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New exhibit at Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens uses self-portraits and audio to tell immigration stories

“Vidas Suspendidas/Suspended Lives” runs at the gallery through Nov. 18.

A new exhibition at Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens, “Vidas Suspendidas/Suspended Lives,” uses sculpture self-portraits and recorded audio to tell the personal stories of nine Latinx immigrants. (Grace Maiorano/SPR)

A collection of sculptures has been dispersed throughout the mosaic open-air labyrinth of Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens, 1020 South St.

The nine life-size figures, though, could nearly go unnoticed, as the artwork harmonizes seamlessly with Isaiah Zagar’s iconic kaleidoscopic landscape. However, the new exhibition, “Vidas Suspendidas/Suspended Lives,” is intended to camouflage with the rest of the colorful convoluted maze. 

This inability to be seen suggests the presence of immigrants in the United States.

“We have to be invisible, and yet, they’re all over the city,” said project creator Nora Hiriart Litz, the director for Art and Culture at Puentes de Salud. “They surround all of us whether you know it or you don’t know it. You might be friends with them and you don’t know that part about them.”

For several years, Litz, a Mexican-American artist, has been curating exhibitions both in the United States and in Latin America that elevate the experiences of immigrants. 

In her newest project, Litz is collaborating with her longtime creative partner, Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens, through Puentes de Salud, a local nonprofit that promotes “the health and wellness of Philadelphia’s rapidly growing Latinx immigrant population through high-quality health care, innovative educational programs and community building.”

Running at the South Street gallery through Nov. 18, the exhibition, which has been floating in Litz’s mind for the last few years, showcases sculpture self-portraits of local Latinx artists.

It’s important to try and give a platform and give people who have a voice that need more to be heard,” said Emily Smith, executive director of Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens. “We have a space. We have a platform. We have an audience. So, it’s an important topic for us as human beings. And, it’s very painful. It’s painful for us because we believe that everybody is welcome, and America is better because of all of the beautiful people that are a part of this country. It’s something that feels more important now to be talking about.”

Over the last year, Litz recruited artists hailing from various levels of experience.

Considering the rudimentary creation of piñatas, she decided the figures would be primarily composed of papier-mâché.

(Grace Maiorano/SPR)

Although the artistic technique is fairly simple, the self-portraits reveal the complex personal journeys of nine individuals as they migrated to the United States. 

“We have a connection to what we’re doing but of course we’re taking it to a different level,” Litz said. “…It’s finding the language with their culture and within themselves of what it means to be a self-portrait.” 

Integrated within the sculptures are critical components of the individuals’ lives, such as an adjacent figure of a child or images of their working conditions woven. 

“When she presented the idea, I right away had the idea I wanted to express,” said Dulce N., one of the artists. “It was just like – this is a great moment to express how I feel and probably a good way to let myself heal through the process.” 

“I am so happy because it was so emotional,” added Dulce C., another artist. “…It was amazing to find great people like them and to have this kind of experience.”

The nine pieces of artwork, which are scattered separately throughout the gardens, are accompanied with audio recordings of each individual’s immigration story, evoking a flood of emotion and memory not only visually but aurally.

These few-minute recordings, which audiences can access by scanning a QR code located at each station, elevate the project with a layer of closeness as audiences are drawn into the often painful histories of the artists’ past.

The audio clips, accessible at www.puentesdesalud.org/vidas-suspendidas/, are recorded in both English and Spainsh.

“For me, there’s such a level of intimacy to the work,” Smith said. “This is a show about listening…Taking a moment and listening to someone else’s story is really, really important and there’s a softness in everyone’s voice that really pulls you in and every story is so beautiful and painful.”

In preparing the exhibition, recording personal stories was one of the most challenging parts of the process.

She says some artists found the task too painful to complete.

(Grace Maiorano/SPR)

“All of us have a story to tell if you get the chance to be able to tell what hurts or at least part of it…Everyone is so ready to say it,” Litz said. “It takes time to get the trust.”  

Seeking that trust includes opening up the minds of audiences.

Regardless of whatever images are seizing daily headlines, participants hope “Vidas Suspendidas/Suspended Lives” unveils the humanity of immigration issues. 

“For me, I hope, if there is ever a wrong perspective about people like us, I hope it changes it,” said Dulce N. “…Because something has happened to you – never think, because it happened to me, I’m going to do that to others. Just keep being a good person. The best person that you can be.” 

For more information, visit: www.phillymagicgardens.org/public-programs/exhibitions/vidas-suspendidas/.

gmaiorano@newspapermediagroup.com 

Twitter: @gracemaiorano

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