“Writing to Reach You”, made possible by the Leeway Foundation’s Art and Change Program, took place on Wednesday, January 20th, 2013 at the Philadelphia Welcome Center. The hybridized photo/interview exhibition is designed to take on a sort of “post card” aesthetic, showcasing at least a dozen stunning photographs of transnational women (Mali, the Philippines, and Albania to name a few) from across the globe to Philadelphia.
A framed write-up is situated beneath each of the photos in order to provide us with another dimension of these women. Each write up perpetuates a small piece of their emotional journey: of immigration to Philadelphia, of immersion into a completely foreign culture while struggling to maintain strong ties to their native countries. Having the chance to share their experiences was just as important for the photographed women. I got the chance to ask one of the women, Sawsan Ali—a Sudan native wearing an exquisite gold-embellished hijab, a few questions about her experience with the project. Ali reported:
“I wasn’t expecting all of this today. I am so happy. I saw everyone’s photography, and got to hear everyone’s story from all over the world. I was so blessed when I saw everything.”
Although not all of the photographed women were present, the interviewees that did make it to the event held a very strong and stoic presence in the room—emanating great poise, wisdom, and pride.
These are just some of the characteristics that the documentarian capitalized upon in this project in order to bring their experiences to the attention of the attendees. Her objective? “To preserve a piece of their history,” that may have been otherwise unnoticed by the everyday passerby.
The documentarian: Lorelei Shingledecker-Narvaja is just as strong as the women that she has interviewed in the process of this installation. Lorelei is an agent of change in the Philadelphia community, as she views her work and art as an essential vessel of fulfillment in her life—all of it being an ode to a broader, selfless picture of an enlightened Philadelphia.
AN INTERVIEW WITH LORELEI:
B: Where did you find inspiration to begin “Writing to Reach You?” What were some of the steps that you had to take in getting the grant to fund this project?
L: The Leeway Foundation gave me a grant as part of their Art and Change program in 2010, where I did a series of photos and interviews of the women in my family who either immigrated to the U.S., or were born here and whose parents were immigrants. It was a great opportunity and gift for me to learn more about my family history and to get an intergenerational perspective on how cultural identity develops and is preserved (or rejected), depending on the individual. When I became a Leeway grantee again in 2012, it gave me a chance to extend this practice of storytelling and documentary photography to women from other countries, and as I suspected, there were definitely some parallels with what the women in my family experienced. We’re lucky in the sense that Philadelphia is a terrific city for visual art, especially for art that has social justice issues at its core. So if you’re interested in this form of community art, the natural step is to apply for a grant award from the Leeway Foundation, who does a great job of supporting this work. Installing the exhibit at the Welcoming Center for New Pennsylvanians also had different implications for my desired outcome, which was for as many people as possible who could identify with or support the immigrant experience to see the show. The Welcoming Center focuses on providing employment opportunities for immigrants new to Philadelphia, so it was the ideal home for the project and opening reception, which had a diverse crowd of immigrants, artists, social justice advocates, kids, and random people who heard about the exhibit. Things would have turned out differently if I went the route of trying to install a show based on immigrant experiences in a traditional gallery space – people who don’t typically circulate in Philly’s gallery scene may not have been as inclined to attend the reception or see the photographs, which would have been unfortunate.
B: What were your feelings on this subject before you began the project? Do you have a different feeling now?
L: Knowing that every woman’s experience and culture is unique, I wasn’t looking to homogenize people’s stories – but I wanted to demonstrate universally that yes, for a lot of people, it’s a really hard thing to leave your home country, your family and loved ones, and to go somewhere else where you have to learn the language, cultural nuances, adjust to the food and weather, and basically assimilate. I’ve never done this before, and the thought of uprooting myself is unsettling, so I admire anyone who has the courage to do so. When you hear that someone’s from a different country, you don’t think much about it but for me, it’s always such a loaded concept – what brought you to live in another country? Do you miss your kids? How often do you see your family? Do you have friends here? The women I got to know were coming from different situations, where their home country had high rates of unemployment, or was going through some sort of political strife, or lacked educational options. Despite all of that, it doesn’t make coming to the U.S. any easier, even if you’re leaving a dire or life-threatening situation in your home country. My feelings about the subject matter of the project didn’t shift dramatically, but what I was struck by was how technology has made staying in touch with loved ones so much easier, compared to when my mom and her family came to the U.S.
B: What do you want to take away from this experience?
L: The project was a humble attempt to honor the resilience and hope of Philadelphia’s immigrant community, and to raise awareness around their experiences in hopes that we can make our communities more welcoming for anyone that comes through. While Philadelphia sometimes has a reputation of being a rough city, I find that in major cities like Philly, the populations are more diverse and for people coming from other countries for the first time, it might be a slightly easier transition, especially for communities that resettle en masse, vs. moving to a remote area of middle America where you might not see as many people, or have as much diversity. I think in general, beyond just thinking about immigrants, people need to be nicer and more loving to the people around them, so hopefully a project like Writing to Reach You encourages this. What makes me pursue photo projects like this one is that I LOVE learning people’s stories and getting to know people – I could sit with someone for hours, ask them questions about what moves them and shapes them. Learning about what makes a person who they are energizes me into trying to capture their spirit, most often through a photograph.
B: Can you give me any suggestions for organizations you support around Philadelphia?
L: Besides the Welcoming Center for New Pennsylvanians and the Leeway Foundation, another great place is People’s Emergency Center’s Center for Digital Inclusion and Technology. They have a terrific staff and they use technology and education as a strategy for combating poverty and helping people become self-sufficient. I know their staff well because I worked there, and while I was planning the opening reception, I requested that they do a tablet pop-up lab because of how relevant technology is in connecting people globally, and making long-distance relationships not as painful. So we touted the project as a timely intersection of art, technology, and immigrant journeys. Finally, an organization I support (and also work at) is Philadelphia FIGHT, which provides comprehensive services and medical care for people living with HIV and AIDS. We serve community members with significant barriers, with their health and quality of life as our priorities.
B: What local authors do you enjoy?
L:My friend Benita Cooper manages a fantastic blog that people should visit -http://blog.bestdayofmylifesofar.org/. It focuses on senior citizens and I love what they share in their writing.
B: What are your objectives as an artist? What direction do you see yourself going in the future?
L: Those are great questions. It’s hard to think of myself as an artist because I’ve had this other full-time career in non-profit management for the past 11 years. I’ve never tried to pursue an artistic career full-time because my brain wasn’t wired that way, and I like doing different things. I know so many successful, talented artists and don’t consider myself close to being in their arena of talent. But I do know that I love people, I love my life, and the lens in which I view things tends to invoke beauty in what most people would consider ordinary or unnoticeable. My objectives as not just an artist, but as a person, are to always be kind to people as if we are all family; to stay fascinated and curious about what’s around me so I’m never bored and always engaged in my surroundings; and to never take anything for granted. That formula is something I’m always working towards and it’s brought me much inspiration and opportunity in my art, career and life.