Gotham Gazette

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American Idyll (For Foreign Artists)?

It all seemed a little creepy -- a cross between "American Idol" and one of those sadistic social science experiments from the 1960s -- when, on the first night, the foreign artist-contestants arrived in the Chelsea gallery, handed over their passports to the stern-looking young man in a uniform, and sat on their assigned mattresses in a row along a barren wall. They had become detainees.

"Before I got here, I was really nervous," Maria Sanjines, an artist from Colombia, South America, told me. "And now I see why."

"I didn't know this would be so extreme," said Dusanka Komnenic, an abstract painter from Serbia and Montenegro.

The two women were among the ten foreign artists from four continents who had been selected to participate in AsylumNYC, a week-long art competition and exhibition held last month at the White Box gallery.

Only two things were clear at the outset. First, the winner of the competition would get the free services of an immigration lawyer, who would help them apply for a particular type of visa for "extraordinary ability in the field of arts" that, if granted, would enable them to stay in the United States for three years.

Second, little else was clear -- not how the 10 finalists were chosen out of the 235 artists from 43 countries who applied; not how the winner would be chosen; not why the finalists were being asked to eat and sleep for five days and nights in the gallery under a set of draconian and arbitrary rules. They were not allowed to leave their assigned space without permission, could not talk to each other, could only speak to visitors and only in English, and were required to create a work of art using only materials that they could wrangle from visitors to the gallery. They were given a prison-drab green t-shirt to wear.

“We're creating an impossible situation, and we're making an impossible choice," said Martin Rosengaard, the man wearing the uniform (which, with pink piping and epaulettes, looked like an outfit that Michael Jackson might wear.) He is a member of the Berlin-based art collective, Wooloo Productions, that came up with AsylumNYC, the latest of their art projects.

”The first day I was depressed,” Valeria Cordero, an artist from Venezuela, said on the third day. “I understand what they’re doing now. They’re replicating the conditions that immigrants face. This is not really about art, it’s about immigration.”

Taylor and Kat and Ace and Mandisa and Bucky knew what it took to become an American Idol. But for Dusanka and Maria and Marlina and Nao and other foreign artists, the rules for becoming an American -- or even just performing in America -- can be excruciating.

Barriers For Would-Be Artist Immigrants

Artists who wish to come to the United States face many of the same barriers that confront any immigrants, along with some additional obstacles.

"It's always been completely different to get immigration services for artists than anybody else," says Leon Wildes, a practicing immigration lawyer in New York for 45 years who is best known for having successful represented John Lennon and Yoko Ono in the government's efforts to deport them. "The law has always been based on having an applicant for immigration be sponsored by an employer, who guarantees a salary and so forth. But most artists are self-employed; nobody wants to hire a fine artist or a composer. The government has never amended the law to accommodate artists."

Nao Matsumoto, a furniture maker from Japan who now lives in Brooklyn (and one of the ten AsylumNYC finalists), certainly does not feel accommodated. “I don’t understand why we need a sponsor to apply for any visa. I have seen enough examples of employers completely manipulating immigrant workers using the green card or the work visa as leverage to make them work in bad conditions.” Nevertheless, artists and craftsmen must seek out a sponsor, and so, he says, “it is not what we as individuals want to do in this country, but what the sponsor wants to do using us.”

While Matsumoto expresses some sympathy with the foreigners who are in the United States illegally, he also is frustrated that so much attention has been on them lately, while those in the country legally can also face difficulties; his own legal visa is running out in a few weeks. “I am a professional craftsman and I have had all my higher education, undergrad and graduate, in the U.S. I have been living in this country for 12 years abiding by all the rules as a legal immigrant, paying taxes every single year. At this point, my feelings are, why not let me stay?”

Shahzia Sikander is one of the lucky artists from abroad. Born in Pakistan, where she attended the National College of Arts, Sikander came to the United States to study at the Rhode Island School of Design. On one of her first visits to New York City, she recalls, she went to the Drawing Center, and told them “I have my work with me. Can I show you?” They said they had only ten minutes to look at it. But that, as it turns out, was all it took: “They accepted me into a show.” Her modern take on traditional miniature painting soon was exhibited at museums such as the Whitney and the Museum of Modern Art. Now living in New York City, Sikander has an EB-1 visa, a category that accepts her as an artist of exceptional ability and allows her to stay in the United States as long as she wants. But even she does not sound please at the way things are set up. ”It took eight years,” she says. “I couldn't leave the country. It was kind of an imprisonment.”

Difficult To Visit

Not all foreign artists would like to live here. Some merely want to visit – musicians, dancers and artists to perform, visual artists to accompany exhibitions of their work. That has become increasingly difficult as well.

”There are only 10,000 O-1 temporary visas for solo performers granted in the entire United States each year,” says immigration attorney Daniel Aharoni.

And in the past five years, it has been more inconvenient to get hold of those visas. "Since 9/11, the government must eyeball every applicant," Aharoni says. In those countries where there are no American embassies or consulates, the applicant must make a trip to the closest one, which can be quite far away.

This is an inconvenience felt not just by the artists, but by their (would-be) American audiences.

The cellist Yo-Yo Ma told Congress last month the story of two Iranian musicians who have performed in the United States some 10 times over the past decade, yet were forced to fly from Iran to Dubai three times in order to obtain a visa from the American embassy there in order to perform for an 11th time in the United States. “The process cost $5,000 and lasted three months,” Ma said. Other musicians, “Zola, one of the prodigies of the long-song tradition in Mongolia, and Wu Tong, the virtuosic Chinese Sheng player and singer,” were shut out completely. "It is on behalf of these culture guides that I am here today to urge you to simplify the visa process," the cellist testified in front of members of the House Government Reform Committee, so that there will no longer be such "extraordinarily high" barriers to have foreign artists visit the United States.

The visa application process for artists is so complex that a number of non-profit agencies have put together a Web site, Artists From Abroad, as a guide to the "principal nonimmigrant work-related visa categories used by the performing arts world." (Among the questions it tries to answer – what tangible proofs one needs to persuade the authorities that one is an artist of extraordinary ability.)


Dusanka Komnenic will get some help navigating the process. At the end of the week, Rosengaard and the other members of Wooloo announced that Komnenic had won the right to consult with the immigration attorney, Daniel Aharoni, who was waiving his usual fee of up to $10,000. They did not really explain why they had selected her. Perhaps it is because she had rebelled against the “border” in black tape that had been put up around her mattress, by putting more black tape on the ground and up the wall, “to cover the border, so that nobody could find it” – a metaphor for all those artists and immigrants, and immigrant artists who, she says, "do not want to be excluded."



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