Exploring the Creative Immigrant Experience: Literature, Music, and Film

Immigrants' experience with arts, culture and entertainment talents.

Immigrant artists have talents that enrich their local communities and the entire U.S. culture.  Several communities of immigrant artists are thriving in many areas of the United States, while there are various organizations to support fledgling immigrant artists. The New York Foundation for the Arts (NYFA) sponsors the Immigrant Artist Program (IAP).  The IAP Resource Directory connects immigrant artists with programs, services, and resources, and provides links to explore.  It also provides mentoring via connecting aspiring immigrant artists with artists who have an NYFA fellowship or have benefited from the program.  The free, monthly Con Edison IAP Newsletter via e-mail has cover features focused on artists.  It provides information about upcoming events and opportunities of special interest to immigrant artists, and features profiles of an artist or arts/immigrant services organization each month.  It also offers professional development tips in several languages, and includes a Mentoring Alumni Corner.

Like film and literature, the music of the United States reflects its multi-ethnic heritage in a complex of styles.  Among others, Indian musicians have influenced the American musical landscape. A prominent example is classical tabla virtuoso Ustad Zakir Hussain who popularized Indian percussive music. Besides music, The Beyond Bollywood: Indian Americans Shape the Nation exhibition displays an array of Indian arts.  The Smithsonian Institution Asian Pacific American Program will exhibit this multi-media arts show at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C. for one year (February, 2014-August, 2015).  The exhibition will then travel via the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service (SITES) to various venues till 2020.  It presents an assemblage of Indian arts from the 1960s to the present.  Beginning in 2008, Indian American individuals, families, and communities across the U.S. contributed stories, photos, documents, and artifacts.

 

Masum MomayaMasum Momaya;
Photo Credit: Diya TV. Permission: Masum Momaya

The curator of Beyond Bollywood, Masum Momaya explains:

The entryway to the exhibition features two old Bollywood songs, [… that] were two iconic songs for the generation that emigrated from India to the U.S. in the 1960s and 1970s. And since we are taking “Bollywood” as an emotional, conceptual, and visual point of departure in the exhibition, we included these two songs to set a nostalgic tone.

The immigrant experience is also depicted in amateur short films annually at the San Francisco Immigrant Film Festival (SFIFF) in three categories: Narrative, Animated, and Documentary Short.  The SFIFF also offers free screening of films and videos to immigrant communities at various venues throughout the year.  There is additional information at their Facebook page.  Also worth visits while in the Bay area are the American Conservatory Theater that produces a range of dramatic works; and the San Francisco Ballet, which was the first professional ballet company in the U.S.  Several miles down the Pacific coast is the West coast’s analog to New York City.  Culturally diverse Los Angeles is home to Hollywood and the epicenter of the U.S. movie business; it also has an array of museums and arts productions.  The world famous Los Angeles Philharmonic is led by its music director–Venezuelan conductor Gustavo Dudamel, who has popularized Latin orchestral music alongside classical music in the U.S. while also serving as conductor for the Simon Bólivar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela./.facebook.com/pages/SF-Immigrant-Fil

Some immigrant artists such as Favianna Rodriguez focus on expressing political views via their art.  Documentary filmmaker Rodriguez features activist artists working for social justice in Migration Is Beautiful.  In her 2013 interview via e-mail with Katherine Brooks for The Huffington Post, Rodriguez says that while politics can be a “grotesque way of humans shaping their existence,” art shapes human experience through beauty, form, reflection, and critical analysis.  She contends that artists have the responsibility to expose and critique but also to be visionary.  Rodriguez acknowledges that the butterfly symbol is not unique to her art, but she chose it because of the “transformative nature of the creature.”  She notes that the Monarch butterfly is an appropriate symbol for the beauty of migration and the right to move freely.  To underscore this symbolism, in one of her multimedia works she wears a large pair of extended artificial wings based on the design, color, and pattern of the Monarch butterfly’s wings.

Meanwhile, various U.S. universities have developed curricula, programs, and symposia to consider and express ideas about the arts as essential to the multidimensional immigrant experience.  The University of Chicago hosted such a symposium in 2011 and organized it in collaboration with the National Endowment for the Arts.  At this “Future of the City: The Arts Symposium” in 2011, Mark J. Stern presented his article, “The Arts and Social Inclusion.” Stern notes that access and opportunity are essential to participation in the arts, and indicates that engagement in the arts is integral to social inclusion as essential to human well-being.

For talented Indian immigrants, scholarships and foundation-funded grants are available in the U.S.  Current South Asian musicians such as Pakistani alto saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa remark on the process of assimilation into the U.S. culture, while reclaiming their ethnic identity.  Funded by a Guggenheim scholarship, Mahanthappa went to India to learn from master of South Indian Carnatic music, Kadri Gopalnath.  Mahanthappa subsequently created his own fusion of traditional Indian and American jazz styles in collaboration with composer, Rez Abbasi and Indian American pianist Vijay Iyer—all recent and notable South Indian immigrants.

As Haitian immigrant author Edwidge Danticat indicates in Joe Fassler’s 2013 article, “All Immigrants Are Artists” for the By Heart series in The Atlantic, “Re-creating your entire life is a form of reinvention on a par with the greatest works of literature.” Danticat notes ways that immigrant parents model artistry for their children during their struggle to survive; she mentions that this process, which often requires parental sacrifices, teaches a great deal.  She points out that it’s a big departure for a child to decide to become an artist facing a precarious career rather than choosing to pursue a profession with more security such as engineering, law, or medicine. Yet, Danticat indicates that learning to integrate into a new culture requires the incremental steps, courage, ingenuity, and effort to succeed that are analogous to the risk-taking, imagination, and toil to bring a creative endeavor to fulfillment.

 

Denticat

 

Danticat focuses on three basic themes in her work: national identity, diasporic politics, and mother-daughter relationships.  In discussing her short story collection Krik? Krak! Danticat notes that writing is analogous to braiding hair, since it involves the weaving into a unified pattern of three separate strands.  She applies this principle to her written work about transnational communities, as she symbolically weaves together her three themes about identity, politics, and women in an effort to create a holistic narrative unity.

 

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