Immigrant Art at Amherst: Vital to Fueling Cultural Conversation
Issue   |   Wed, 09/20/2017 - 00:19
Omotara Oluwafemi ’18
Oluwafemi’s artistic talents lie in her passion for form and attention to shape, as is clear in her construction of a structure out of laundry detergent containers which she translated into an architectural installation imagined on Pittsburgh’s Andy Warhol museum.

This fall’s political conversations and actions surrounding Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), Dreamers and the border wall have revived fears and questions of what our country would look like without immigrants.

Our minds first go to political questions of American life without immigrants, but how would America’s — and Amherst’s — culture change with the restriction and exclusion of immigrants?

For Omotara Oluwafemi ’18, an artist and architecture major who was born in Nigeria and has lived in Canada and the United States, concerns lie in the loss of the conversation that different cultures and perspectives bring to art.

“You have better dialogue with what is considered art and how everyday objects are art when you are able to talk with international people and dialogue with different definitions of those kind of things,” she said. “My biggest fear is that the art community will be closed off, and we won’t be having the conversations we need to have about who decides what art is important and who decides who should be in museums and all that.”

At Amherst, the contributions of immigrants and non-Americans make up a large portion of artistic expression on campus. The Mead’s current exhibition, “Tell It Like It Is — Or Could Be” features photographs from artists across the globe, including Kenya, England, Russia, Canada and South Africa. Each piece offers a glimpse into scenes from around the world and raises questions and issues most of us do not encounter in our daily lives, as Tim Hetherington’s photos of vulnerable, sleeping soldiers in Afghanistan do. However, at the same time, they reaffirm the human similarities we all share that transcend national boundaries, such as Kenyan artist Mimi Cherono Ng’ok’s photograph “Everyone is Lonely in Kigali.”

Diverse, international and immigrant perspectives also imbue “The Belong Campaign,” a photo compilation by Maria Stenzel and Jonathan Jackson ’19 and sponsored by the Office of Diversity and Inclusion. The exhibit captures images of students coming together and sharing their thoughts on the topic of belonging, while their diverse backgrounds and homelands shape their answers.

The same rings true for Oluwafemi. Her experiences living in vastly different settings — ranging from Nigeria and Onterio to Western Massachusetts — have significantly shaped how she thinks about buildings and architecture.

“I’ve noticed, from living in different cities, the way that the architecture changes the environment,” she said. “That is one of my main interests in architecture: the way people interact with space and the cohesion that comes with the way people have structured the areas. I feel like I notice that more, because I have lived in different areas.”

Although Oluwafemi hesitates to call herself an artist because she seldom creates art on her own outside of class, it is clear from her keen attention to form, shape and structure that she has the eye of an artist and designer.

Though others might not notice it, Oluwafemi sees a connection between international students and art on campus.
“I actually do think there is a strong immigrant artist community here at Amherst,” she said. Just in my art classes, there tend to be immigrants or other Nigerians.”

“We do talk to each other [about the questions that come with being an international artist],” she explained. “Those are the times when I really connect to the international student artists. Those kind of conversations are where we have a community. Being artists, there’s already so much uncertainty about your future, so having other people to talk with about those big fears is so important,” Oluwafemi added.