Friday, May 2, 2008

Immigrant Song

May First was the opening night for the East of the West exhibition at SomArts, which my wife Anu co-curated with Taraneh Hemami. It was a great show, and a good opening. Friends such as Ala Ebketar and Hadi Tabatabai were featured, and I made several new friends as well, including Ali Dadgar. It was a reaffirmation of something Anu and I discuss often: the ethos of immigrant and first generation Americans, and how it differs from settled populations both here and abroad.

The after parties on two different nights of the EotW run -- one large and one small -- were quite comfortable, seemingly familiar despite having met some of the people there for the first time at said parties. Eating and drinking with our new and established Iranian friends was very much like eating and drinking with our LA cadre of German and Austrian friends, for example.

As people who have taken an extreme measure to make their lives better (immigrants), or are expected to be the builders of a new legacy (the first generation), there seems to be a greater inclination towards experimentation and tolerance amongst this population. Engineering, science, and the arts draw a lot of immigrant and first generation practitioners, and I believe the predisposition towards change that comes with not being rooted is one of the key reasons. I've also found that across the many cultural backgrounds of my immigrant and first generation friends -- be they Poles, Indians, Iranians, Germans, Japanese, Brazilians, Eastern European Jews, etc. (even Canadians) -- there are certain strains of humor, non-traditional politics, and lively discussions of the edges of scientific, artistic and philosophical inquiry that resonate seemingly universally across all zeroth and first generation hyphenated-Americans.

Of course there are immigrants who cling to traditional thinking whole hog as a safety net, and also second and farther generation people who embrace change, experimentation, and non-traditional intellectual inquiry. However, there seems to be lower percentages of both these groups amongst my friends who are interested in various disciplines in the arts, engineering and science. Among those in the N>1 generation population who more easily embrace uncertainty are those who travel a lot, maintain ties to the "old world," and/or have moved between two distant U.S. states after early childhood. Certain areas of inquiry really lend themselves to people who have developed a comfort level with change, and an understanding that permanence is elusive.

The East of the West show reflected that. All the artists involved displayed a willingness to contemplate, critique, rethink, and recontextualize cultural and political norms both of their native / ancestral Middle Eastern societies and those of The West as well. Cultural trends ranging from ascetic meditation to militarism to punk and hip hop were all present in the collection of works, which ran the gamut from figurative, overt social critique to contemplative abstraction.

People who come to the the United States to make better lives for themselves, and their children, contribute a great deal to our society. As one of those, I have always chafed against the so-called nativist strain in American politics (though my Kiowa friend Mark certainly puts the lie to those claims whenever someone dares to raise them around him).

In addition to being an excellent art show co-curated by my wife, East of the West was, for me, also an opportunity to make new friends and reaffirm my belief that immigrants and first generation Americans have a lot to offer no matter which country they and their families may have originated in (even ones that are, at this time, very unpopular with the American public).