“Ask the Artists” Part 7: How Has Your Immigrant Artist Experience Shaped Your Identity and Creative Work?
Hear from Desiree C. Bailey, Ani Liu, Coco Fusco, Alvin Eng, Luis Valderas, and more.
NYFA has helped to connect immigrant artists with mentors, peers, and arts professionals through its Immigrant Artist Mentoring Program since 2007. The program is central to NYFA’s mission of empowering the creative community through critical support, resources, and opportunities. We asked NYFA-affiliated literary, performing, and visual artists who identify with the immigrant artist experience how it has shaped their identity and creative work.
Do you identify with the immigrant artist experience—either as someone who was born in another country or who is the child of immigrants? If yes, how has this experience shaped your identity and your creative work?
Desiree C. Bailey
The experience of migration–of being a descendant of enslaved Africans, of being a descendant of people who’ve moved up, down and across the Americas and of being an immigrant myself–is central to my sense of self and all of my creative endeavors. I am a Black Diasporan, which is an expansive and magnificent place to live and create from.
Bailey was a NYSCA/NYFA Artist Fellow in Poetry in 2017.
Image Detail: Desiree C. Bailey, Photo Credit: Aslan Chalom
I am the child of immigrants, and grew up in various Chinatowns my whole life. I lived in communities with people who worked long, hard jobs with very little pay. The idea of being an artist felt like an impossible luxury. After a “career” day in elementary school, I recall excitedly telling a neighbor I could be anything when I grew up, and they scoffed and said that would never happen, because I was a woman of color. That stung, and stayed with me. There was a duality between what was presented to me as the “American Dream”, and what I observed close to home.
Like many in my community, I was taught to work twice as hard and to keep my head down. My parents pushed me towards subjects like math and science, “practical” subjects to help me make a living later in life, something I resented at the time, but has become such an integral part of my interdisciplinary practice.
For a very long time, I was afraid to pursue what I really wanted. As an artist today, I never take it for granted that I ended up with the job of my dreams. I reflect on my experiences being “othered” and think about the role that art, technology, and visual culture have on systems of power and inequality. In my current work, I think a lot about the invisible cost of cheap and undervalued labor, and the impact capitalism has on race and gender.
Liu was a NYSCA/NYFA Artist Fellow in Digital/Electronic Arts in 2020.
Image Detail: Ani Liu, Image Courtesy of the Artist/VOGUE India.
I do relate. I often say, “I’m an immigrant’s daughter.” This experience gives me grace, it makes me feel that I am a part of everything and everywhere. To be an immigrant is to be anyone, anywhere. I used to feel a burden to be from such a complex identity, it felt like a deficit. This deficit is now my abundance.
Khan was a NYSCA/NYFA Artist Fellow in Interdisciplinary Work in 2018.
Image Detail: Baseera Khan, Courtesy of the Artist
I am the child of immigrants. I do identify with that experience. Of course growing up in a household where another language was spoken (Spanish), where other cultural and gastronomic traditions prevailed, where relatives all looked at everything and everyone American as strange, and where I saw how adults around me were mistreated because of their speaking a different language and looking different—all of that affected me very deeply.
Fusco was a NYSCA/NYFA Artist Fellow in Nonfiction in 1991 and 2014.
Image Detail: Coco Fusco, 2018; Photo Credit: Ross Collab
I am a fronterizo (from the border). My parents were born in Mexico. I was born in Texas and grew up in McAllen on the border and I am a first generation Mexican-American. I am the first one in my family to graduate from high school and college with a degree in Secondary Art Education. Yes, I am an immigrant with a caveat, the border crossed me and my ancestors during the 500+ years of colonization.
My work is defined by my understanding of the frontera being a magical place that is many things at the same time and by my fascination with science fiction, meso-american mythology and stories of my family in northern Mexico. Through research I have developed iconography that is a blend of multiple realities that exist on the border. My work presents and explores multiple aspects of decolonization now and in the future.
Valderas was a mentor in NYFA’s Immigrant Artist Mentoring Program: San Antonio in 2018 and 2019, and is a member of NYFA’s Board of Trustees.
Image Detail: Luis Valderas, Photo Credit: LMG Photography
My parents were illegal immigrants who ran a Chinese Hand Laundry––and only one of them spoke fluent English. This created many complicated questions of identity and community––artistically and personally. In what artistic communities can I find and sustain my voice––where I can be my complete, complex self? Most times, one community cannot accommodate these needs. Throughout my career, I have consistently strived to create a range of artistic works and many varieties of public forums to generate dialogue in support of respecting and sustaining individual identity within the larger collective community.
Eng was a NYSCA/NYFA Artist Fellow in Performance Art/Emergent Forms in 1991, Playwriting/Screenwriting in 1996, and Nonfiction Literature in 2020.
Image Detail: Alvin Eng at Word Bookstore, Photo Courtesy of the Artist
Jennifer Wen Ma
I am a first generation Chinese American, moving to the U.S. at the age of 12. This experience is foundational to me as a person. As a working artist, I move fluidly between China and the U.S., and have greatly benefited by taking from both cultures, philosophies and histories, as well as their clashes and challenges.
Ma was a NYSCA/NYFA Artist Fellow in Performance Art/Multidisciplinary Work in 2003. Her “An Inward Sea: Oral History” project is Fiscally Sponsored by NYFA, and her “Paradise Interrupted” project was formerly Fiscally Sponsored by NYFA.
Image Detail: Working portrait of Jennifer Wen Ma, Photo Courtesy of Loghaven Artist Residency, 2022
The last six years I got to experience that more than ever because I decided to take my work out of the standard public arena and put it out into nature, and particularly in the borderlands, through my Border Crossers project. This really brought me back to where I’m from. The project really evolved out of my father’s side of the family immigrating my mother’s side of the family from Sonora, Mexico to a ranch in New Mexico. At the time, there were no border walls to stop that from happening.
MacMurtrie was a NYSCA/NYFA Artist Fellow in Computer Arts in 2003, Digital/Electronic Arts in 2009, and Craft/Sculpture in 2020.
Image Detail: Chico MacMurtrie after the “Border Crosser” border performance at the Naco, Arizona / Naco, Sonora U.S.- Mexico border, 2021, © Chico MacMurtrie/Amorphic Robot Works Photo Credit: Bobby N. Adams
Yes. I lived in Taiwan for about 25 years before I came to USA to pursue an artistic career. The cultural background influences how I view and feel about things. This identity is naturally a part of how I respond to my creative work visually. Without it, many of my artworks would not have a ground to stand on.
Hsiao was a mentee (2016) and a mentor (2022) in NYFA’s Immigrant Artist Mentoring Program.
Image Detail: Chemin Hsiao, Courtesy of the Artist
Rupy C. Tut
Yes, I build my work as an exploration into identity as a result of displacement so my immigrant identity is heavily involved in my work. Whether it’s the narratives, characters, or imaginary worlds I construct in my work, they all form a bridge between times and geographies similar to most immigrants yearning for a time and place they have left while making sense of a time and place they inhabit.
Tut was a mentee in NYFA’s Immigrant Artist Mentoring Program: Oakland in 2019.
Image Detail: Rupy C. Tut in studio, Photo Credit: Lara Kaur
Many immigrants assimilate to American culture, but as artists, we remain an outsider. Although difficult and continuously challenging, this realization is also powerful. I have agency understanding my position as an outsider. This position as an outsider generates a form of freedom for myself, as does my work through the regeneration and liberation of discarded items. The feeling of displacement in the immigrant’s journey, leaving behind one’s homeland to embrace the new environment are all metaphors in my work. My work incorporates first-hand knowledge of this powerful transformation from lived experience including shared stories of loss, resilience, and survival.
Shin was a NYSCA/NYFA Artist Fellow in Sculpture in 2003 and Architecture/Environmental Structures in 2008.
Yes, as a child of immigrant parents, this shapes much of my identity. The texture in my work harkens back to used and worn hand-me-downs. The practice of passing clothes from older to younger children or between families informs this approach. I have also been imbued with a great sense of responsibility to lift as I climb and to help those in need at a personal level in meaningful and impactful ways.
Fordjour was a NYSCA/NYFA Artist Fellow in Painting in 2018.
Image Detail: Derek Fordjour, Photo Credit: Jason Schmidt
Lauri Lynnxe Murphy
I reached out and asked to be a part of the Immigrant Artist Mentoring Program in Denver when I heard about it because I have always been aware that without immigration, I probably wouldn’t exist. My grandfather escaped Europe and the coming dread of WWII just in the nick of time, before Jews started to be turned away by the U.S. I never had the chance to meet him, but I have always wondered what he knew, and if he knew he would never see any of his family again. It has definitely shaped my identity (especially politically), and in undergrad I did explore family photos and making work around the Shoah.
But as an environmental artist now, I think it informs how I even choose what I’m interested in—recently I’ve been researching invasive plant species, and looking at them as a model of colonialism versus indigeneity, but also as a model of resiliency and adaptation.
Murphy was a mentor in NYFA’s Immigrant Artist Mentoring Program: Denver in 2021.
Yes, we are both immigrant artists who came from China about 20 years ago. Our immigrant experience and cultural heritage define our creative work. Living in a complex environment like New York City, we not only endeavor to preserve our cultural heritage but also transform it to reflect our new realities through art.
Lily Honglei’s “The Stereotype” project is Fiscally Sponsored by NYFA, and Honglei was a NYSCA/NYFA Artist Fellow in Interdisciplinary Work in 2015.
Image Detail: Lily and Honglei headshot, Photo Credit: Lily Honglei Art Studio
I don’t identify with the immigrant artist experience. Although recently I took an ancestry DNA test and I have been thinking a lot about my ancestors’ experiences. Among them are Africans, Italians, West Indians, and Filipinos. What are those narratives? Were they forced here? Did they immigrate? Were they seeking asylum?
Linzy was a NYSCA/NYFA Artist Fellow in Video/Film in 2015.
Image Detail: Kalup Linzy, Courtesy of Melissa Lukenbaugh and the Tulsa Artist Fellowship
Eva and Franco Mattes
Technically speaking we are immigrants, as we were born in Italy and moved to the U.S., we went through all possible visas, Green Cards, and later became U.S. citizens, but we never felt like immigrants. Our work has always been very connected with the internet and computer culture, so we never felt any strong ties to physical spaces.
Eva and Franco Mattes were NYSCA/NYFA Artist Fellows in Digital/Electronic Arts in 2017.
Image: Franco and Eva Mattes; Milan, 2021; Photo Credit: Nicola Biscaro
Read more “Ask the Artists” posts
“Ask The Artists” Part 1: What Is Your Definition of Success?
“Ask The Artists” Part 2: What Is Your Definition of Success?
“Ask the Artists” Part 3: What is the Most Valuable Career Advice You’ve Ever Received?
“Ask the Artists” Part 4: What is the Most Valuable Career Advice You’ve Ever Received?
“Ask the Artists” Part 5: What Do You Wish You Knew About Being an Artist When You Were First Starting?
“Ask the Artists” Part 6: How Do You Connect with Your Larger Creative Community?
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