On the second floor of a warmly lit gallery, a vibrant painting of New Haven from above is mounted on the wall.
The intricacy allows the onlooker to see the individual marble slabs on the Beinecke, the clock on City Hall and individuals congregating around the World War I memorial. The entire city is enclosed in a transparent dome that gleams in the sunlight beneath a cloudless sky.
The artwork is Tony Falcone’s “Sanctuary City: A New Heaven and a New Earth.” It is one of over 100 displays in “Sanctuary Cities and the Politics of the American Dream” — an exhibit that opened on Thursday Oct. 3 at the Creative Arts Workshop (CAW) at 80 Audubon Street.
Falcone’s piece portrays New Haven as a sanctuary city — a city with laws that protect undocumented immigrants from deportation or prosecution. The exhibit explores identity, cultural belonging and political morality through the lens of artists from both New Haven and around the United States. It was organized by CAW’s Executive Director Anne Coates and curator Luciana McClure, who has spent the past three years leading Nasty Women Connecticut, a feminist art collective that seeks to elevate the voices of Connecticut artists. McClure said she responded to the CAW’s open request for a curator because she felt it was her calling to address a part of her own identity as a Brazilian immigrant.
“My attempt is to knock [down] both the physical and emotional walls that separate us so that we can come together as a community,” McClure said. “As a mother, as an immigrant, as a woman, I don’t understand how we can allow everything that is happening and turn a blind eye.”
Eighty percent of the 125 artists participating in the exhibit are immigrants who responded to McClure’s open call. She was curious to see how artists would grapple with their own identities as immigrants or as Americans.
“As an artist, I feel that there is a duty to be political and to engage but the only way we can do this is through access,” McClure said, “I want people to not feel ashamed or embarrassed about their artistic expression.”
The exhibit features a range of medium and artistic expression. Many of the pieces draw parallels between history and the current political climate.
One of the pieces, titled “We Waste Time Fixing What We Destroy,” is a portrait of a gaunt woman clothed in blue. Her skin is composed of expressive yet unblended brushstrokes of beige, peach and auburn while her mouth hangs open. A stream of brown paint leaks from her dark eyes, stark against her cheeks. A skeletal hand reaches towards her from the side of the frame.
According to artist Christian Miller, the painting is his comment on the United States’ tendency to create destruction in other countries, only to rebuild that country later. He said he questions in the piece whether the helping hand reaching into the painting is necessary when it hides a history of destruction.
“I believe that everyone has a right to be free,” Miller explained. “This whole country is made from immigrants. We should all just live in peace. Life is short, you get old and all this anger and hatred [becomes] meaningless. Just live as one.”
Miller’s piece shares its theme with another artwork in the gallery by Marcus Zilliox ART ’07 titled “Burn The Bloody Thorn.” Zilliox created the piece in 2006 while completing his MFA at Yale. It is a plastic sheet covered in black and red writing which tells the story of a small tribe of people who have been attacked by a larger tribe. The words are arranged in the shape of the Aztec symbol for “temple.”
“The total theme is about migration and movement of people,” Zilliox said. “The story goes through a progression from [the tribe] seeking vengeance to becoming a much larger tribe at an imperial stage where they’re about to attack a smaller village. In terms of migration, it’s like that constant play of imperialism and designs of borders.”
Another artwork that drew an audience was Kat Chavez’s “Only the Earth Knows.” It is composed of 289 silkscreen squares pinned to a wall. Each one symbolizes an accounted-for death at the U.S.-Mexico border during 2018. They are individually cut and stamped with blood-red acrylic in the shape of a flower. Next to the wall, a frayed jumble of squares lies on a podium. These represent the deaths that have not been accounted for.
Each square in Chavez’s artwork was installed by McClure, an effort which she felt was important to experience.
“Each pin, each square, reminded me of someone’s pain, someone’s death and the fact that it might be completely unseen,” McClure said. “That piece was extremely moving and powerful. I want people to understand each work and why they are here.”
McClure said her main goal for the exhibit is to draw attention to the struggle to turn New Haven into a true sanctuary city. She wants people to approach their differences with curiosity and come together to realize that we have the power to make change, McClure explained.
“[If] we’re not willing to change our community, then we can’t change anywhere,” McClure said.
“Sanctuary Cities and the Politics of the American Dream” will be on view from Oct. 3 to Nov. 9.
Natalie Kainz | firstname.lastname@example.org