A Story of Immigration, Heritage, and Identity: Invisible Bodies on View at Pennsylvania State University

Installation view, Invisible Bodies, at Penn State University (HUB-Robeson Galleries), 2023. Images courtesy of The Border Gallery and HUB-Robeson Galleries

Installation view, Invisible Bodies, at Penn State University (HUB-Robeson Galleries), 2023. Image courtesy of The Border Gallery and HUB-Robeson Galleries.

As one approaches “Art Alley,” part of the Hub-Robeson Galleries at Pennsylvania State University, it is the vibrant green walls that first draw one’s attention. Painted green for the “support for an open immigration system, allowing immigrants to contribute to the nation’s labor force, Invisible Bodies: An Exploration of Migrant Labor Through an Artistic Lens, curated by The Border Gallery and Emireth Herrera Valdes, brings together fifteen artists from diverse backgrounds to contemplate labor, immigration, and identity in the United States.

Against this backdrop, a curated selection of paintings, photographs, videos, and sculptures resonate with narratives of immigration, featuring Abang-guard (Maureen Catbagan + Jevijoe Vitung), Bianca Abdi-Boragi, Magdalena Dukiewicz, Brendan Fernandes, Billy Gerard Frank, Zac Hacmon, Julia Justo, Jodie Lyn-Kee-Chow, Jamie Martinez, Zahra Nazari, Michael Pribich, Lina Puerta, Coralina Rodriguez Meyer, Luis Alvaro Sahagun, and Manon Wada. Each artist examines the immigrant story of endurance, resilience, and fortitude. Through all the works, a common yet hidden theme endures beyond that of immigration and labor, one of heritage.

(L-R) Brendan Fernandes, Standing Leg (2014), length 5:13 min, and Jodie Lyn-Kee-Chow, The Picnic: Harvest of The Zephyr, 2018, Video documentation of performance with mixed media. 3:45 min.

A few steps away from Art Alley, the video works of Fernandes, Frank, and Lyn-Kee-Chow are shown on a loop in a large theatre. In addition to viewing these three video works in the exhibition space with headphones, one can experience them on a different scale. In the theatre, one can feel the music, words, and sounds of the installations course through one’s body.

One work on view of particular note is Palimpsest: Tales Spun from Sea and Memories (2022) by Billy Gerard Frank. Palimpsest traces the life and written work of abolitionist Quobna Ottobah Cugoano (1757 – 1791), from his place of birth in Ajumako, West Africa through slavery as a child, servitude as a young man, and freedom at the age of 16 when he joined the movement for abolition with the Sons of Africa. Rich and vibrant in visuals as it is compelling in its several narratives, the viewer watches as Cugoano orates his written work, Thoughts and Sentiments on the Evil and Wicked Traffic of the Slavery and Commerce of the Human Species (1787). As Palimpsest switches between narratives, locations (Ghana, Grenada, and London), and moments in time, it echoes the identities that Cugoano himself had to don depending on the situation in which he found himself, be it slave, servant, freeman, writer, or abolitionist. “I am Quobna Ottobah Cugaono” is uttered as a mantra throughout the film, each time grounding Cugaono as he constructs his identity in the face of prejudice, abuse, and adversity. In the end, the viewer witnesses Cugaono master himself to construct his own identity.

L-R) Billy Gerard Frank, Cugoano, 2022, length 23:20 min., and Manon Wada, Meiyo, 2023, half of the suitcase my father immigrated to the United States with a collection of inherited tools wrapped in fabric, 28” H x 19” L x 7” W.

In Meiyo (2023), Manon Wada explores immigration, labor, and inheritance through a compelling sculpture using inherited tools, fabric, and half a suitcase. Embracing the tradition of furoshiki, a Japanese custom of wrapping items in fabric, Wada both commemorates and mourns her father’s passing by ritually encasing his tools that she received upon his death in dark blue patterned fabric. Each tool is carefully affixed to the suitcase her father used to immigrate to the United States from Kyoto, Japan in 1967, creating a shrine to his memory and legacy.

Zac Hacmon takes a different approach to immigration by focusing on the fragility of the immigrant experience. By hollowing out dozens of battered, soiled, and used mattresses, Hacmon’s Take Me Back (2017) exposes and deconstructs concepts of the home, security, and comfort. Each layer of mattress is exposed for all to see, eliminating all privacy and intimacy that the original object represents. Yet in assembling the mattresses one after another, Hacmon creates another space for refuge, one that is unknown, with light at the end of the tunnel.

Zac Hacmon, Take Me Back, 2017, print on aluminum, 32” x 40” and Michael Pribich, Cotton Picker, 2021, white cotton work gloves, cotton bag, 3/8” steel rod, hardware 31” x 12” x 106” (L x W x H).

Michael Pribich puts the fruits of physical labor—immigrant labor—that of cotton picking, on view for the viewer to reconsider. Cotton-picker (2021) displays countless white cotton work gloves stacked on top of one another next to the enormous cotton bag used in cotton picking. Representing the full circle of the labor of cotton picking, from the means with which the cotton is harvested to the product of its manufacture, all that is missing is the body of the laborer needed to perform these tasks. A critique of capitalism, the exploitation of labor, and its toll on the human body and the environment resonates throughout Pribich’s work.

In The Flower Lady Pinata (2023), Jamie Martinez honors the contribution of immigrant women in a playful manner with a nod to ancient celebratory practices from the Aztec Empire and China in the crafting of a flower seller-shaped piñata. Martinez’s work draws on the joy and color of these storied objects to both celebrate and pay homage to immigrant women in society today.

(L-R) Installation view, Invisible Bodies, at Penn State University (HUB-Robeson Galleries) and Jamie Martinez, The Flower Lady Piñata, 2023, paper mache, cardboard, acrylic paint, synthetic flowers, glue, ribbon, stuffed with mystery gifts inside, 38” H x 14” W x 9” D

Each story told in the works on view at Penn State’s Hub-Robeson Galleries tackles the hardships, privations, successes, and prosperity of immigration. Invisible Hands provokes the viewer to look back and examine their own story of immigration and heritage, if only to determine where to go next. As Maya Angelou once said: “I have great respect for the past. If you don’t know where you’ve come from, you don’t know where you’re going.”

Images courtesy of The Border Gallery and HUB-Robeson Galleries.

Invisible Bodies: An Exploration of Migrant Labor Through an Artistic Lens Penn State University (HUB-Robeson Galleries), Curated by The Border Gallery and Emireth Herrera Valdés, October 21 – February 18, 2023.