Miami Artist Takes a Stand for Immigrants in For All Boat People

Rehearsal performance of for all boat people with Peter Eves and Dr. Sonali Saha
Rehearsal performance of for all boat people with Peter Eves and Dr. Sonali Saha Courtesy of Gina Cunningham
In the days following President Donald Trump’s executive order prohibiting Syrian refugees from entering the United States and banning citizens of seven majority-Muslim countries in any visa category, heated protests broke out at airports in many states where travelers were detained. For many people, particularly immigrants, it has been an exhausting and devastating couple of weeks since Trump took office.

Miami-based artist Gina Cunningham knows the struggle. She has been producing work about the plight of immigrants for years. “As an artist, I raise social and moral issues. It’s particularly important at this point in this crisis that I feel we’re having with the government,” she says.

Cunningham’s latest installation, For All Boat People, is a continuation of the work she has been doing locally and internationally in Haiti, Russia, and Iceland, among other locations. The show will open this Sunday in what has been framed as “an emergency protest against Trump's anti-immigration ban,” according to a news release.

For the show, the artist has created a collection of boats, both large and small, made of paper and industrial material, in a reference to the poem “Boat People,” by Haitian writer Félix Morisseau-Leroy. The poem reads, “All Americans are immigrants/But it’s us they call boat people/We don’t come to make trouble/We come with all respect/It’s them who call us boat people.”

The installation integrates several artistic modalities and consists of indoor and outdoor components. The indoor installation has video, photos, 200 small paper boats, and a large eight-foot boat. The small boats are made of weather-proof plastic paper, while the large canoe was purchased and wrapped in a metallic decorative material. The canoe also serves as an altar of sorts, where visitors can place devotional offerings with a wish or a prayer for the safety of refugees and travelers.
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Canoes hung in a tree at Standing Rock by the disputed Cannonball River, with the Dakota Access Pipeline in the far background.
Courtesy of Gina Cunningham
"Unless you’re a Native American, you’re a boat person as well," Cunningham says. "With the current ban, it’s our moral duty to stick up for the disenfranchised. We’re all immigrants; this country is built on immigrants.”

The four videos in the piece are from different locations where she has staged the installation: the United States (Standing Rock), Russia, Iceland, and Mexico. The video she shot in Mexico is particularly relevant to the Trump administration. The footage shows Mexicans in their day-to-day lives with a running news ticker that says, “You generalize immigrants as drug traffickers, criminals, and rapists when you, a direct descendant of immigrants, are married to one. Do you think you and Melania are different because you are white? I cannot think of any other reason for your blatant insult and denigration of immigrants, especially Mexicans.”

Outside, there will be a dance performance with water and fire elements, choreographed by Colleen Farnum. The performers were chosen for their diversity; there are untrained dancers and professional ones, including immigrants from Haiti, Southeast Asia, and South America, as well as Miamians.

For All Boat People was not a direct reaction to the immigration ban that Trump issued January 27. In fact, the installation had already been in place at the nonprofit arts venue Under the Bridge when the executive order was announced. Curator Jane Hart and Cunningham decided to reorient elements in the installation in response to Trump’s order. They displayed the video from Mexico and the photographs referencing Trump more prominently.

“The overall environment in the gallery had been one of reflection, reverence, and ritual before. With Trump and what happened, it’s more frenetic, but it’s important to bring that more to the fore,” Hart says.
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Screenshot of the Mexico/Trump video
Courtesy of Gina Cunningham
Cunningham’s work is political, but not aggressively so, Hart says. There are elements of meditation and reflection to her installations about displacement, immigration, and identity. "Her work is poetic and political," Hart says. "She is an artist/activist, not an artist passively creating work. Her work transcends being merely political, but it's political and poetic. We need more work in the world that can speak truth to power.”

The artist aims to address moral and social issues in her art, and she reflects on the importance of politics in the art world as a whole. “It’s important at a time like this for artists to create work that speaks out about what is happening in the world,” Cunningham says. “It’s not about the market, not about the money. Yes, [the artworks] are for sale, but they transcend that. It’s about making art that will shift people’s focus.”

For All Boat People
Opens with a reception from 4 to 7 p.m. Sunday, February 12, at Under the Bridge, 12425 NE 13th Ave., #4, North Miami; email [email protected]; Admission is free. The dance performance begins at 6:15 p.m.
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Minhae Shim Roth is an essayist, journalist, and academic.
Contact: Minhae Shim Roth