Real People. Real Lives.
An iconic woman, draped in copper robes, holding her torch aloft for immigrants, personifies the city. The numbers are staggering; New York City is home to 3.3 million foreign-born immigrants making up nearly 40% of the population. However, as immigration continues to dominate the news cycle, the people behind those numbers often fade into abstraction.
Eighteen women are determined to bring back some clarity. Real People. Real Lives. Women Immigrants of New York. introduces sixteen young immigrant women through art, fashion, portraiture, and their own voices with a powerful collaborative art exhibit created by Autralian-American artist and filmmaker Dru Blumensheid and founder of New Women New Yorkers Arielle Kandel. They have paired the portraits, set in iconic locations around the city from Chinatown to DUMBO, with video and audio of the women telling their stories. “It shows a nuanced and multi-layered picture of the immigrant women who make NYC their home, of the barriers and isolation they experience, and of the hopes, dreams, and talents they bring with them.”
It is a story both Kandel and Blumensheid recognize.
Arielle Kandel proudly recounts her family’s back-and-forth history between France and the United States. Her own journey took her from France to Israel and to the United States, where she founded the non-profit New Women New Yorkers to help immigrant women enter the workforce and find a like-minded, supportive community. “The biggest challenge for me and for many of the women we serve,” she explains, “was to enter the workforce. I came with education from another country, with experience from another country, but coming to New York it was very difficult to pursue my career in my field… and I would say I faced fewer challenges than many immigrants are facing.”
The women in the photos are all participants in New Women New Yorkers’ programs. “It’s a small project in the sense that we are talking about sixteen woman who took part in the project so you can really get to know them in a deep and meaningful way… They’re not just project participants they are the project. They are real people, real lives. So more than even my experience it’s these women who inspire.”
Blumensheid also recognized commonalities, though her experiences as an “American immigrant” took place in Australia where she spent nearly a decade. She didn’t share her background with the women as she photographed them, though, instead relying on her experience in fashion to capture their power and the mystery of encountering a stranger. She asked them to arrive in their own clothes, but dressed them in high-fashion from Issey Miyake and her own collection. “We created these very unique portraits where they were sort of an alter ego of themselves… and it created this hyper-real portrayal.”
It’s clear that these women equally inspired Blumesheid; she speaks with admiration about the women in the photos, citing their histories, ambitions, and bravery as readily as she discusses her artistic process. And those stories, captured in audio recordings and paired with each portrait, are where the project comes to life. “There’s a distance between the viewer and the woman in the picture, which creates this space and then when you hear what they have to say it fills that space. You can never imagine where these women are coming from and what their stories are.”
Kandel took the lead during interviews. “I had a connection with every participant, but to be the one to ask them these very meaningful personal questions, intimate questions – it really created something special.”
The answers were unexpected, revelatory, and illuminating. They hope those who see the exhibit are willing to engage with the stories, to shift their perspective, and maybe even feel empowered to share stories of their own. Here the iconic women with their confident poses are the immigrants, and they have a voice.
To see more from Real People. Real Lives. there will be an exhibit and panel on June 7th in NYC in support of New Women New Yorkers.
"In celebration of Immigrant Heritage Month, join our Summer Art Fest at the Centre for Social Innovation in Chelsea!"
More information and tickets are available on eventbrite.