SIOUX CENTER, Iowa | A Chicago-based artist pondered the complexities of the American experience after Marc Anthony sang “God Bless America” at the Major League Baseball All-Star Game, setting off a barrage of racially charged comments on Twitter like "Shouldnt (sic) an AMERICAN be signing (sic) God Bless America? #getoutofmycountry.” Others questioned his legal status, called him a "spic" and considered his performance "un-American."
Anthony was born and raised in New York. His parents were from Puerto Rico, which has been a territory of the United States since 1898.
Sergio Gomez, a Mexican immigrant, channeled that negative energy into a positive outcome by curating a thought-provoking exhibition that captures a multicultural perspective on ethnicity, identity and the American experience.
“I AM American,” which is on display at Dordt College through Jan. 3, features artists who are first, second and third generation immigrants from countries including India, Turkey, Japan, Korea and the Philippines. Others can trace their heritage to the Native Americans.
Using a variety of styles, visual forms, symbols and metaphors, each piece provides a wide-angle view into the bi-cultural experience.
Some make bold statements like the decorated cow skulls by Mexican-American Salvador Jimenez-Flores titled, “Target One,” “Target Two” and “No to Racial Profiling” or the painting by Filipino-American Cesar Conde, which shows a bare-chested Caucasian man whose face is partially covered by large spray-painted letters that say, “Go HOME.”
Others offer more subtle assessments, leaving more room for interpretation. Agustina Diez Sierra, who grew up in Argentina, pulled inspiration from her husband’s native land. She bought a necklace from a remote village in the Philippines, magazines from an antique market and fabric from the Tiboli tribe to make mixed media art.
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As she made discoveries about Filipino culture, she also considered what it means to be American as an Argentinian married to a man born in the Philippines.
“It’s an important exhibition, an important theme,” said David Versluis, professor of art and art gallery coordinator at Dordt. “I believe something still needs to and should be discussed and the show was, in my view, a way to foster that discussion.”
Abby Foreman, associate professor of social work, and Rikki Heldt, instructor of language studies, spoke at the exhibit’s opening reception.
While Heldt had a more personal connection to the subject matter since she is a green card holder, Foreman talked about immigration from the perspective of social services, saying later that the exhibition provokes the viewer to think about what it means to be American beyond legal status.
“It’s an idea. It’s an identity,” Foreman said. “That’s what the art is reflecting – that identity of being American.”
Gomez moved to the United States with his parents in 1988. His father was a minister, called to work for a Spanish-speaking church in a suburb of Chicago. Gomez was 16. He didn’t speak any English. He was picked on and bullied sometimes because of his accent or because he had trouble with reading and writing.
“Those were obstacles to be overcome,” he said. Gomez created a career for himself in Chicago as a visual artist and curator. “My goal is to help people understand the wide gamut of cultures we have here and to be sensitive to those.”
Coming into an election year, the issues conveyed through the works of art are more relevant now than when the show opened at Water Street Studios in January 2014. Gomez pointed to the anti-immigration rhetoric of some presidential candidates as a prime example.
Dordt is the fifth destination for the traveling exhibition. Gomez is currently working out details to see where it will go next and continue a conversation about multiculturalism.