Public Exhibit Offers Intimate Portraits Of Immigrants

Allison Park PhotosImagine a life of forced removal from a war-ridden home at just two years old, and relocation to a foreign country where education was scarce, support was inadequate, and comfort was not an option. For Gladys Mwilelo, this consumed 13 years of her life.

Mwilelo’s portrait now hangs on the side of Trinity Church overlooking the Green as part of “WE ARE: A Nation of Immigrants,” a public art exhibit that had its unveiling on the New Haven Green Friday evening. Mwilelo, from the Democratic Republic of Congo, was one of dozens of immigrant subjects photographed by artist Joe Standart. The portraits, ranging from about 7 to 25 feet tall, will ornament the historic Green and its three churches through Aug. 15.

About 40 other portraits accompany Mwilelo’s, some in vibrant color and others in black and white. Through the various poses and facial expressions — some laughing and beaming, others looking almost on the verge of tears — these portraits reflect and underscore our common humanity, allowing onlookers to contemplate and appreciate the diverse backgrounds that define New Haven and the United States.

In the exhibition’s official opening ceremony, which drew a diverse crowd of over 100 people, U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal commended Standart’s powerful artistic message. The son of a German refugee and immigrant, Blumenthal spoke about the immigrant experience and how “strength is in our differences,” making America “wonderful.” 

“[We’re] going to reform America’s broken immigration system” and “stop cruel, inhumane policies,” he said. “As long as Donald Trump continues ... we will never give up.”

“We will move forward,” he added. “We will give dreamers a chance in this country.”

Fresh out of her freshman year of college, Mwilelo is a testament to immigrant resilience in the face of hardship and adversity. In the 13 years of her life she spent in Burundi, she got schooling in only five of them. Mwilelo said her life as a refugee was “about survival” more than anything else.

Standart recalled his experience listening to the stories of his immigrant subjects, including Mwilelo. He described them as “bone-chilling,” “uplifting,” and reflective of the “American continuum of immigrants being our backbone.”

Standart emphasized the power of public art, in that it becomes a “universal language” that people can “easily comprehend.” WE ARE was Initially created as a community-building effort for the city of New Haven. But Standart said that he ended up “grappl[ing] with issues that are very deep and revealing to work with.”

Standart echoed State Sen. Blumenthal’s political message by emphasizing the values of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, which “the leaders in Washington seemed to have turned their backs on.”

Regardless of the underlying political message, onlookers on the New Haven Green enjoyed the unique exhibit, some snapping photos and others collectively attempting to unpack the complex expressions on the faces of the photographs’ subjects.

Standart hoped that this exhibit would help “establish a new and bright future.”

“[These] photographs say a thousand words about who we are,” Mwilelo said about Standart’s work. “I feel like being here gives me the opportunity to be a part of the bigger message,” she continued. “I am looking at you, and I am a refugee.”

Mwelilo will become an official U.S. citizen this year.

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posted by: wendy1 on June 10, 2018  9:34am

An outrageous waste of our city $$$.  Only stupid anglo-americans could think this one up.  It is mortifying.

posted by: Pat from Westville on June 10, 2018  1:09pm

“WE ARE: A Nation of Immigrants”

That’s what I was taught in 5th grade when we studied U. S. history. Of course, it was a Catholic elementary school in the 1950’s, and we were a little closer to the immigration experience than others. I’m pleased to see this reaffirmation by the city I live in of immigration’s essential contribution to what the U. S. is

posted by: Bill Saunders on June 10, 2018  2:05pm

I have a lot to say about this ‘public art project’ my opinion in is less about art and community and more about being a political ad campaign….  with a 130k budget there is certainly a lot of explaining to do….

Firstly about the ‘artist’....

The photographer, Joe Standart is a white man from the shoreline.  He has done projects like this before (some sponsored by the NEA), but not with the immigrant ‘tagline’.  Back in the early 2000’s he hung photos of citizens in empty storefronts in New London and Meriden.  They look about how you would expect—like the dog park photos on Lower Chapel…or the I-91 Underpass Project…. or…

As someone who lives in New Haven I know a lot of photographers—Black, White, Male, Female, Immigrant, or not.  It seems to me that a ‘community project’ like this needs to start with ‘the community’, not the vision of on ‘outsider’ looking to exploit peoples stories for his own resume.
Enabling the interchange between local photographers and ‘local immigrants’ is true community.
The fact that Mr. Standart is now going to try and ‘career’ this exhibit in other cities shows where he is really coming from—the reviews of the first show aren’t even in yet, and he is poised to create an empire of the backs of other peoples experience.  For shame!

About the ‘Installation’....

I am going to go on record as to say that I do not have problem this ‘exhibit’ happening on the Green within the two week window of Arts and Ideas. 

The fact that it is up for three months is a mis-use of public space (was a three month permit fee paid). 

The fact that historic Churches have been drilled into to hang giant banners just disgusts me as a preservationist, (but we have Architect Duo Dickenson on the team too).  In my ‘artistic’ view the churches are the Sanctuaries and should be treated with the ultimate respect—unfortunately it looks like the ‘clergy’ thought political messaging to be more important….

posted by: Bill Saunders on June 10, 2018  2:28pm

Part II

The exhibit isn’t just happy being on the Green—it has creep!

Large Banners are also hanging on Public Buildings!
The Library.  Inside City Hall. The Hall of Records.  The Arts Council, and the Historic Pirelli Building.

This is all overblown overreach, that diminshes the impact of the exhibit on the Green, and our Mayor, Toni Harp is behind that ‘concept’, as was reported in a New Haven Register article a few month ago.  I did not know she was a conceptual artist.

“they need a total of $130,000 to extend the portraits to the other city sites that Mayor Toni Harp’s office has suggested.

WOW—The Mayor can blow-up the budget of an art project too!!!!  Toni’s actions regarding this project are the supreme tell of her self-serving political nature.

Speaking of self-serving—isn’t that newly crowned ‘art star’ Lucy McGlure in one of the photos?  Oh, she’s on the cover of the A&I Brochure!  Oh, she’s an organizer of this project, too! Oh, she’s on the Board of Directors at Artspace.  Oh,  she won an art award…. 

Makes me wonder how the other ‘subjects’ were selected.  The other one I immediately recognize is George Zdru, local architect, Yale affiliate. 

It makes me wonder what the selection process was, if there was one at all…

Finally, I would like to comment on the exhibit itself, and how it ‘interacts’ with the public.

I know it may sound funny, but I do not own a cell phone.  I can’t scan the little icon to find out more about these immigrants stories.  That icon is hard to find if I did have a phone!

If these immigrants stories as as affecting as Mr. Standart suggests, they need to be visible and readable, so that anybody walking by can be touched by these immigrants experiences, without the need of an electronic contraption and an Easter egg hunt.

Without some sort of available text incorporated as part of the exhibit this entire ‘concept’ is a disservice to both the subject and viewer….

posted by: Bill Saunders on June 10, 2018  2:44pm

Final notes:

On a lighter note—there are some positives.

The Homeless on the Green now have some outdoor bathroom stalls.  I have heard several reports of ‘public urinators’ using these Immigrant Panels as cover.  Probably a good place to make a drug deal too…. There are always unintended consequences when dealing with ‘art’.

You know, those Panels installed on the Green are sturdy as hell.  I was amazed! They probably could have withstood that tornado of a few weeks back….we will see if they can withstand my ‘stormy comments’.

This project is a Public Art Embarrassment.  You cannot partner with the City of New Haven and maintain any sort of ‘artistic integrity’....or ‘authenticity’—throw that out the window..

As a matter of closure, the opinions expressed in this little ‘critique’ are not unique to me, but, as usual, I am someone who has nothing to lose in directly expressing these community feelings.  Since this project has intruded our public space, I have had many dialogues with other artists, musicians, writers, and ordinary folks too….  we all feel similarly.

Maybe if they took the extra-money that Toni Harp needed to hang stuff on buildings to bolster her ‘pro-immigrant’ stance, and put that into making a more thoughtful and interactive exhibit on the Green, Joe Standard would really have something to hang his hat on…..

Unfortunately that is not the case…..

posted by: Bill Saunders on June 10, 2018  3:06pm

For 130K, This project could have sponsored the Bikeshare for two months!!!!!!

Maybe we should just change our name to Ad Haven. 
That is what our beautiful downtown is starting to look like…..

posted by: ShadowBoxer on June 10, 2018  4:59pm

As someone who generally likes the city’s art exhibits this is a mistake.  I know of several people who do not walk through the green anymore because miscreants are lurking behind these billboards and urinating, and dealing drugs.  So ironically, the immigrants “landed” on the green but displaced locals who walked through it.  Moreover not a soul knows to click their smartphone, so these billboards look like large Benneton advertisements.  They have cluttered the green and made it unsafe.  The green was one of the few places we could steer clear of clutter and enjoy nature, but bow clutter, political messaging and crime have infected the green.  This is when government backfires and harms its people.  The photos themselves are striking and belong flat against a structure, not erect, looming in the middle of a town green.

posted by: Kevin McCarthy on June 10, 2018  5:57pm

Wendy, I’m not aware that the city funded this show. I do know there was a Kickstarter campaign. The project was also supported by the Community Foundation, the Arts Council, and others.

posted by: Bill Saunders on June 10, 2018  9:02pm


Put them in the Bus Stops and the Bikeshare…...

posted by: Patricia Kane on June 10, 2018  10:26pm

What initially had a discrete message now has a Big Brother feel to it.

posted by: Bill Saunders on June 11, 2018  2:53am

At this point in the game, the public deserves a true accounting of the income and expenses of this “public art ‘enterprise’”.

posted by: urbandivact on June 11, 2018  10:23am

This is a timely project.  The intersections of art and social justice are a perfect vehicle for this conversation.  The visual representation of all of us is a provocative reminder of the concept that WE ALL are a Nation of Immigrants.  This needs to happen in every city across the nation to combat the racial injustices in which black and brown people continue to be the target of.  Kudos to all who had a hand in making this happen.

posted by: JCFremont on June 11, 2018  1:46pm

Nice Glossies. How about a little more Jacob Riis, a little less Annie Lebowitz, does everyone arriving at our shores get a free make-over?

posted by: ShadowBoxer on June 11, 2018  1:50pm


The bottom line is that the city has not only created a public nuisance and health problem (urinating, drug deals) it has erected these billboards in a way that facilitates crime and danger.  I COMPLETELY support the inclusive message, and generally consider myself to be a woke urban liberal, but not if I or loved one gets mugged as a result because of someone lurking behind these structures.  It seems like no one had the foresight to think about what these erect urban structures would have on the green by providing safe havens for addicts and criminals.  The fact is New Haven residents are avoiding the green we once felt (relatively) safe in to indulge a political agenda.  The money would have been much better spent on scholarships or legal defense funds for these immigrants.  To drill into the soil, and erect signage on a bucolic space was simply shortsighted, and I hope no one gets hurt there.  Who will be liable if someone is as a result of this project?

posted by: Elmshaker on June 11, 2018  3:21pm

It’s a beautiful exhibit, with lovely images, in keeping with the highest traditions of New Haven as one of the great American immigrant gateway cities.

For NHI readers who are interested in the American experience of immigrants and refugees I would like to recommend an upcoming program at the New Haven Free Public Library. Every year at this time the Literacy Volunteers of Greater New Haven hold a celebration for their students and volunteer tutors called Hear Our Voices.  During this event students, many of whom are first-time English language learners, read essays they have written over the course of the year and, such as they are, these essays represent nothing less than primary documents bearing witness to the immigrant experience. To hear new Americans and native English speakers write of their homelands and their efforts to build lives for themselves and their families is to hear the American Dream unfold in real time and is without a doubt the single most moving event you will experience when it comes to the achievements of these types of nonprofits operating in New Haven.

Literacy Volunteers of Greater New Haven is responsible for the lion’s share of English language instruction in New Haven. Their main concern has always been getting the job done and, perhaps because of this, they don’t register on the radar the way similar local literacy and immigrant agencies do. They deserve the support of all New Haveners who share the values of inclusion.

Hear Our Voices will take place Wednesday, June 20th, at 5:30 p.m. in the New Haven Free Public Library on the Green.