Seeing the Lives of Immigrants in Objects and Images of Home

“Alma’s notebook,” from the series Testimony, digital photograph (2017, all photos courtesy and © Eliza Gregory)

Narratives of immigration are often saturated with crisis, especially in the Trump era, which has immigrants and their advocates lurching from one crisis to the next. But Testimony, an exhibition opening April 5 at San Francisco’s Asian Art Museum, chooses to focus less on trauma and displacement than on the everyday meanings of home.

One of the objects on display is a two-inch plastic figurine that belongs to Alma, a San Francisco resident and recipient of DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals). “This homie reminds me of my Uncle Germán,” Alma explains, in an exhibition handout. “He was my last uncle killed in Mexico before my mom decided to come to the United States.”

Eliza Gregory, “Alma,” from the series Testimony, digital photograph (2017)

The exhibition, created by the social practice artist, photographer, and San Francisco native Eliza Gregory, grew out of a three-year collaboration with the museum’s Drawing Club. Gregory conducted interviews and collected objects, ephemera, and family photos to create testimonies, or formal accounts, of immigration to the San Francisco Bay Area. “Each testimony offers counterpoints to the contemporary and deeply troubled dialogue around immigration,” she told me. “Someone who has been through a terrible thing isn’t worth more or less than someone who hasn’t,” she said. “Someone who contributes at one kind of job, versus contributing at another kind of job, isn’t more or less valuable.”

Khanh, an 80-year-old Vietnam War refugee, appears in an intimate portrait, one of several by Gregory, perched on his living room couch. He’s surrounded by the familiar clutter of domestic life: plants, a stuffed animal, a coffee table stacked with objects, a framed poster of Norwegian fjords. The image says nothing about his flight from Vietnam on a fishing boat, or the wife he left behind. Instead, it captures the security and creature comforts of home.

Eliza Gregory, “Khanh,” from the series Testimony, digital photograph (2017)

Next to Khanh hang lively portraits of students, doctors, blue-collar workers, artists, and entrepreneurs, representing a range of class backgrounds and immigrant experiences. “There are some who are saying, ‘Yeah, I just came here because I wanted to go to school. I’m living my life. Things are okay,’” explained Gregory. “They might talk about particular challenges, or moments of cultural shock. Others shared their reflections on what we need to do as a society to move forward.”

The show includes its own newspaper, packed with interviews in which participants narrate their immigration stories, some heartwarming, others harrowing. “The answer to my asylum case could arrive any minute,” says Yuri, for whom Guatemala is too dangerous to return. “Every day, when the envelopes come through the mail slot, I run with excitement and fear, looking for the answer.” Gregory photographed Yuri — wearing heels, a colorful jacket, and a look of confidence that suggest a destiny of her own — in her living room, a small refuge from the world.

Eliza Gregory, “Nancy,” from the series Testimony, digital photograph (2017)

Nancy, a mother of two, contributed a barrel-man, a talisman of home. The small wood figurine, complete with a spring-loaded penis, shows up in “every Filipino household,” she explains in the newspaper, together with “a wooden spoon and fork and a karaoke machine.” For Jack, a college student from China, immigration has been a lesson in cognitive dissonance. Describing his expectations of the state, he says: “California is sunny beaches and bikinis!” That image didn’t match up with the gray skies and cool climate of San Francisco, which he now calls home.

The setting of the Asian Art Museum, together with the show’s participants, many of whom hail from Asia, connects these personal objects to San Francisco’s historical role in national conversations about immigration. New York might dominate the popular imagination, with its iconic images of Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty. But hundreds of thousands of immigrants, mostly Chinese, arrived in San Francisco on the heels of the Gold Rush — until the United States closed its borders to them. Exclusion laws turned anti-immigrant sentiment into an official policy, the effects of which are still felt today. Residents today might see their city as a haven for immigrants, but it hardly used to be this way.

Nancy holds two photographs, digital photograph from the series Testimony (2017)

While the past is a part of the exhibition, Gregory’s focus is the present. She wants to encourage visitors to reflect on their own family stories while absorbing those of others. As a keeper, editor, and publisher of other people’s lives, she’s sensitive to “all the ways that the structure of a project can, and often does, reinforce the power dynamics that it’s seeking to disrupt,” she said. The show avoids suggesting that some kinds of suffering are worse than others, which could undermine its participatory, egalitarian quality. Visitors might gravitate to some stories over others, but Gregory has given every testimony the same treatment, assembling her material in ways that celebrate the pluralism of Bay Area immigrant communities.

“People get reduced to just this one moment, when they made a certain decision and then a certain set of things came out of that,” she said. “But then all the other parts of who they are, all the other times in their lives, their stuff and their memories, are not a part of their story. They’re dismissed.” In the current moment, when so many lives are devalued, it’s worth remembering that every person has more than one story.

A digital photograph of ship sculpture that Khanh constructed, from the series Testimony (2017)

Testimony continues at the Asian Art Museum (200 Larkin Street, San Francisco,  California) until June 10.

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