Project for Empty Space in collaboration with the Humanities Action Lab (HAL), Newest Americans, Rutgers University-Newark’s Graduate Program in American Studies, and First Friends of NJ and NY present States of Incarceration and Seeking Asylum, Resisting Detention. The exhibition will open to the public on Wednesday, October 18th, 6 – 8 PM, in the gallery located at 2 Gateway Center, Newark, NJ 07102.
Seeking Asylum, Resisting Detention is the Newark iteration of States of Incarceration, a travelling exhibition created by students, returning citizens, and others directly affected by mass incarceration in 20 cities. Each city’s team explored local histories of mass incarceration and represented their findings in this collective national project.
The Newark chapter of the States of Incarceration national exhibit was created by Rutgers University-Newark graduate students led by Dr. Mary Rizzo, which focused on the Elizabeth Detention Center (EDC). In the mid-1990s, as concerns about terrorism and growing numbers of asylum seekers rose, the US Immigration and Naturalization Service contracted Esmor Correctional Services to open a detention facility in Elizabeth, NJ, for immigrants deemed to be in the United States illegally. After detainees’ complaints about inhumane conditions and a hunger strike were ignored, nearly 100 detainees, mostly men from Africa, “rioted” in June 1995, breaking furniture and windows. An assessment by INS discovered that “detainees were subjected to harassment, verbal abuse, and other degrading actions perpetrated by Esmor guards” who had been poorly trained and supervised. Soon after, Somali asylum seeker Hawa Jama and 9 other detainees became plaintiffs in Jama v. Esmor Correctional Services, the first time detainees were given the right to sue a private corporation. The 2007 settlement awarded damages to the plaintiffs and Esmor was removed as the operator of the EDC. The hunger strike, uprising, and lawsuit illustrate ways that detainees have protested the conditions of their detention.
Seeking Asylum, Resisting Detention expands the local piece of the national exhibit through three additional components that examine the impact of immigrant detention in the Newark region.
Dr. Rizzo and graduate student Dahlia Azran, working with First Friends of NJ & NY, a detainee advocacy and support group, curated a collection of art created by detainees while in detention in northern New Jersey. This work speaks directly to the lived experience of those who have gone through the process of this incarceration. Many of these pieces are composed of non-traditional materials such as candy wrappers, toilet paper, food-based ink, and other scraps of utilitarian objects. In many cases, discarded paraphernalia were some of the only materials available to detainees to use in creative endeavors. This portion of the exhibition demonstrates how detainees use art to resist the dehumanization of imprisonment, seek refuge and find solace, and express gratitude to the listeners who hear their stories.
Newest Americans–a collaborative storytelling project led by partners Talking Eyes Media, VII Photo and the Center for Migration and the Global City at Rutgers-Newark–produced eight photographic portraits by founding partner Ed Kashi of people who were detained between 1996 and the present, and conducted interviews with the subjects about their experience in detention and their lives since they were released. Kashi’s life-sized portraits feature former detainees who firmly stand their ground even while their physical settings seem to be receding from them, as though they are there and not there, at home and adrift, uncertain of their place in America. These portraits are accompanied by recorded accounts from the detainees, who phone visitors back when texted via cellphone.
Another collection of artwork, which was curated by Project For Empty Space’s Jasmine Wahi and Rebecca Pauline Jampol, is comprised of pieces by four artists, Lizania Cruz, Samer Fouad, and Jon Gomez, and Ann J. Lewis (GILF). Each artist links the precariousness of people with an undocumented status in the United States to the larger threat of the carceral state. Cruz’s Flower for Immigration photographic triptych, which is part of an ongoing interactive project, gives a platform and a voice to a community of often invisible flower-sellers and arrangers who are undocumented by asking them to speak about their parlous status in the United States. Gomez’s multi-channel video work explores the risks people are willing to undertake to immigrate to the United States, and poses the question ‘is it worth it?’ and ‘what is the American dream?’ Similarly, Fouad’s large-scale collage panels, which feature comparative and parallel narratives of the American Japanese internment camps of the 1940s and the anti-Arab and anti-Muslim rhetoric of today, also dissects the legacy of how America treats its immigrant communities. GILF’s work, which lives in the concourse beyond the gallery, highlights activists at the vanguard of the immigrant rights movement.
The exhibition opening coincides with a three day convening at Express Newark during which HAL’s partners from around the world will gather in Newark to continue building on their collective vision for States of Incarceration and to begin conceptualizing HAL’s new project on environmental/climate justice.
About the Exhibition Partners
Humanities Action Lab: The Humanities Action Lab (HAL) is a coalition of universities, issue organizations, and public spaces in 20 cities, and growing, that collaborate to produce community-curated public humanities projects on urgent social issues. Students and stakeholders in each city develop local chapters of national traveling exhibits, web projects, public programs, and other platforms for civic engagement. Local Newark programming for States of Incarceration, HAL’s first project, is made possible in part by the generous gifts from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) and the Institute for Museum and Library Services (IMLS).
Newest Americans: Newest Americans is an innovative media and documentary project chronicling the immigrant experience from the vantage point of the campus of Rutgers University-Newark (RU-N), which U.S. News & World Report has designated the most diverse national university every year since 1997. The project cross-pollinates academic inquiry, professional media production and public humanities programming to generate fresh narratives and insights about our emerging majority minority population and the nation it is transforming. Newest Americans media has been published widely (by the New York Times, National Geographic, and The Atlantic, among others) and has been screened at numerous film and photo festivals, most recently as the opening night feature at Photoville. With the support of a National Endowment for the Humanities Community Conversations grant, Newest Americans is developing a neighborhood histories project in Newark and national curriculum on post-1965 immigrant communities.
Project For Empty Space: Project For Empty Space is a not-for-profit organization that creates socially engaging, multidisciplinary art exhibitions and programming that encourage social dialogue, education, and systemic change for cultural tolerance. This mission is achieved through a permanent project/gallery space, an incubator program for artists addressing social change, and through collaborative and interactive programs in vacant and neglected spaces in cities around the world. We strongly believe that there is a symbiotic relationship between artists, communities, and social discourse. It is our goal to foster socially and politically inspired artists in an ongoing residency program; to curate thought-provoking and culturally relevant exhibitions; and to create exciting, engaging, and inclusionary community programs around art and social change.
First Friends of NJ & NY: The mission of First Friends of NJ & NY is to uphold the inherent dignity and humanity of detained immigrants and asylum seekers. The organization provides compassion and hope through volunteer visitations, resettlement assistance and advocacy.
Rutgers University-Newark Graduate Program in American Studies: An interdisciplinary graduate program offering an MA with a track in Public Humanities and a PhD, the Graduate Program in American Studies at Rutgers University-Newark is committed to social justice through scholarship that matters to communities. Our faculty and students lead and participate in projects including the Humanities Action Lab, Queer Newark Oral History Project, Newest Americans, Telling Untold Histories Unconference, among others.