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Amidst rising tensions surrounding undocumented immigration into the United States, artist Aliza Nisenbaum invites students to look at the issue through a different lens. Ms. Nisenbaum visited LaGuardia Community College in November to give a lecture and present a slideshow of her portraits and paintings of various undocumented immigrants and their families who must remain hidden in order to avoid deportation.
According to the Federation for American Immigration Reform, an estimated 12.5 million undocumented immigrants are currently living in the U.S. A survey conducted by the Pew Research Center revealed that U.S. adults are more likely to respond favorably to Asian and European immigrants than they are to immigrants coming from Latin America and the Middle East. In this current presidency, Latin American and Middle Eastern immigrants are seen as criminals who take American jobs and consume public assistance, such as welfare, that is allocated for Americans.
In the mix of all of this is Ms. Nisenbaum who, through art, portrays immigrants in a different light. Ms. Nisenbaum depicts them as more than just a number; she explores the individual through her portraits and develops connections with the subjects of her paintings.
The paintings are vibrant and colorful; they not only show the individual but also their culture and personality, which Ms. Nisenbaum gets to know through conversations with those who sit with her to be painted. “I found it very interesting how there is a very special kind of attention that happens when you sit and look at every bit of a person’s materiality and their flesh and the type of trust that happens through conversations,” said Ms. Nisenbaum, as she recalled painting Gustavo, an immigrant and member of a family she has been painting for over five years.
What started these portraits and Ms. Nisenbaum’s exploration of these individual’s lives was her volunteer work as a teacher five years ago at Immigrant Movement International, a community space started by Tania Bruguera, a Cuban-born activist and artist. Ms. Nisenbaum would teach her students English through feminist art history and would make a connection with her students who opened up to her about their stories of how they migrated to America. Once they began to form a connection, Ms. Nisenbaum would ask her students if they would sit for her while she painted a portrait of them, and they gladly accepted.
Although many of her subjects are undocumented immigrants, Ms. Nisenbaum does not paint them in a way that portrays them as helpless victims, nor does she suggest that her paintings offer a solution to the undocumented immigrants who are entering the United States. Ms. Nisenbaum chooses to focus more on the relationship with the individuals who are the subjects of her paintings. “I think about it more in line with a gift exchange: the sitters return my attention, and we talk about our experiences in this close proximity,” said Ms. Nisenbaum. Instead of focusing on their problems, Ms. Nisenbaum makes a human connection with individuals who left their homeland due to political or economic reasons in search of a better life, not only for them but for their families as well.
Ms. Nisenbaum’s own family has a history of immigration; her great-grandfather had to escape the Russian pogroms, an anti-Jewish movement in the late 19th and the early 20th centuries that aimed to destroy Jewish homes and property in order to drive them out. Having been denied entry to the U.S., her great-grandfather migrated to Mexico, where Ms. Nisenbaum grew up. In Mexico City, she studied Psychology for two years before studying art; she took up painting just like her mother did when Ms. Nisenbaum was a child.
Ms. Nisenbaum’s paintings show a different side of the estimated 12.5 million undocumented immigrants currently living in the U.S. who have been living in fear of deportation. She captures the essence of the person through her portraits and gives those who have been in hiding a chance to come out and show others the person that they are. Ms. Nisenbaum states, “I have always been interested in how people find their sense of self through relationships with others.”