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Beautiful Diaspora/You Are Not the Lesser Part


Margaret Hawkins

Museum of Contemporary Photography,

Chicago, Illinois

Continuing through June 26, 2022


We use the word minority to describe whole populations. But it’s a dismissive misnomer, as the title of the current show at the Museum of Contemporary Photography eloquently states. “Beautiful Diaspora/You Are Not the Lesser Part” features work by fifteen artists, each originating from a different place and all documenting the lives of emigrées fleeing oppressive home countries.


Jessica Chou, “Kids hanging out on Newmark Ave., Monterey Park” from the “Suburban Chinatown” series, 2013

What’s so great about this show is how it doesn’t tell only one story — the typical blurred tale about the brave and bedraggled, the abused and misunderstood. Surely we see that side of things, but each artist explores differently how cultures and people morph, for better and worse, from what they were to what they are now. Often, it’s a story of loss, sometimes also of reinvention. Ideas about assimilation are not quite the point. 


Jessica Chou’s “Suburban Chinatown” series offers glimpses into the Chinese immigrant culture of Monterey Park, California, the first Asian-majority city in the continental United States and the artist’s hometown. The bright, hard color in these big photographs mimics California sunlight. Chou’s subjects are deeply immersed in American culture. She shows us a choir in a Chinese-speaking Christian church, presented in near-absolute symmetry. This is nothing if not an orderly place. At the center stands a cross, on the walls to either side are projected hymn lyrics in Chinese. A ten-piece orchestra accompanies the singers, and off to the side stands a big American Christmas tree. This is no marginal population, these are not huddled masses, they are prosperous people who have built a shiny, sunny place to worship a Western god. 


Farah Salem, “Untitled 1,” from the series “Cornered,” 2016

Chou’s photos are almost oppressively bright. ”Women Block Sun with Newspapers” shows women hurrying past an appliance store that features English and Chinese signage on its pink stucco front. Indoors, a different kind of sunniness pervades. A larger-than-life close-up portrait shows a young girl in a dance competition combing the fine baby hairs around her face with a toothbrush. She’s wearing mascara but you can tell she’s a kid — her fingernails are dirty, the toothbrush is large in her hand. She has been set, or has set herself, on the road to accomplishment. 


Kuwaiti artist Farah Salem, who now lives in Chicago, tells a different story. These staged self-portraits, unlike Chou’s slice-of-life images, position the artist crouching, draped, folded, and confined, in an open-front cardboard box in various outdoor settings. She is free but not free. The images call to mind the sobering axiom about travel, wherever you go there you are. The body carries the memory. The photos are particularly timely given the recent ruling by the Taliban that all women in Afghanistan must now wear head-to-toe clothing that only exposes their eyes. 


Filipino artist Xyza Cruz Bacani presents a different heartbreak in her series “We Are Like Air,” about domestic workers who travel from the Philippines to Hong Kong to make money, which they send home to families they haven’t seen in years.  The photos capture their longing for family, both their own, left behind, and the new ones they’re paid to be part of but never wholly are. This wrenching position, of intimate contact without the option of ever truly belonging, is sharpened by an adjacent installation that features looping quotations projected on the wall: “Are you ready to be a stranger?” “Sacrifice was in vain.” This series reminded me, uncomfortably, of Kazuo Ishiguro’s haunting novel “Never Let Me Go,” about children bred to donate body parts to the aging wealthy. The children only realize late in their short lives how little they mean to the world that uses them.  


Widline Cadet, who immigrated to New York City from Haiti as a teenager, practices twinning in her photos, dressing as her subjects and posing beside them in the same position, while visibly holding the shutter release. The transparency in these photos, in which we see the act of posing for and taking a picture, is an essential part of the idea. Cadet captures an experience many immigrants describe, the constant act of imitation, mirroring, the effort to fit in while evaluating the effectiveness of this act. Cadet’s three large prints take up a whole wall, but I gladly would have sacrificed other work to see more of her. 

Widline Cadet, “Yon Etranje ki pa Sanble Youn #2 (A Stranger

Who Doesn’t Look Like One #2),” 2019

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