The Immigrant Experience: stories of culture, community and struggle, told through art

Petukhova's sculpture is a direct response to her experience never being invited to American birthday parties when she was younger.

The immigrant experience in America is a potent and powerful thing.

It’s a mélange of millions of stories; the very fabric of our nation.

And this month, some of those stories are being told through art.

Blackfish Gallery (420 NW 9th Ave. in Portland) is hosting an exhibition called “The Immigrant Experience: artwork by immigrants living in America”.

More than 30 artists are showing selected work. We talked to three of them, all high school students in the David Douglas School District.

Aleathea St. Hilaire, from Haiti

“I’ve been through a lot of hard things,” says Aleathea St. Hilaire, who was born in Haiti.

“I have a unique background when it comes to culture, being here in Portland, being black, my family being from Haiti,” she reflects. “It’s a lot, you know?”

St. Hilaire has two pieces in the exhibition. One is a photo of her delicately holding a handwritten poster that directly answers the prompt the artists were given in preparation for the show: What Are Your Experiences Living In America.

Her poster reads: “You are a lesser being who needs to be grateful for the charity given to you by the majority.”

“That one is a microaggression,” St. Hilaire says. She explains it’s “basically saying I should be grateful for the charity that society is giving me and that I’m a lesser person if I don’t feel grateful.”

Her other piece is a self-portrait of sorts, a drawing of herself in a hooded sweatshirt, over a background of the word “insightful” repeated dozens of times.

“What it’s based on is how I think society perceives me, versus how I see myself,” St. Hilaire explains.

“I feel like people are too busy focusing on how they assume I may be, which is aggressive and violent, instead of focusing on what my experience could be, and I have a lot of different things that I’ve been through and they could learn from it,” she says.

St. Hilaire says she makes art because she just wants to be heard. She’s been an artist all her life, one of the only artistic people in her family, and her work is remarkable.

Still, she never expected to be in an art exhibition.

“I mean, I was really shocked,” she smiles. “I didn’t know that I was gonna get my art right in the front, and I think that speaks volumes and it makes me feel very accomplished.”

And she sees the value of this art exhibit as a sort of crash course in understanding.

“Regardless of whether you’re an immigrant or a refugee or not, just being a minority here, you don’t see faces that look like you. And when you try to express how you’re feeling or what’s going on with you, people are easy to gaslight you, because they don’t understand!” she exclaims. “And they don’t reach out to understand. And this is why things like this are necessary.”

Mohamed Said, from Djibouti

For Mohamed Said, art itself is a challenge.

He’s colorblind. And that’s the focus of his painting.

“It’s called ‘Colorblinded’,” says Said, who moved to the U.S. from the East African country of Djibouti just four years ago.

“Even though I’m colorblind, I can still do, I can still see color, even though I struggle with it, I can still write it down, how I see things,” he says.

His piece, a portrait rich in yellow and green, but with a strong accent of red, is a reflection of his inability to see those colors.

“I’m kinda struggling how to like green, for example. Brown, red, these are difficult for me to see,” he points out. “I’m showing people that I don’t mostly see red. It’s just back in my head but I cannot see it, you know?”

If you look closely at his painting, you’ll see words like “red” and “green” written onto the paper in pencil. The color goes over that. It helps him form ideas and translate them to his canvas.

“Wherever the color is, the pencil helps me to know which paint goes there,” he says, pointing out the pencil beneath the paint.

He says his art teacher believes in him and it motivates him, and the feedback from people viewing his art has been encouraging.

“Even though I’m struggling, they can see that I love painting, and any issue I’m having still I can paint, you know?”

Said’s family isn’t artistic, and they were skeptical when they learned he was embracing painting.

“Some of them couldn’t believe that I could do it, you know? But I actually did it, so yeah,” he says proudly. “I mostly struggle with it, but like, my hard work motivates me, you know?”

Ester Petukhova, from Russia

For Ester Petukhova, this is not her first foray into the art scene. The accomplished paint and mixed-medium artist was named one of the two best high school visual artists in the country earlier this year at the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards.

Petukhova’s family fled Russia as religious refugees when she was one year old, so she never really experienced Russian culture in her birth country. But in America, she’s always been viewed as a Russian.

“Growing up, I’ve always been kind of torn, and so I wanted to find a way where I can merge my two identities, and create a new narrative within my work.”

That’s the focus of her piece.

“This portrait is a depiction of this relationship between being a Russian-American,” she explains.

The self-portrait is Petukhova dressed in black, a sliver of a New York Knicks logo peeking out between the folds of fabric. She says it references her brother’s experience, and how basketball culture shaped his American experience, and how that in turn shaped hers.

Petukhova’s detail is stunning. Her intricately painted hands immediately draw the eye. It’s a theme in her recent work.

And it’s something she’s learned on her own. Growing up, she was never introduced to art, had no museums or gallery tours.

“The majority of my art practice actually came from looking at them in books at the public libraries and that’s kind of where I learned the most about art,” she explains.

She says her art took off around 13, when she started focusing on realism and putting herself more into her work.

“To be an artist is something that’s always continuous. You never really become the artist,” she says. “It’s always something that happens in a day-to-day practice.”

She’s received a lot of encouraging feedback for her portrait from the people visiting the Blackfish Gallery.

“For the most part, a lot of them have said it’s very engaging and evocative, that the gesture is very interesting in the way that it’s positioned,” she says while looking at her work hanging along with dozens of other paintings. “I think the stark white background also kind of grabs your attention.”

She has another piece, a sculpture of a cake on a tablecloth, with three party banners that read, in order: You’re invited, your invite, envied. She created it because she’d never been invited to an American birthday party when she was younger.

“It’s all fake,” she explains. That fakeness is kind of the point.

“This idea of the immigrant struggle isn’t necessarily us leaving the country, it’s how we are living like after leaving the country of origin, and so the way that we are brought up and how we engage with others surrounding us and our community, that’s kind of what the immigrant journey is,” she says.

“How can we, after escaping this place or fleeing from this location, grow and prosper and continue to thrive in the community that we are now existing in?” she asks. “I think that regardless of the art we make, bring power to the immigrants and let there always be a voice.”

The Immigrant Experience runs through Dec. 30 at Blackfish Gallery.

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