Monday, July 4, 2005

Exhibit documents state's changing faces

Curt Brown, Star Tribune

Hoping to spark a statewide conversation about immigration this summer, a 36-foot truck emblazoned with photographs of Minnesota's newest arrivals has begun barnstorming the state.

Organizers say the movable, interactive public arts exhibit captures some 2,000 portraits and oral histories. The subjects range from Somali immigrants processing pork in Worthington to descendants of German farmers at the Itasca County Fair in Grand Rapids.

The project is the brainchild of Alison (Quito) Ziegler, 28, a Minneapolis photographer who tries to blend her art with social justice.

"Minnesota is changing for good, and we have to acknowledge that things are going to be different and figure out how we can make Minnesota the most welcoming place it can be," Ziegler said.

"We're not going out to convert people, but to hear what people say about their connection to the history of immigration," she said. "We hope people will think a little more about their neighbors, co-workers, classmates and the people they see at church and the grocery store and how the common thread of humanity connects us."

Flanked by a corps of interns of Hmong, Somali and Mexican descent, Ziegler's Minnesota Family Project traveling exhibit started its tour Saturday behind the El Burrito Mercado (175 Concord St.) on St. Paul's West Side. From there, it stopped Sunday at the Hmong soccer tournament at St. Paul's Como Park, and it will be at the State Capitol today. The exhibit will continue on to 19 other locations, including the International Festival in Worthington this weekend and the Laura Ingalls Wilder Pageant in Walnut Grove on July 24.

Here's how it works: When the big truck rolls in and parks next to the Pronto Pup booths and carnival rides at county fairs and town festivals, organizers set up canopy tents and place a set of steps at the back of the truck.

Ziegler hopes to focus on new immigrants, but she welcomes subjects whose ancestors came to America generations ago.

Outside, the truck will feature Ziegler photographs taken during the past couple of years of Minnesota families from Somalia, Kenya, Guatemala -- and Wisconsin -- living in Worthington, Faribault and Rochester.

Inside, printers and computers provided by the Science Museum of Minnesota will be set up.

Ziegler will shoot portraits, and her interns will write down brief oral histories detailing where folks came from, when and why.

Participants will receive a copy of their pictures and will be invited to hang up their photo and story inside the truck. By summer's end, the exhibit will have evolved into a montage of Minnesota immigrants and their descendants.

"It will be a moving portrait gallery of what Minnesota looks like today," said Ziegler, a Long Island, N.Y., native and graduate of St. Paul's Macalester College.

Immigration largely is considered an urban issue, but the face of small-town Minnesota is changing fast, as well, said Mariano Espinoza, 35, a Mexican immigrant who works as an organizer with Ziegler at the nonprofit Minnesota Immigration Freedom Network.

He points out that immigrants make up more than half the workers at Worthington's largest employer, pork processor Swift and Co.

"Hundreds of migrant workers come to the sugar beet fields outside Moorhead and work at a turkey processing plant in Willmar," Espinoza said. "We have to connect the dots in the cities and the towns of greater Minnesota and all come together around the same table to find solutions to the issues immigrants face."

Besides stops in towns such as St. Charles (Wednesday and Thursday) and Fergus Falls (July 21-22), the Minnesota Family Project truck will stop at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis (Aug. 6) and will end up back on St. Paul's West Side on Aug. 27.

The traveling crew will camp out in friends' yards and sleep in church basements. Among those helping out are Oscar Gomez, 16, and Angela Fuentes, 18, Mexican emigres who live in Faribault and have been lobbying legislators to allow undocumented students to pay in-state tuition at Minnesota colleges and universities.

Amina Dualle, 25, who was born in Somalia and lives in Hopkins, will take her two children along on the tour. Rachel Satterlee, 21, grew up in Minneapolis and attends the College of St. Scholastica in Duluth. The blond-haired Minnesota native jokes that her logistics work will make her a good rock 'n' roll promoter someday. Sai Vang, 25, of Minneapolis, hopes to connect with fellow Hmong people who are living in rural areas throughout the state.

Despite all the help, Ziegler will be very much front and center. Her love of photography goes only so far.

"I want my art to be a catalyst for social change," she said. "I hope we can use this exhibit to build connections across Minnesota and get people talking about immigration."

She's itching to roll and "check in with Minnesota and see how people feel and what art can do and what kind of conversations can we get started with these photographs."

No comments: