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This article by Phyllis Maguire was prepared for the August 7, 2002 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
Art From a Detention Center
Your first view is disconcerting: What kind of art
exhibit consists of plain brown walls? Up close, you realize that
one wall is scored with clear plexiglass slits, each a yard long and
several inches across. Pressing your face against them, you can see
the more than 20 sculptures locked inside: eagles swooping with open
talons, a rearing dragon in brilliant golds and oranges, an exquisitely
crafted yellow bowl.
Although the pieces are only a foot or so away, the high wall stops
you from seeing their tantalizing details. It takes several minutes
of staring before you realize that all the pieces — the preening
orange peacock, the elaborate miniature seven-story tower — are
all fashioned from folded or sculpted paper.
The "Fly To Freedom: The Art of the Golden Venture Refugees"
exhibit now at the Newark Historical Society provides fascinating
glimpses of both Chinese folk art and U.S. immigration policy. Created
by more than 50 Chinese refugees who were detained in this country
for almost four years, the sculptures are exhibited inside an enclosure
that recreates the artists’ cramped lives during their stay in a maximum
security prison. The 12-minute video that accompanies the exhibit
is a relief: The camera can zoom in where you cannot, highlighting
the pieces’ detail and craftsmanship.
It is the exhibit’s first showing in New Jersey, the state with the
country’s fifth largest Chinese-American population — 110,000
according to the 2000 census, almost double their number in 1990.
Lured by the state’s telecommunications and pharmaceuticals industries,
Chinese-Americans in New Jersey now support six different Chinese
But in 1993, the refugees packed on the ship Golden Venture weren’t
visa-carrying computer programmers. Instead, they traveled "the
snake road," indenturing themselves to smugglers whom they’d promised
to pay as much as $30,000 by working years at menial jobs in the U.S.
The ship left Thailand and Kenya with almost 300 people. When it ran
aground near Rockaway, New York, 10 refugees died jumping in the water,
while the rest were detained. The largest group of men were imprisoned
in York, Pennsylvania.
Guided by the few professional artists among them, the detainees began
14-hour days churning out paper art to "pay" immigration lawyers
and prison personnel. Sculptures were also given to members of the
eclectic coalition that began to champion their cause — anti-abortion
evangelists protesting China’s "one child" policy; human rights
activists fighting China’s anti-democracy rule; religious groups wishing
to see asylum given to those denied religious freedom. Eventually,
more than 50 detainees crafted more than 10,000 pieces of paper art.
They used paper from magazines and legal pads — hence the "porcelain"
bowl’s cool, lemon color. They made papier mache out of toilet paper,
water and glue, sculpting ship hulls and laughing Buddhas with plastic
spoons. They fashioned cutting tools from cardboard noodle soup containers,
and colored paper with tea, grape juice and magic marker.
Some pieces here are poignant, like the family of white owls, the
two parents hovering over their chicks. Some are whimsical, like the
working miniature bicycle, its chain crafted from short links of rolled
paper and its wheels interlocking folds.
Others are ironic; surely, the eagles and the Statues of Liberty exhibited
here express not only the artists’ yearning to breathe free, but also
a comment on their own imprisonment. And others are simply exquisite:
Each of the thousands of interlocking paper triangles in the "porcelain"
bowl are smaller than your little fingernail.
Two traditions are at work here, said exhibit co-curator
William Westerman, director of the Program for Immigrant Traditional
Artists at Jersey City’s International Institute of New Jersey. (He
first brought the Golden Venture art to the attention of New York’s
Museum of the Chinese in the Americas, which exhibited it in 1996.)
One is technique: Folding paper is a children’s art — like our
potholders or gymp — as well as a folk art found from southern
China to Thailand.
The other tradition is using art to make meaning out of detention:
Chinese immigrants held on San Francisco’s Angel Island in the early
20th century, for instance, carved poetry into the walls.
For Westerman, the sculptures evoke the artists’ ferocious perseverance,
as well as the power of art to transcend nationalities. But the strongest
message he takes away from them is waste.
"Hundreds are being held in prisons without being charged with
any crime," he said. "There is certainly the argument that
we need to keep people in a secure place until we’ve determined they
pose no danger, but we should give them something to do. Otherwise,
this kind of know-how and energy just gets wasted." Or as a line
of poetry inscribed on one of the sculptures says: "A migrating
person carries full dreams."
According to Westerman, New Jersey has six institutions where immigrants
from more than 50 countries are detained. They are part of a nationwide
network of 800 facilities that house immigrant detainees. (Since September
11, 600 Middle Eastern or Pakistani immigrants have also been taken
into custody around the country and detained, most on immigration
The Golden Venture refugees were paroled in 1997. Most had to seek
asylum elsewhere, or go back to China; five were given permanent residency
status here on the basis of "extraordinary artistic ability."
Most remain anonymous, afraid of being hunted down by the smugglers
to whom they still owe money or of reprisals against family still
One Golden Venture artist who returned home has already made it to
New Jersey. A refugee again, his ship — aptly named the Oops II
— ran aground off Bay Head in 1998.
— Phyllis Maguire
Historical Society , 52 Park Place, Newark, 973-596-8500. Show continues
to August 24. Open Tuesday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Free.
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