Art and Immigration / by Jeannine Cook

As an immigrant first to Europe and then to the United States, I cannot help but feel sympathy and empathy for immigrants, be they forced or voluntary. Uprooting yourself from your home surroundings takes courage, energy and faith in the future. I have, however, also realised that I am fortunate to have become a de facto citizen of the world. That state makes life infinitely more interesting.

As an artist, it also makes for complex influences that, willy nilly, show up in one's work. (Above, African Memories II). I think back to an interesting statement that Luisa Rabbia made during her time as Artist in Residence at the Isabella Gardiner Museum, Boston. Talking during an interview reported in Art in America in June/July 2009, she mused, "In the past couple of years, I have been thinking about roots and the idea of carrying yourself as you travel... It is one thing to be the immigrant (to New York) and another to see others immigrating (to Italy). It gives you two points of view."

Mindful of the charged discussions swirling in the United States, all over Europe and even in places like Israel today, I feel that it is indeed true about the two points of view. But it is also true that in all the arts, cross fertilisation between cultures is enriching and stimulating. Each immigrant-artist brings to the new setting a heritage from which to draw inspiration, the sustaining roots that allow fresh growth in the adoptive surroundings. This country, for example, has seen enormous artistic diversity, thanks to immigrants. Think of John J. Audubon (from Santo Domingo), Willem de Koonig (from Holland), Arshile Gorky (from Armenia), Shirin Neshat (from Iran), Cai Guo-Qiang (from China), Louise Nevelson (from Russia) or Claes Oldenburg (from Sweden) as random examples.

Personally, I find myself drawing on my past roots as well as trying to absorb the world around me for my art. It depends on the moment, but there will suddenly be a stream that bubbles up, from some bye gone source far from today's world. That perhaps is one of the magical things about being an artist - one is free to use whatever inspiration or source seems appropriate. Just as with a tree, one's own roots are wide-spreading, branching from the primary root of one's homeland into a myriad secondary roots of other lands one grows to know. Those experiences, shared by countless millions around the world today, are valuable for the immigrants' adoptive lands. It is up to artists to give visual validation to some of these experiences.