Volume 18 • Issue 30 | December 9 - 15, 2005

Adult students of English as a second language collaborated with artist Tomie Arai to create multimedia installations about the immigrant experience at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum.

Growing panes: Streetside art depicts immigrant experience

By Laura Silver

Forget Bloomingdale’s, Macy’s and Saks. Four window displays on Orchard Street, created by artist Tomie Arai in collaboration with recent immigrants enrolled in a workshop at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, showcase the often-untold experiences of New Yorkers from foreign lands.

The museum’s quartet of installations make up “Re:mixed,” a commentary on the scores of immigrants who have passed through the neighborhood. Between 1863 and 1935, nearly 7,000 people from more than 20 countries made their home in the building where the museum is housed. Outside, above a basement flight of metal stairs, large-scale projections of seamstresses’ faces are framed by circle-shaped bamboo mats and flanked by the tools of their trade. A ball of wide lace and a collection of white thread accompany a portrait of a turn-of-the-century Hungarian woman. Industrial spools and a river of green satin share a window with a parallel image of a contemporary Asian woman.

At street-level, the exhibition continues to stitch past with present. An old-time Singer sewing machine and a handwritten list of items to be tailored are part of a tribute to those who arrived on Manhattan’s storied shores in centuries past. The scene is framed by a faux brick wall printed with depictions of Eastern European immigrants, sailing ships, and the shears and irons they used to eke out a living on the Lower East Side

In a separate window, viewers are invited to peer at a vibrant tableau that showcases the heart of Arai’s teamwork and draws on her experience as an activist, cultural commentator and creator of public art. In this diorama, the faux brick is updated with images of planes, televisions, and faces of modern-day newcomers from Asian, African and South American countries, who, it seems, have searched their cupboards and shelves for items to contribute to the display. (Among them are Chinese checkers, a can of Sylvia’s black-eyed peas, and a super-sized snow globe with a miniature World Trade Center.) Airplanes jet over a cross-section of continents on a necktie. Wooden blocks stamped with images of the Somalian, Nepalese, and Latin American student-artists line up to spell “The Patriot Act.” A remote control sits on top of an abacus beneath a black-and-white family portrait, which turns out to be a seamless collage uniting people of diverse time periods, ages, and ethnic groups.

In the foreground, a book of puzzles is opened to a page titled “Gimme A Break.” Handwritten loops encircle letters that spell names for items susceptible to being broken: stride, window, friendship, china, contract. But the instructions hint at something larger: “You are looking for an 11-letter word.” It’s not clear if the puzzle editor — or Arai and her team — intended a reference to citizenship. In any event, themes of fragility and strength in immigrant communities reverberate throughout the diorama.

On display through December 16, “Re:mixed” is an unexpected New York treasure that’s a treat to stumble upon. But window shoppers, beware: the artistry of neighboring storefronts can be equally appealing.

“Re:mixed — Voices from New York’s Immigrant Communities” is on view at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum (tenement.org), 97 Orchard Street between Delancey and Broome.


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