When I first moved to Buffalo a decade ago, to the heart of the west side, the first person to knock on my door to say hello was a man named Law. He was a former journalist from the country some call Myanmar and some Burma. His work there had earned the ire of the authorities, and he became a political prisoner, then a refugee, and now an American.
I have many such neighbors, but have to admit – to my chagrin and embarrassment – that I know few of them and even fewer of their stories.
That is why I am especially grateful to artist Htein Lin and our culturals and immigrant/refugee service organizations for bringing A Show of Hands to Buffalo. I finally got to see the exhibition this month, as part of a weekend exploring the Scajaquada corridor, of which our culturals are a central part. The exhibition is in its closing week, so you still have the chance to see it, along with two other can’t miss exhibitions We the People, and Humble and Human.
In fact, as I learned from a gallery docent, We the People is not just an exhibition of recent acquisitions (since 2013), but also works that deal with social themes, and are grouped accordingly. So the timing and location of A Show of Hands – concurrent and adjacent – work well with its sister exhibit.
A Show of Hands not only had a great deal to teach me about my neighbors, but my visit to the exhibition actually began in the neighborhood. The weekend I saw it, the Albright-Knox was running free shuttles from the west side (along with free admission), in partnership with local organizations such as Jericho Road and the International Institute.
The same weekend, the artist was in Buffalo to continue this ongoing project by making plaster casts here. According to the gallery, he made fourteen such casts in Buffalo – eight at the gallery and six at a local monastery.
The following week, the artist also gave two lectures at the Burchfield-Penney Art Center in conjunction with the exhibition, a great example of inter-institutional collaboration that we should see more of in the cultural district.
About the artist and exhibition, the Albright-Knox says:
From 1998 to 2004, pro-democracy activist Htein Lin was jailed for challenging the military dictatorship in his home country of Myanmar (formerly Burma) in Southeast Asia. Prior to his imprisonment, Lin acted in films and with a theater troupe. While behind bars, he continued to organize performance artworks with his fellow prisoners. He also used the humble objects available to him—such as cigarette lighters, bars of soap, and prison uniforms—to make more than 300 paintings and sculptures inspired by his experiences.
After his imprisonment, Lin left Myanmar and went into exile in London in 2006, only returning home in 2012 following a series of political reforms. In 2013, he began work on A Show of Hands. This multimedia installation includes hundreds of plaster sculptures cast from the hands of former political prisoners from Myanmar, each accompanied by a card bearing information about the circumstances of the individual’s imprisonment.
Many of these casts are on display in the exhibition, each with a tag bearing the name of the person from whom the cast was made. Taken together they bear silent, collective witness to human brutality. They give their mute testimony in the way of the shoes at Auschwitz or even the luggage left behind in the attic of Willard Psychiatric Center, currently the subject of the exhibition, The Lives They Left Behind at the Museum of DisABILITY History in Amherst, which the institution took from the men and women whom it immured there for decades.
But as much as the castings embody this exhibit and form its iconic image, you discover a yin to their yang in the videos shown on the opposite wall. These are videos of the cast-making itself, with each subject recounting his or her experiences as prisoner of the regime and refugee from it. Where the castings are pure, disembodied, almost ethereal, the videos are very down-to-earth and human and full of sound and color. This is because the cast-making process requires a very intimate connection between the artist and his subject – and, by extension, the viewer – the very absence of which characterizes the work on display. In this exhibition about hands, one half is hands-off and the other hands-on, hand-in-hand with each other.
While colorful and lively in contrast to the hands, the video is also very simple. The artist is present in every scene, but in the task of making the cast fades into the background like a good interviewer letting the subject tell their story. Like the other half of the exhibition, the stories are simple yet have an impact. One former prisoner tells how a woman imprisoned with her leapt out the window in despair to her death. The prisoner then reveals that she tried to do the same, but friends pulled her back in. Another man, much older, talks about the chronic health problems related to his captivity and the medicines he has to take for them.
The video reveals the overall project to be a way for the artist to engage deeply with a subject in which he has an obvious interest, and also to draw the rest of us in to share it. As someone working in another discipline or genre might engage in this subject through practicing international law, or working in refugee resettlement, or writing a book, or filming a documentary, Htein Lin uses an art project to get close to his subjects, get their stories, and share them with us. Because that is an artist’s special way of engaging with their world.
In that way, this work is like that of my friend, Artist Pepsy Kettavong, himself a refugee (from Laos) who resettled with his family in the Rochester area. His works of public art in Rochester featuring Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass celebrate the freedoms of his adopted country and the dedication to expanding those freedoms of notable residents of his adopted city.
It is important to note that this exhibition doesn’t just speak to those of us outside the ranks of immigrants, refugees, and political prisoners, but to those within that community, as well. Children are naturally curious about the experiences of their families and the families of their neighbors and classmates. One Buffalo Public Schools teacher who took her class – including children from immigrant families – to see the exhibition told me on Twitter,
They were saddened when they saw so many [hands]. Many asked about the prisoners and why they were held there. They wanted to read their back stories. One girl said they were very brave for speaking out. Some were making the connection to their own freedoms that they have here that they may not have had before. Many of my students are immigrants/refugees themselves.
This exhibition comes at an important time, when immigrants and refugees are under attack in America as at no time in recent memory. Without saying so explicitly, the artist refutes the idea that these recent arrivals are economic opportunists, by bringing us face-to-face with the circumstances they had to flee. With this exhibit, and this project, Htein Lin and his subjects extend a collective hand to us, inviting us to walk a mile in their shoes and show us – literally – where they are coming from.
Those of us who live in Buffalo know that immigrants and refugees are no threat to us. They work hard, bring new life to our neighborhoods and streets, and reuse the homes, stores, and churches others left behind. But how well do most of us really know these neighbors whose day-to-day lives may be very different from our own?
Thanks to this cross-cultural, cross-organizational, and cross-institutional effort for helping us get to know each other a little better.
Final week! Exhibit closes Sunday, April 28.
Note: the exhibit is multi-lingual