Immigration is a hot issue. It has determined national elections and divided communities around the world. Artists have weighed in on it, often with projects lacking input from the immigrants themselves.
Jackie Neale is a fine art photographer, author, instructor, and former Imaging Producer of Online Features at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. In her project “Crossing Over: Immigration Stories,” she pairs large-scale cyanotype portraits of immigrants with audio of them telling their own stories. In May it will be on exhibit in Palazzo Mora at the Venice Biennale.
The cyanotype images are full body prints on 5 by 7 foot pieces of fabric. While there are no faces, each individual is clearly sensed. We see their height and build, and through hairstyle, hat or prop—even blurred lines of movement—can guess their age, gender, possible occupation or hobby. Their humanity is fully present, their opaque yet exuberant forms recalling paintings of dancers by Matisse. The lack of expected detail only deepens their mystery, prompting us to wonder and want to learn more.
In audio recordings, we can. In these oral histories, some immigrants use their names, while others choose anonymity, yet each tells their own story in their own powerful way. The artist is present, but so are they. The trust is apparent, with each “piece” a collaboration in the fullest sense.
Kerry James Marshall said he “wanted to make work that was about something: history, culture, politics, social issues.” Neale’s project fits the bill. Recently I caught up with her to learn more about it.
Catherine Kirkpatrick: Pairing a hot topic with an old-school process is a neat idea. How did it come about?
Jackie Neale: My artist residency in Mission, Texas, on the Mexico border, was an opportunity to work with immigrants and descendants of Mexican immigrants. I wanted to create documentary portraits with interviews and strong visuals, maintaining anonymity for the participants, just in case. I knew there would be intense sun on the border, and large format cyanotypes on fabric seemed the perfect choice. Halfway through, I realized I wanted to expand the project into Mexico, even incorporate testimonials with immigrants and asylum seekers in Italy, my family’s country of origin. It made sense to draw comparisons between my family’s immigration to America in the early 1900’s and those who later were compelled to immigrate to the very country my family felt they had to leave.
Catherine Kirkpatrick: There must have been a lot of distrust. How did you get people on board?
Jackie Neale: In Italy, there was no problem. Maybe because my fixers were deeply trusted, every participant wanted to include their name in the interview. But, as you might imagine, several interviewees in Mexico and on the border chose to remain anonymous not out of distrust of me, but distrust of the U.S. government and other entities. Several feared for their safety, so chose to remain anonymous.
Catherine Kirkpatrick: You were doing an old process, large scale, on fabric. What were the technical challenges and how did you overcome them?
Jackie Neale: The pre-coated fabric exposes in UV light, so the challenges began with keeping the 5×7 foot pieces in the dark as I traveled. I checked the bags on flights to Mexico and Italy, and needed to make sure the TSA wouldn’t open them in daylight. Traveling to Mexico, I made big notes asking them not to go into the light-safe bags of fabric, but one was opened. It made me nervous, but it must have been under fluorescent bulbs, so it was fine.
For Italy, I ironed the fabric, draped the sheets over a couple of hangers, covered them with black construction bags, then put them in a lightweight black garment bag inside a garment luggage bag. In Italy, I bought a nylon granny cart (with awesome stair-stepping wheels for the Metro!), and put everything in it. Once on location, I had to get creative to find a very dark place then ran outside with fabric for each exposure.
The final challenge was explaining to the participants the need for speed—that they had to lie down on the fabric as fast as possible because it begins to lose capacity for a clean imprint some 30 seconds in. I speak Italian, but the concept was not readily apparent. I would become very animated to get them to lie down quickly (subito!) on the fabric. The overall exposures ranged from 5 to 20 minutes.
Catherine Kirkpatrick: Which story was the most touching for you?
Jackie Neale: All were moving, and extremely important to our lives. Laura, one of my new friends, said to me, “We didn’t jump the border, the border jumped us.” She was talking about how the border changed while many Mexicans were living there. We simply cannot stake our claim on land, then kick people out or make them feel “illegal.” But our country has a long history of doing that. So many of us “Northerners” have no idea.
One asylum seeker in Italy said: “ [I was] not scared…because I [had] to go to Europe or I die inside the sea.”
The risk asylum seekers and immigrants take brought home the privilege many of us were born into and take for granted. If you listen to these stories, you hear about many injustices, ones people inherited simply because they were born in a particular land. It makes me thankful, and I intend for this project to open the eyes of many who are blind to this.
Catherine Kirkpatrick: You must be excited to be heading to Venice. What is the future of the project? Why is it important?
Jackie Neale: I have personally funded 75% of this project, including materials, creation, photography, audio editing, delivery, and installation, and am tapped. The future holds raising money to continue the project. I want to return to Mission, Texas and work with people in the detention centers, and interview more asylum seekers in Cantanzaro, Calabria, Italy. I think the world will gain more understanding and compassion as they connect with these powerful imprints of people’s bodies. I hope they will be compelled to hear their stories, and to create opportunities for others to live happy and healthy lives in safer lands. We should open our doors and minds.
Four of Neale’s cyanotypes will be in “Storied Forms” at the Halide Project in Philadelphia, April 6 – May 19, and a cyanotype from a documentary conducted in Tacony, Philadelphia will be in “Reframing Recovery” at the Aronson Galley at Parsons, April 6 – 20. She will have 16+ pieces at Palazzo Mora in the Venice Biennale May 11 – November 24.