In his native Russia, artist and filmmaker Alexander Kargaltsev was beaten by police at a gay pride event and detained after he left a gay club. He came to the U.S. in 2010 and received asylum in 2011. Last week, Mr. Kargaltsev held his first solo exhibit at a new gallery, called 287 Spring, in downtown Manhattan (which hopefully is not now under water).
The exhibit is entitled “Asylum” and consists of large photos, each depicting a nude gay or bisexual Russian man, with New York City shown in the background. The men have stern expressions, and many were photographed provocatively in public areas, such as Central Park. Under each photo is a caption: “Granted Asylum” or “Asylum Pending.”
According to curator Ivan Savvine, “The models’ nakedness is a powerful visual statement imbued with symbolism. They are not nude but naked, for they had courage to shed the many layers of fear and come out to the world uncovered, vulnerable, yet proud.” He continues, ”Their naked bodies thus also reveal their experience as refugees, for every person seeking refuge rebuilds his or her life completely ‘naked,’ starting from scratch with no family or friends and often without the language they can speak or understand.”
As a humble immigration lawyer who received most of his artistic training from Bill Alexander, I can’t help but find this type of artist speak a bit pretentious. Also, I really can’t imagine many of my clients posing nude in public (and–no offense to my clients–I don’t want to imagine it). But I suppose Mr. Kargaltsev’s exhibit raises some interesting points.
I agree with the idea that refugees start their lives over “naked.” But to me, the more interesting analogy between asylum seekers and nakedness is the idea of exposing one’s past history to the scrutiny of an Asylum Officer or an Immigration Judge (not to mention to the asylum seeker’s own lawyer). Depending on the person, and on the problems he faced in the home country, relating the story of past persecution can be humiliating and traumatic.
I have represented rape victims and torture victims. When such people apply for asylum, they need to tell these stories. Sometimes, people do not behave honorably under the threat of persecution. They need to relate those stories as well. I remember one client who fled his home when government soldiers broke in to look for him. He left his wife and children behind. My client had to explain this to the Immigration Judge, which was extremely difficult for him to do. This is the type of “exposure” I think about when I think of refugees. And in some ways, it is similar to exposing oneself naked before the camera, flaws and all.
Mr. Kargaltsev’s photos are of gay asylum seekers from Russia. The photos I’ve seen depict good-looking young men whose nudity is nothing to be ashamed of. In my experience, the exposure endured by asylum seekers is a lot less attractive than Mr. Kargaltsev’s images. While Mr. Kargaltsev’s photos certainly add to the dialogue about issues faced by asylum seekers, in my opinion they gloss over the ugly truths about refugees and the pain that they have endured. A more realistic and challenging exhibit in this vein would be less pleasant to look at, but more useful to understanding the real lives of refugees.