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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

language newspapers.

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

violations.)

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

in China.

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

Fly to Freedom: The Art of the Golden Venture Refugees, Newark

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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