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Migrating Bodies and Containers of Selves

The Immigrant Artist Biennial 2023 (TIAB): Contact Zone

Curated by Bianca Abdi-Boragi, Katherine Adams and Anna Mikaela Ekstrand

September 8, 2023 - January14, 2024, New York

The 2023 iteration of the nomadic Immigrant Artist Biennial offers poignant responses to questions concerning the representation of migratory individuals and communities, finds Håkon Lillegraven in his review for C-print.

Joiri Minaya. Containers (performance documentation), 2017. 1 min. HD video. Courtesy of the artist.

I’m not the motherland, I’m not the landscape, I’m framing this conversation.


These words are spoken by artist Joiri Minaya in the video display of documentation of her performance series Containers in which the artist and other women wear bodysuits with prints that mimic tropical nature. In the artist’s own statement, she reveals that the poses, which are sewn into the fabric itself, forcing the women inside them to adopt them, come from images found during a Google search for “Dominican women”. By addressing the prevailing historical portrayals of women with which she shares a genealogy, Minaya utilises these depictions, more often than not a fantasy construct of a Western male gaze, as “a way to sabotage them”.


On view as one of 55 artists participating in the 2023 iteration of the nomadic new biennial, the work encapsulates some of the core tenets on view throughout its central exhibition, Conflictual Distance and Excavated Selves: Becoming Magic Bodies, on view at EFA Project Space and Alchemy Gallery in New York until January 2024. The biennial, which can, and possibly will, change format with each edition is founded by Katya Grokhovsky and curated by Bianca Abdi-Boragi, Katherine Adams and Anna Mikaela Ekstrand. Its purpose is not only to focus on artists with lived experiences as migrants, but to challenge existing ideas about what migration is, and what artistic representations of it look like.


In this year’s edition the biennial’s curatorial team has elected to devote special attention to Ukrainian artists, and artists who have lived and live as undocumented, mainly in the US, from many different territories and contexts. The range of artistic media ranges from video and photography to painting, sculpture, textile, collage and installations using documentary archive material.


At EFA Project Space in Manhattan, the exhibition Conflictual Distance exhibits 13 artists who articulate the inner and outer conflicts that are created when identity, origin and language meet the comprehensive systems that affect their possibilities for belonging and rights as human beings. It also includes artists and subjects who have born witness over several generations, creating meditations on the cyclicality of these systems and non-linearity of related experiences. In most of the works the migrant body is not visible, with objects signifying ritual, language,  while some employ landscape as a metaphor for the body and vice versa.

The first work encountered in the space is a looped video by Bosnian artist Mila Panić. Titled Burning Field, the work is cleverly positioned as it invites viewers’ own concepts of the depiction of war and conflict, insinuating the destruction of land and homes we are all to familiar with seeing on the horizon of new media. Instead, the work reveals itself to be an artistic meditation on the artist’s own responsibility to her heritage and birthplace, as the video in fact depicts the seasonal burning of a field that has been promised to her as an inheritance.

Still from Emilio Rojas performing Open Wounds, A Gloria, 2023. Photographed by Charlie Fischetti. Courtesy of The Immigrant Artist Biennial and EFA Project Space.

Also employing the metaphoric potential of landscape; but his own body as a site for the recording and image-based representations of landscape and time, Mexican-born artist Emilio Rojas (b.1984) is included, with physical traces of his ongoing, durational performance and multimedia Open Wounds: A Gloria. In the performance itself, the tattoo artist Sujetka dry tattoos the outline of the US-Mexican border on the artist’s back. The eponymous Gloria is the queer mestiza theorist Gloria Anzaldúa, and her book Borderlands / La Frontera: The New Mestiza, published three years after the artist’s birth, in 1987. Roja cites Anzaldúa both as a comfort to him as a queer, Latinx immigrant with Indigenous ancestry, but also employs her book in the performance, clenching it between his teeth to endure the pain of tattooing. To make the performance visible in the exhibition space, Rojas offers a risograph print featuring a letter from Anzaldúa’s archive, and a purple-inked facsimile of the blood-tainted tattoo.


Next to Rojas, Canadian artist Erika DeFreitas’ (b.1980) work Her body is full of light (often, very often, and in floods) is a two-channel video installation depicting the artist and her mother crying and laughing, sometimes in call and response, somehow seemingly isolated. Referring to the complicated legacy of Catholicism in Guyana, DeFreitas, who is herself secular, plays on the role rituals of lamentation and depictions of the crying Virgin Mary in Catholicism. With the effect of the violent historical movements and oppression behind Christian missionary missions in the Global South, the work is a highly personal depiction of the shared burden of trauma across generations, and the individual capacity to resist being completely absorbed by it through the same family bonds.

Maria Kulikovska. Installation shot by Julia Gillard. Courtesy of EFA Project Space and The Immigrant Artist Biennial.

Another intimate composition of durational and pain-staking “body work” here is the Ukrainian-born artist Maria Kulikovska’s (b.1988) series of paper- and watercolour based depictions of pregnancy as a form of transitory state in tandem with forced migration. Composed of three different series, the watercolours on architect’s paper span from the year 2014, when Russia annexed the Crimean peninsula where the artist herself was born shortly before the dissolution of the Soviet Union, to 2021, when the artist herself was pregnant in Kyiv, Ukraine. Which in turn, not long before the escalation of the Russian invasion in 2022. How the artist’s body itself has lived in parallel with and been affected and displaced by the cycles of annexation and independence of her home country, is only accentuated by drawing of the transitory state of pregnancy, of which we cannot clearly distinguish the beginning and end in the work’s display.

Slinko. Everything Must Go, 2019-present. 4K video and sound. Courtesy of The Immigrant Artist Biennial and the artist. Opening sequence, and a transaction at Centralny flea market in Kharkiv, Ukraine

Another Ukrainian-born artist, Slinko, traces the genealogy and contemporary transactional value of Soviet-era artefacts to flea markets in Crimea, while Tanzanian-Kenyan-born artist Keli Safia Maksud (b.1985) destabilises the self-communication of the nation-state itself through her installation They Try Their Tongues, which literally weaves together the scores of national anthems which were rotated in quick succession influenced by governmental changes and Pan-Africanism in the 1970s. Argentine-born Marcelo Brodsky (b.1954) offers his situated generational perspective on global synchronicities in social movements in the historic year of upheaval;1968, while ghosts seem to channel and leak through the paintings of Chilean Rafael Yaluff (b.1983) and the installation work Memory Leaks by Indian-American artist Pritika Chowdhry (b.1973), which seems to offer a sort of ritual ‘safe space’ at the centre of the exhibition which turns out to be inscribed with the numbers of fatalities related to religiously motivated violent events related to the partition of India and Pakistan.


As another representation of partition, Iranian-American artist Golnar Adili (b.1976) folds correspondence between her parents, based in the US and Iran following the 1979 revolution into 352 edges, creating a sculptural object emanating with the multidirectional support and love but also anger and longing directed to her physically absent, exiled father. Finally, working with a programme made for early supercomputers in the 1950s, Singaporean-American Jovencio de la Paz (b.1987) utilises a binary weaving mechanism to allude to the binary visualisations which through software could be used to designate imagined traits of immigrant populations.



At the Alchemy Gallery in Lower Manhattan, the exhibition Excavated Selves: Becoming Magic Bodies focuses shifts from Conflictual Distance's diverse manifestations of the fragmented “self”, to abstracted representations of the “self” in the face of migration, self-examination and self-determination.


Surrealism seems here to serve as a conducive to the importance of the creation and maintenance of an inner space where one's own language reigns supreme. This is evident for example in the work of Iranian-born Ala Dehghan (b.1987) with a series of paintings based on her own dreams. Through intuitive renderings, the artist paints her own path to a sense of independence and self-determination.

Felipe Baeza, Our shadows merging, 2023. Ink, acrylic, graphite, varnish, and cut paper on panel. Image credit: © Felipe Baeza. Courtesy Maureen Paley, London

The aforementioned Minaya is flanked by Mexican-born Felipe Baeza (b.1987), who was shown at the last Venice Biennale, represented here through a series of small scale (self-?) portraits, and an overwhelmingly layered object which appears here as a sculpture but is in fact a remnant garment from a series of ritual-based performances in the Korean Demilitarized Zone by artist duo AYDO (A Young Yu & Nicholas Oh). Their work is a sculptural re-imagination of a traditional ceremonial garment that was passed down generationally by women in A Young Yu’s family, reconfigured as a sacred object and embedded with organic materials (moss, sand, soil and seaweed).


What appears to be a map, comprising of collaged images and materials, is a work from the ongoing series Bundlehouse by Caribbean-American Nyugen E. Smith (b.1976). Juxtaposed within the outline of a fictional island are elements reminiscent of colonial imagery, blackened areas which would seem to indicate graveyards, inter-stitched with colourful sketches of houses, almost cartoonish in their sculptural animism.

Nyugen E. Smith. Bundlehouse Borderlines No.9 (Liberator No.1), 2023. Watercolor, pen and ink, acrylic, colored pencil, diaspora soil, plastic net, sequins, fabric, thread, graphite, oil pastel, and collage on paper. 47 x 33.5 x 1 inches. Courtesy of the artist and The Immigrant Artist Biennial.


These often deceivingly playful abstractions which contain multiple material histories and meanings continue throughout the exhibition in the work of artists Selva Aparicio, Dominique Duroseau, Mia Enell, Raul de Lara, Maya Hayuk, Lilian Shetereva, Tariku Shiferaw, and Francesco Simeti.



Through a wide array of artists’ work and mediums, the two exhibitions as part of TIAB 2023 distinguish themselves in their effort to not reproduce the often exploitative images which contribute to the continued “othering” of migratory bodies and peoples in Western visual culture.  Artists who work with minority perspectives and representation are often forced to “perform” and figure in their own art in order to produce empathy and understanding, and an expectation often conveyed (be it with a hushed voice) from art institutions that want to promote themselves as diverse. It is also a discussion that is now taking place in light of the ongoing media image surrounding the civilian attacks in Gaza, where Palestinians themselves have expressed frustration about how the live-streaming of images of dead bodies seem to be one of the few means available to them to sustain the West’s attention to the humanitarian crisis and ongoing genocide.

Ala Dehghan, installation view. Photographed by Bianca Abdi-Boragi. Courtesy of Alchemy Gallery and The Immigrant Artist Biennial.

Together, the exhibitions also firmly assert the fact that the regulation and systematisation of migration is not something of “natural order”, but rather something which has been constructed over time. And despite the official narrative of globalisation purported by well-bolstered imperialistic economies in the Global North, the truth of globalisation today is the acceleration of the freedom of movement of goods, including weapons, not the freedom of movement of people, especially those in need.


Collectively, The Immigrant Artist Biennial 2023 manages to preserve the artistic identities and specific cross-cultural circumstances of the participating artists' contributions, while producing a form of collective voice that calls for awareness and engagement around the global and national systems that determine individuals' and groups' status in the form of exile, precariousness and limbo. And most importantly, how visual culture can contribute to either repetition or liberation through the artistic representations of the affect of these systems.

Håkon Lillegraven

Håkon Lillegraven is a curator, art writer, producer, and art mediator based in Oslo, Norway. His curatorial interests are in the intersections of queer, temporal, performance-based, and moving image-based work, collaboration, community-building, and the curatorial strategies and ethics surrounding these. He works with this both inside and outside of art institutions and institutional vantage points. He has also written for Kunstkritikk - Nordic Art Review,, and Magasinet Billedkunst. @artfag_

Exhibitions on view:

Conflictual Distances — on view at EFA Project Space, New York City, until 6 January 2024. Participating artists: Golnar Adili, Marcelo Brodsky, Pritika Chowdhry, Erika DeFreitas, Maria Kulikovska, Keli Safia Maksud, Mila Panić, Jovencio de la Paz, Emilio Rojas, Nida Sinnokrot, Slinko, Rafael Yaluff

Excavated Selves: Becoming Magic Bodies — on view at Alchemy Gallery, New York City, until 14 January 2024. Participating artists: AYDO (A young Justine Yu & Nicholas Oh), Selva Aparicio, Felipe Baeza, Ala Dehghan, Dominique Duroseau, Mia Enell, Raul de Lara, Joiri Minaya, Lilian Shetereva, Tariku Shiferaw, Francesco Simeti, Nyugen E. Smith, Maya Hayuk

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