Portraits of women, objects tell stories of new Americans
Hamida Ouali pointed to a painting of herself wearing a traditional green dress among the Amazighs, the North African ethnic group to which she belongs, and made a decision.
“I like it,” she said.
Her image emerged from the canvas with quiet confidence.
“It’s… how can I put it?” – not a normal look. I look like I have a long future and a lot of things I have yet to achieve.
The 42-year-old, who lives on the northwest side and came from Algeria in 2019, was recently examining the almost complete portrait of Kirsta Niemie Benedetti in the latter’s studio inside a historic warehouse in Franklinton.
The work will be part of Benedetti’s latest exhibition, “The Whole Picture,” featuring portraits of seven new American women, accompanied by installations of objects they brought with them to the United States.
The free show will be part of a group exhibit titled “Tapestry: Narrating a New Thread” at The Ohio State University’s Urban Arts Space from August 4-27.
How the art project started
Benedetti’s work is a collaboration with Mary Rodriguez, associate professor at Ohio State University, who participated in the creative process as part of her research on identity formation among immigrants from central Ohio.
Benedetti, 38, and Rodriguez, 36, say they want to help immigrant and refugee women share their stories with their neighbors in Ohio — on their own terms.
“Portraiture has the power to connect people in very unique ways that different types of art don’t,” Rodriguez said. “We want people to be attracted to these women and want to know their stories, so maybe the next time they see someone on the street in a hijab or other traditional costume, they’ll smile and wave at them. feel more welcome.”
Benedetti, a graduate of Columbus College of Art & Design, encountered the subjects of her paintings during her previous career as a social worker.
As of 2015, Benedetti and her family were living in Riverview, a neighborhood tucked away behind the Ohio State campus where many new immigrants from North Africa and Bangladesh reside. In his spare time, Benedetti began helping some of his neighbors get to doctor’s appointments, apply for government benefits, and pay bills.
Noticing the obstacles they faced adjusting to life in America, prompted her to found the nonprofit Riverview International Center, which today offers a variety of services, including English classes, employment services and legal aid for immigrants and refugees.
A portrait subject, Tania Akther, 35, from Dublin, who came from Bangladesh seven years ago, was a client of the centre, and Ouali works as a community care advocate. Two other subjects of the portrait exhibit – Yamuna Adhikari, a Nepalese American who lives in Gahanna, and Madina Pemba, a Somali American who lives in Arizona – were interns with the organization.
When Benedetti left the nonprofit to care for a family member last year, she began thinking about ways to combine social work with her lifelong passion for art. . She had been troubled by the way some nonprofits use their clients’ “heartbreaking” stories and photographs for fundraising – a practice which she said “borders on exploitation”.
She wanted to turn the dynamic on its head.
“Portraiture can be used as a way to honor people,” Benedetti said. “It’s not just about stories based on the worst tragedy of the war they left or the economic downfall of their country. It’s their hopes and their dreams and their identity and who they are as individuals.
Benedetti met Rodriguez, who teaches at the Ohio State College of Food, Agricultural and Environmental Sciences but considers herself a “social scientist at heart,” in 2019 The daughter of immigrants from Colombia and Nicaragua, Rodriguez was interested in combining her academic research into identity formation with the art of Benedetti to produce academically informed work that was accessible to the public.
Creation of works of art
The two began by recording interviews with each of the subjects in the portrait. The questions ranged from formal to abstract: how do you overcome difficulties? What is your greatest accomplishment? What is the smell of happiness for you?
Next, participants chose still images from the videos for the painted portraits, and they selected meaningful objects to display alongside the paintings.
For her installation, Ouali included clothing and jewelry from her Amazigh ethnicity. She also included an olive branch, which she says symbolizes the strength of her community: in Algeria, entire villages worked together to harvest olives in common.
In Akther’s portrait, she smiles hopefully at the viewer, with a geometric design in the background that Benedetti adapted from a copy of the Koran. Akther said that initially the idea of posing for a portrait seemed too individualistic, but she eventually agreed.
“(My identity is) not just me. It’s God, and my mom and my dad, and my family too,” she said.
Akther now works at Sam’s Club and helps run a women-run sewing business, but she remains in close contact with her parents in Bangladesh. Among the objects she included in her installation is a handwritten list of phone numbers for family members back home.
Rodriguez said the show was intended for general audiences, though it contains lessons for organizations and policymakers who work with new Americans.
“(The project) changes the narrative of ‘They are without, they are in need.’ Instead, it’s, ‘They have strengths, and that’s what they are,'” she said. “Let’s build on those strengths and support them to help them improve their own home.
Benedetti said she wanted to overturn the notion that a painted portrait is only for the wealthiest or most prestigious people.
When she recently installed another series of portraits of a new American woman at John Glenn Columbus International Airport, she said travelers kept asking her, “Do I have to know this person?”
“What they were getting at was, ‘Are they famous? ‘” Benedetti said. “A woman said, ‘That’s a lot of faces for someone who’s not famous.’ And I was like, ‘Exactly.’
Peter Gill covers immigration and new American communities for the Dispatch in partnership with Report for America. You can support work like his with a tax-deductible donation to Report for America here:bit.ly/3fNsGaZ. Contact Peter at[email protected] or follow him on Twitter:@pitaarji
In one look
“The Whole Picture” runs August 4-27 at OSU Urban Arts Space, 50 W. Town St., Suite 130. Hours: 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday; until 8 p.m. on Thursday. Call 614-292-8861 or visit www.uas.osu.edu. A reception will be held at 6 p.m. on August 6.