VISUAL ARTS | Jila Nikpay’s “Faces of New America”: Coming to a library near you

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Photographer Jila Nikpay takes a look at the changing identity of immigrants in America in her new exhibit Faces of New America, which will tour libraries in MELSA (Metropolitan Library Service Agency), an alliance of over 100 public libraries in the seven-county Twin Cities metro area. The project, funded in part with money from Minnesota’s Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund, begins its tour with at the Minneapolis Central Library, where it will be on view from December 1 to January 30. After the MELSA tour, Nikpay hopes to expand the project (which now includes 32 large scale portraits of youth from immigrant families) into a large-scale installation.

According to Nikpay, portraiture can be regarded as a complex site for exploring the relationship between identity and power. “One of the functions of the portrait is to validate how we’d like to appear to others and immortalize that image,” she wrote in an e-mail. “The image continues our presence. It occupies a place in the mind of others and asserts itself in our absence. The issue of power could be very subtle or very obvious, as in the case of political figures.”

In the case of the young people in this project, Nikpay empowers them by giving them a voice in how they want to be seen. They got to choose their own outfits, for example, and a number of them chose to be seen in traditional clothes from the countries they are from. “They get to be presented on their own terms, in a public space,” Nikpay wrote. 

Eventually, Nikpay wants the project to become a large-scale installation, with life-size images printed on translucent materials that will hang from the ceiling, creating an environment for the viewer to walk through. “This treatment gives presence to the portraits of these young people while the viewers come face to face with their steady gaze,” Nikpay wrote. “In this way, I hope to create a level of intimacy with the images that spark interest and questions from the viewers about the journey of adolescent whose numbers are on the rise.” She also hopes to invite spoken word artists with immigrant backgrounds to respond to the images with the idea of live performances in the space.

An immigrant from Iran, Nikpay said the project grew out of her own experience.  She wanted to radically depart from well-trodden stories of immigrants’ struggle and assimilation that she says are quite commonplace. Her own experience as an immigrant allows her to go deeper into understanding the experience of these young people because the majority of immigrants must constantly negotiate between their own cultural traditions and American values. “They have to balance values that they are taught at home with what they learn at school,” she wrote. “Most often those values are in conflict.”

Nikpay hopes that the young people have a chance to work out a few issues regarding growing up in America as a young immigrant or a person born in an immigrant family by engaging with this project. “I know they were intrigued by the process of thinking about how they might present their identity through an image to the public,” she wrote.

She hopes to stir up dialogue regarding new immigrants’ assimilation, and how it has changed from the past. “How do Midwesterners interact with their foreign born neighbors and their offspring?” she wrote. “Do they, for example, like the average New Yorker, pride themselves in a city with a multiple languages and colors or prefer not mixing with the new immigrants?”

At the Minneapolis Central Library at 6:30 p.m. on Thursday, December 9, moderator Marlina Gonzales will lead a discussion with adolescents whose portraits are in the exhibit about their immigration journeys and the struggle for acceptance in America.

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