Immigration and Displacement
John Singleton Copley painted this group portrait of his family after reuniting with them in England in 1776. Copley—shown looking out, papers in hand, at the top of this painting—had departed the colonies in 1774, leaving behind his family. He was a renowned portraitist by that time, but the increasing threat of war and violence in Boston encouraged him to take advantage of invitations to paint and travel in Europe. He never returned to the United States.
Scholars think that Copley was mostly apolitical; he painted portraits of well-known revolutionaries as well as Loyalists to the Crown. But his father-in-law, the older man depicted in the painting, was a Loyalist merchant whose tea had been dumped in the harbor during the Boston Tea Party. Letters reveal that Copley worried for his family while they were in Boston.
The family portrait shows off Copley’s painting skills and his ability to render individualized portraits. Look at the figures and their expressions. How would you describe each person? How do you think Copley might have felt about reuniting with his family?
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Thomas Chambers immigrated to the United States from England in 1832. Already a trained artist, he painted landscapes and marine scenes in the various cities where he lived, including Boston.
Boston Harbor was an active port in the mid-19th century. What do you imagine it would have felt like to travel on one of these ships?
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In the 1830s, George Catlin set out to depict every Native North American tribe. He did this in part because he, like most other European Americans, thought that Native peoples across the country would inevitably be killed off as settlers advanced west.
This painting, based upon another earlier painting by Catlin, demonstrates Catlin’s beliefs. On the left, Wi-jún-jon (also identified as Pigeon’s Egg Head and The Light) is shown departing for Washington around 1831. The chief is wearing his tribal robes, and a neoclassical building sits in the distance. On the right, Catlin shows Wi-jún-jon’s return, “next spring, in a Colonel’s uniform. He lectured a while to his people on the customs of the whites, when he was denounced by them for telling lies, which he learned of the whites, and was, by his own people, put to death at the mouth of the Yellow Stone.”
What other details reveal Catlin’s point of view? Knowing Catlin was wrong about the destruction of Native peoples, what questions does his project raise? What else would you like to explore?
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Alfred Stieglitz was traveling on a ship from the United States to Bremen, Germany, when he photographed the area known as steerage, the lower deck of the ship that housed passengers who paid the cheapest fare.
Such passengers, including many early 20th-century migrants to the United States, often experienced overcrowding, lack of ventilation, and minimal food and water during their multiple-day trips.
Look closely at the people in this photograph and try putting yourself in their shoes. What do you imagine their travels might have been like?
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Yasuo Kuniyoshi featured cows in at least 60 paintings, made mostly in the 1920s. At the time, he was living on the East Coast, where he saw lots of dairy farms and cows, but he also felt “very near to the cow,” as he was born in a cow year according to the Japanese lunar calendar.
Kuniyoshi migrated to the United States from Japan in 1906. As an Asian immigrant he was barred from becoming a citizen due to a 1924 law, and he was briefly placed under house arrest during World War II because of his ethnicity. His artwork frequently displays abstracted and flattened imagery, popular in contemporary Western art at the time, as well as stylistic cues from Japanese art.
Do you identify with two different cultures? Have you ever felt caught between two different cultures?
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Look closely at this painting’s colors, forms, and brushstrokes. What sort of mood or tone do you detect? How would you describe the relationship between the two figures?
Arshile Gorky, born Vostanik Manoug Adoian, was a survivor of the Armenian Genocide. He fled to the United States with his sister a year after he watched his mother, Shushan, die from starvation in 1919. When he arrived in New York, his father gave him the only remaining photograph of him and his mother, upon which this painting and another version owned by the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York are based. Gorky labored over both paintings for many years, especially on details such as the hands.
What emotions do you imagine Gorky might have felt while making this painting?
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“In the mills—in the mines—in the fields and orchards of the west—in the factories of the east millions of immigrants came to America. Some came under contract, some came with passage paid, or loaned. Tempting were the inducements offered to Europeans—Slavs, Poles, Hungarians, Italians, Swiss—to come to the Land of Promise.”
Bernarda Bryson wrote this text when she made this print, which depicts immigrants arriving to the United States on the East Coast in the early 20th century.
What do you notice about the figures Bryson chose to feature in her print?
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Tonita Peña (San Illdefonso Pueblo/Cochiti Pueblo), also known by the names Quah Ah and White Coral Beads, is best known for paintings she made in the 1920s and 1930s, including Hopi Corn Dance. Aspects or moments from Pueblo ceremonial dances were often represented by Pueblo painters at this time, even though federal policies during the 1920s and 1930s attempted to repress or even eradicate dances and other forms of cultural expression.
Peña faced additional challenges as a female Pueblo painter and was seen as a role model by other indigenous artists, including Riley Sunrise Quoyavema (Hopi), for trying to carry on aspects of Pueblo culture:
“I would say she is a monument to her people. . . . I think she set a standard. I heard her remark [once], in Indian, explaining [to children that watched], some day you are going to do this but don’t draw anything that isn’t true to the Indians, because this will tell what beautiful things we have.”
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Florence Owens Thompson was trying to make a living in California as a migrant farm worker when Dorothea Lange photographed her in 1936. Look closely at her expression and surroundings. How would you describe her current situation?
Owens Thompson was one of many migrant workers who moved around following harvests and looking for work during the Great Depression. She was raising seven children and had just set up a lean-to for shelter when Lange snapped a few photos of her. One of the other photographs Lange took, widely known as Migrant Mother, became an iconic symbol of the Great Depression.
Compare this photograph to the more famous Migrant Mother. How are the photographs similar and different? What stories do they each tell about the Depression? Why do you think the other photograph became more widely recognized?
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The US government hired photographer Dorothea Lange—widely known for her photos of Depression-era migrants—to document the process of incarcerating Japanese Americans after the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941. The government hoped to use the images to promote the internment program, but instead, Lange’s photographs were impounded until the end of the war and then placed into the National Archives. Looking at this photograph, why do you think the government might have impounded her work?
More than 100,000 Japanese Americans were imprisoned in camps, and more than half of those imprisoned were US citizens.
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After the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941, the US government imprisoned more than 100,000 Japanese Americans living on the West Coast in internment camps. More than half of these people were US citizens, and many of them were children.
Dorothea Lange was hired by the War Relocation Authority to document the incarceration process. She photographed a group of public school children reciting the Pledge of Allegiance to the American flag in 1942 in San Francisco, California, as the roundup efforts began. It’s likely some of these children were sent to internment camps. The federal government hoped to use Lange’s images to promote the internment program. Instead, this photograph was one of many Lange took that were impounded by the federal government for the duration of World War II.
Why do you think this photograph might have been seen as subversive or critical of the government? What do you think this image symbolizes or represents?
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Herb Block, better known as Herblock, won three Pulitzer Prizes for his work as an editorial cartoonist. In Go Back! Wrong Boat! Herblock critiqued the anti-immigration stance held by some in the United States after the conclusion of World War II. Millions of refugees, or displaced persons (DPs), were seeking new homes and livelihoods after the war’s widespread destruction. Despite pressure from President Harry Truman and others, Congress did not update restrictive immigration quotas until 1948. Anti-Semitic attitudes likely contributed to the failure to pass legislation. Said Senator Chapman Revercomb, “We could solve this ‘DP’ problem all right if we could work out some bill that would keep out the Jews.”
What was Herblock implying by including a painting of the Mayflower in the cartoon?
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Sid Grossman, cofounder of the Photo League, a left-leaning photography organization and school, spent two summers photographing visitors to Coney Island.
Coney Island, with its beaches, attractions, and amusement parks, was a favorite summer destination for millions of New Yorkers—many of them immigrants—from the late 19th century through the first half of the 20th century.
How would you describe a visit to Coney Island based upon this Sid Grossman photograph?
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“If you are only moved by color relationships, you are missing the point. I am interested in expressing the big emotions—tragedy, ecstasy, doom.” —Mark Rothko
Mark Rothko aspired to create paintings about the experience of painting that in turn engaged his viewers emotionally.
Rothko, born Markus Rothkowitz in 1903, emigrated from Russia as a boy. He and his family lived in Portland, Oregon, where Rothko learned to speak English as his fourth language. Rothko became a citizen in 1938 and changed his name from Rothkowitz to Rothko in 1940. He signed many works with “Rothkowitz” (see, for example, this watercolor).
What emotions does this painting raise for you?
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Romare Bearden was one of more than 6 million African Americans who fled the US South between 1916 and 1970 for points north and west during the Great Migration. He and his parents left North Carolina for Harlem, the epicenter of black arts and culture in New York City, where Bearden grew up surrounded by poets, writers, and musicians. He also regularly visited relatives in Pittsburgh and North Carolina.
Imagery from North Carolina and emblems of journeying, including trains, appear in many of Bearden’s collages and drawings. Bearden likened his creative process to the improvisation of jazz and blues, and titles of his works often refer to songs. Tomorrow I May Be Far Away draws its title from a song called “Good Chib Blues.” If this painting were a song, what do you think it would sound like?
The Great Migration was one of the largest internal mass migrations in world history. African Americans left behind Jim Crow laws and other forms of oppression in the South for the chance at a better life.
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“I feel that what struck me about the Odyssey is that all of us, from the time we begin to think, are on an odyssey. In this case, home, looking for the values that are kind of everlasting, you know, when you’re home, or Telemachus, the son, the search for the father. And this is applicable to everyone.” —Romare Bearden
In the 1970s, Romare Bearden, whose works are often related to African American experiences of migration and journeying, created a series of collages based upon the Odyssey, the Greek epic poem by Homer. He later made watercolor and print versions, including this screenprint. In his Odyssey series, Bearden made all of the figures black, and he also altered some details of the Homeric story.
Consider your own values and how you think about home. What kind of odyssey are you on?
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Victor Masayesva (Hopi) is a photographer and filmmaker. His works are complex explorations of Hopi culture and Native American representation. Many of his films are in the Hopi language, intended for his community.
Night and Day integrates a photograph of reservation land with blue paint and collaged stars. Instead of separating night and day, Masayesva conflated them into one image.
How do you see night and day here? What meaning or message do you think Masayesva was trying to convey by including the white stars on the blue background?
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How might it feel to fly from one country to another?
Abraão Batista shows his own experience leaving Brazil in 1996 to travel to Tampa, Florida, in this print from a series about his trip. Batista is an artist and author of cordel, a northeastern Brazilian folk art tradition that combines poems and woodcut prints into small booklets. Cordel translates to “twine” in Portuguese, referring to the rope that the small, inexpensive booklets are hung from at markets.
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Mauro Ferreira das Neves was one of many laborers and farmers who lived in Grande Sertão Veredas in central Brazil until the late 1980s, when the Brazilian government made the area a national park. This decree protected the diverse ecosystems from encroaching commercial threats, but the residents, who had no legal land rights and had lived in the area for centuries, were removed from the park. The residents were eventually rehomed in an area outside the park and granted legal land tenure.
Fazal Sheikh visited the area to photograph the displaced residents and compile simpatias, “short sayings and spell-like charms that have been handed down through the generations to ward off evil spirits and be of practical help and comfort in times of trouble.”
Consider the various perspectives discussed here, and reflect upon similar challenges or acts of eminent domain in your community. What ethical questions or issues does this work raise for you?
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We don’t know the identity of the person in this photograph. He’s wearing a tag around his neck, and his hands are cuffed. He was one of thousands of people documented via photograph, then imprisoned, tortured, and murdered by the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia in the 1970s at a prison that later became the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum.
Binh Danh, whose family fled Vietnam in 1980 when he was two, grew up in California. He does not remember the military clashes and upheaval in Vietnam that prompted his family’s departure, nor did his parents talk about it much when he was a child, but because of his own life experiences, much of his artwork centers on themes of conflict, history, and memory.
Danh traveled to Cambodia as an adult. While at the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum in Phnom Penh, he rephotographed the image above using the daguerreotype process, which results in only a single silvery image. How might this work of art be connected to both collective memory and individual identity?
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Nearly all of Kara Walker’s works deal with the events and legacy of slavery in the United States. This print from 2010 refers to the Atlantic slave trade, which brought millions of enslaved Africans against their will to various points in the Americas.
What might Walker be asking us to think about, question, or wrestle with by showing a pair of hands lifting the boat and a silhouette of a woman in the water? Why might the title of the print be no world?
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