Laura Roulet, Independent curator
In the immortal words of Lin-Manuel Miranda, creator of Hamilton the musical, history is made by “who lives, who dies, who tells your story.” In One House, over 200 creators tell their stories. Each panel begins with the premise that unless you are a Native American, you are an immigrant. Whether you trace your roots back to the Mayflower’s voyage, as four artists do, or are a first-generation arrival, as at least a dozen artists are, you are an immigrant. And despite the vitriolic rhetoric pervading the current political discourse, the One House Project reflects the tremendous pride in American ancestry and diversity felt by all its contributors.
Throughout American history, the majority of immigrants sought greater freedom and prosperity as they fled religious or political persecution, war, famine and poverty. Until the past century, the African diaspora was, of course, forced, as were the involuntary migrations of many White Europeans brought as indentured servants or convicts. The crucial difference being that indentured servants eventually paid off their bondage, while Africans were slaves for life. Artist Cheryl Edwards references this history in her statement, “I am an involuntary immigrant who came here via slavery and by chance became a 1st world citizen because of my Seminole Native American heritage.” Several other artists identify the Catawba, Cherokee and Pamunkey people as part of their ancestry. Many note the challenges that their ancestors endured, as Michael Cover summarizes, “It is a story of resilience in the face of near constant adversity. It is the story of survival when the odds were stacked against them. It is my story.” Kimberly Benavides acknowledges a sense of survivor guilt, “It is hard coming to terms with the fact that my very existence is due in part to war and military dictatorships; of heartbreak, pobreza and muerte [poverty and death].” Despite recognizing the hardships suffered by our ancestors, the overwhelming message is one of gratitude for their endurance.
The One House Project is designed so that it can be replicated in other regions. This first exhibition offers empirical evidence of the ethnic make-up in the DMV region. A “One House” in Boston or Miami or San Francisco would look quite different. Not every contributor revealed his or her ethnic origins, making a precise breakdown impossible, but judging from those who did, the ethnic make-up of this One House parallels the overall historic waves of American immigration. The East Coast has the greatest concentrations of English, Scotch-Irish, German, Italian and White European immigrants, beginning in Colonial times. Miami is home to several generations of Cuban, Haitian and other Caribbean refugees. California includes large and diverse Latino and Asian populations, which are the most recent majorities of immigrants.
In 1790, the first post-Revolutionary War census, Native Americans were not counted at all. Of the 3.9 million who were counted, the English were the largest ethnic group, followed by Scotch-Irish, German and 20% African. During the mid-19th century, 5 million Germans settled in the Mid-West, 4.5 million Irish (displaced by the potato famine) on the East Coast, and the Chinese population grew exponentially on the West Coast until the first legislation barring a specific nationality was passed – the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. From the 1880s-1920, 20 million immigrants poured into the United States, including 4 million from Austro-Hungary, 3.3 million Russians, 4 million Italians, and 2 million Jews. The DMV One House includes several dozen panels honoring Jewish ancestors, who mainly fled from early 20th century pogroms and Czarist military inscription in Russia and Eastern Europe, or persecution by the Nazis in the 1930s and ‘40s. Susan Finsen dedicates her panel to her “lucky” family who escaped Nazi Germany in 1933, and “to the millions of people who risk all to escape death, torture, persecution, slavery, hunger, war, gangs and other horrific things to stay alive, protect their children, and create a life.” Panels by first generation immigrants like Kyujin Lee, Bahar Omar and Susana Almuiña represent the mainly Asian, Mid-Eastern and Latin American nationalities of the most recent wave.
The current nativist political rhetoric is unfortunately not a new phenomenon. Since the aptly-named “Know Nothing” party in the 1850s, anti-immigrant vitriol has been part of political discourse. In the mid-19th century, politicians in the nativist movement appealed to working class insecurity and prejudice by attacking immigrants and Catholics. While the Civil War, abolitionist movement and women’s suffrage changed voter representation, displacing the Know Nothings as a party, discrimination against each new immigrant group continued into the 20th century. The 1924 Immigration Act instituted a quota system, allowing the number of immigrants from each country to be limited to 2% of the nationalities already in the U.S., based on the 1890 census. Thus White Anglo and Western Europeans were strongly favored, Asians and Latin Americans almost excluded. Reform under the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act was mostly based on sponsorship of relatives and employment needs. For the last decade, new immigration policy, particularly for equitable treatment of Latinos brought to the U.S. as children (the Dreamers or DACA generation) and Muslims, has been stymied in Congress. Ebtisam Abdulaziz expresses her frustration: “I am troubled by how I am being seen as an artist, female, Arab, Muslim and person of color in American society, which is in conflict with how I want to be seen.” In her panel, Mary Freedman harkens back to a more progressive era by quoting President John F. Kennedy: “Immigration policy should be generous; it should be fair; it should be flexible. With such a policy we can turn to the world, and to our own past, with clean hands and a clear conscience.” Hopefully, history’s cyclical tendencies will direct U.S. policy back toward this more fair and generous spirit.
Aesthetically speaking, the panels are gloriously diverse in style and media. Common motifs are flags, maps, documents such as ship manifests or letters, and most of all portraits. A majority honor a particular person. Mine incorporates a period-specific English family portrait by painter William Dobson to represent Richard and Elizabeth Edelen, the first immigrants in my family, who arrived in Maryland eleven generations ago in 1664 or maybe 1665. Richard Dana precisely traces his lineage back even earlier to Pilgrims John Alden and Priscilla Mullins, passengers on the Mayflower in 1620. While Michael Platt recognizes someone much closer in time and relation, his father, who moved to D.C. post-WW II.
Tales of valor and fortuitous survival abound. Theresa Knight McFadden’s story involves William Shakespeare’s play The Tempest, which is thought to be based on 17th century reports of an English shipwreck in Bermuda. Her ancestor Stephen Hopkins survived that wreck, made it to Jamestown, Virginia, back to England, and then returned on the Mayflower. He fathered Oceanus, the only child born on the voyage. Several artists tell of their relatives surviving wars, and escaping the Holocaust, sometimes by circuitous routes. Occupations, both humble and illustrious, are also acknowledged, ranging from early immigrants who came as coopers, tailors, seamstresses, farmers, miners, mercenaries, and a mail-order bride to more recent arrivals who worked as atomic engineers, scientists, doctors, teachers and a diplomat.
Some relished this project as an opportunity to delve into family history through research and digging up old photos. While DNA testing has made determining the pie chart of one’s ancestry easier than ever before, artists like Sondra Arkin and Barbara Liotta used their panels to comment on their lack of specific knowledge of their forebearers. Artists Jo Ann Block and Tina Tepe, who are adopted, questioned the importance of the family tree in determining one’s identity. Janice Goodman imaginatively invents an image of her grandfather Max through the style of his contemporary, Russian Jewish painter Marc Chagall, both born in 1887. Others like Melvin Hardy, Leslie Holt and Ngoc Le chose more abstract, symbolic approaches.
One possible conclusion from the One House Project is that the former “melting pot” model of American citizenship has been, or should be, replaced by the new ideal of the mosaic. Like the identically-sized One House panels, each individual in our society has equal and unique value. Together we all are integrated, not necessarily assimilated, into one whole. In the optimistic words of Akemi Maegawa, a 1st generation Japanese immigrant, “I started to see how much power, energy and creativity can be born from the diversity of people in this country. We all look different. We think and act differently. I am happy and proud to be different in this country as an artist and as a human.” With liberty and justice for all.
The study of art history does not prepare one for a creative endeavor such as the One House Project. I would not have been able to create my panel without substantial assistance from true artists Jackie Hoysted and Lisa Rosenstein. Thank you for making my concept concrete.
All quotes by panel creators are from their artist statements.
I have used many diverse resources in my research. Without citing all, I found several to be especially useful:
One House Exhibitions
Black Rock Center for the Arts - 2018
about the author
Laura Roulet is an independent curator and writer, specializing in contemporary and Latin American art. She was one of five international curators chosen for the initial 5x5, a major public art initiative in Washington DC. Her recent exhibitions include “Foon Sham: Escape” (American University Museum, Katzen Center), “Barbara Liotta: Tower in Three” (Glen
Echo Park), the “National Drawing Invitational” (Arkansas Arts Center), “CSA: Forty Years of Community-Sourced Art” (Arlington Arts Center, VA), “Frances Gallardo: Meteorology”
(Torpedo Factory, VA), “Wilmer Wilson IV: the FOREVER Aftermath” with the programming “Performance: Aftermath” (Artisphere, VA), and “Sculpting Outside the Lines” in Foggy Bottom. International exhibits include the Art Museum of the Americas as well as exhibits in Mexico City and Puerto Rico. She was a mentoring curator at the D.C. Arts Center and the first mentoring curator at VisArts in Rockville, MD.
She is a regular contributor to Sculpture magazine. Her essay “Aglutinación: The Collective Spirit of Puerto Rican Art” is included in the catalogue Relational Undercurrents, as part of Pacific Standard Time LA/LA. Her other publications include many catalogue essays, articles in American Art, Art Journal, and Art Nexus, and the book Contemporary Puerto Rican Installation Art: the Guagua Aerea, the Trojan Horse and the Termite. She worked on the Ana Mendieta retrospective at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in 2004, and contributed to that catalogue.