musician Larry Kirwan of Irish band Black 47, Nina Zoie Lam of the National Asians Artists Program, Jenny Romaine from Great Small Works and singer and actor Daniel Kahn of the Yiddish musical Amerike The Golden Land, currently being performed (through Aug. 20) at the Museum of Jewish Heritage.

Curry started things off by asking the panelists how their heritage comes into their work.

Kirwan responded,

“I was raised by my grandfather who died around the time I came here. I missed his voice and was broke. I made my way to the Bronx and their Irish bars. Founded Black 47. There was so much illegal immigration in the Bronx and no one was speaking for them.”

Beehan illuminated her own distinct immigration experience. She began by showing her New York State license that was stamped “Temporary Visitor”. She’s in the US on an “O” Visa for “extraordinary ability.”

Beehan said that

“the fight to get permanent citizenship as an artist is crazy. Because I came in sponsored by a production manager, I have to prove I’m a national treasure”

in order to get a better visa.

Curry asked Lam, a first-generation Chinese-American, about where her need to create access to art and the formation of the National Asians Artists Program came from.

Lam explained that by being born here but with two Chinese parents,

“I was straddling two worlds. I formed my own path out of an identity crises. In the Asian community, music is very important. What saved me were piano and dance lessons.”

Lam went on to tell the story of her company’s first production, Oklahoma.

“We had to go to Rodgers and Hammerstein for permission and they had to decide if an all-Asian cast was going to be able to tell the story: would audiences buy Asian faces? We had two of our actors do a duet in their office and they gave us the rights.”

Kahn, who grew up in the “shletls” outside of Detroit and lives in Berlin, added his take on the connection between art, immigration and sharing the culture:

“Louis Armstrong said it’s all world music because he’d never heard a Martian sing a song. Borders are always more porous than they want to be. We throw ‘world culture’ around a lot as if it were a static thing. It’s organic. It has its roots in word cultivation at the borders where exchanges happen.”

John Leguizamo and Moderator Alex Simmons – Photo by Julia Osen Averill

The day wrapped up with a keynote address and interview, moderated by Alex Simmons, from the very funny, thought-provoking artist, actor and writer John Leguizamo, who spoke so fast that you would have thought he had a limited supply of oxygen.

Leguizamo was born in Columbia but moved to the US as a child, where he came to call Jackson Heights home.

“I’m influenced by Columbia and Puerto Rico, but I grew up in America. Elmhurst is the most diverse place in the world. I identified with being Latino, and not just one nationality.”

He started on stage first, playing Puck at The Public Theater. He migrated to movie roles but said that he started writing his one-man shows so that there would be some Latino representation.

“We’re the only group to have fought in every war going back to the Revolution. We’re the future of this country. Our median age is 28. The median age of whites is 42. We’d be the 11th largest country if Latinos had their own.”

Although he admitted that writing the shows are therapeutic for him, he said he also

“writes for Latino youth, but beyond that, not a specific demographic. I also want to write for prisoners where 40% of the population is Latino. I want to touch all communities.”

If you missed the panel or want to immerse yourself further, here are just two ways you can get a taste of the intersect of art and the immigrant experience in New York right now: check out the exhibit Sour Sweet Bitter Spicy: Stories of Chinese Food and Identify in America at the Museum of the Chinese in America through September 10, and see Daniel Kahn and the rest of the cast in Amerike The Golden Land.

 

 

 


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