There are hundreds of little bundles of colorful cloth, a crazy quilt of texture and pattern, tied neatly with string and heaped along a 25-foot expanse of floor at the Pao Arts Center in Chinatown.
For Yu-Wen Wu — the Center’s current artist-in-residence — this mound of bundles, though colorful and even rakishly piquant, tells a much more complicated story than what is perceived at first glance. Each bundle, sometimes emblazoned with a note or message, is representative of the thousands of stories of women and children grappling with issues of immigration, resettlement and displacement, often due to war and famine.
The bundles “call attention to material objects and cultural ideas that individual immigrants were able to bring with them or were forced to leave behind,” Wu says. “They are the embodiments of narratives of crossing borders, of surviving terror and violence and the loss of family and home.”
The reason the bundles have been installed in a linear form, is that the shape “recalls the long lines of exodus as refugees flee,” she adds.
On view at the Pao Arts Center through Aug. 10, “Leavings/Belongings” is the culmination of a six-month-long project involving more than 150 Boston area immigrant women in the activity of bundle-making. Women filed into the Center for weeks to sift through and select fabrics from around the world, snipping, wrapping and cutting to create the kind of bundles that refugees often carry as they move through town and country, over mountains, through deserts, across borders. Most of the participants so far have been Asian, although Wu has been doing the same bundle-making sessions with other ethnic groups around the country with collaborator Harriet Bart, attracting immigrants from an array of countries in Asia, the Middle East, Africa and South America.
In this installation, it’s not only bundles on display. The exhibit includes a portrait wall of the women who have carefully wrapped their anomalous cloth packages, along with a video in which they share their stories.
“The bundles give individual voice to the immigrant or refugees that make it to this country, as do the tags that each maker writes,” Wu says. “These bundles are a metaphor for the immigrants that form the foundations of this country.”
Holding “Leavings/Belongings” at the Pao Arts Center is especially significant, Wu adds. The Center sits on the site of displaced Chinese and Syrian immigrant homes. These homes were destroyed in the 1950s and 1960s to make way for I-93. In addition, the fabric used by the bundle-makers echoes Chinatown’s history as a garment district and the role of immigrant women in the textile industry.
It’s provocative art that is visually arresting, but Wu’s goal was to also spark discussion. As they worked together, women of different generations, ethnicities and cultures talked in sessions that lasted, on average, two hours each.
“At first, many participants are cautious and tentative,” says Wu. “There is an anxiety because they do not know what to expect.”
Initially shy about photos or videos, by the end, Wu says, “almost all are eager to have their photographs taken. I am struck by the tremendous pride in their work. Many want to be in the group photo, and many want photos with me so they can show their family and friends. Others would like to participate in another workshop. And others are willing to meet for a deeper personal interview about their immigration journey.”
Wu’s own history as an immigrant informs her work. Born in Taipei, Wu came to the United States at the age of 7. Her work has a bicultural spin, bringing in both Eastern and Western influences. In other exhibitions, her videos, installations, drawings and sculpture have also explored issues of displacement, assimilation and national identity. Behind much of her work is a questioning of impressions and accuracy in storytelling.
“My lived experience as an immigrant from Taiwan is central to my artwork,” says Wu. “As an artist, my projects are informed by my subjectivity as an Asian immigrant.”
Wu’s father immigrated to the United States to pursue a graduate degree after the passage of the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act. Wu, along with her mother and brother, followed years later.
“At the time, we lived in a community in which there was only one other Chinese family,” she says. “There was no support structure to help assimilate into this new culture. It was the kindness and generosity of teachers and neighbors that made the language and cultural transition easier. By the time I was in middle school, my parents found their community of friends — a wide range of diverse ethnicities and cultures. The stories of departure and arrival and the struggles of assimilation and identity have always been a part of the community in which I was surrounded.”
Though the installation at Pao will end in August, the project will continue in this national moment of rancorous debate over immigration policy. All summer long, Wu will continue to lead bundle-making sessions and will add more bundles to the installation. After the show closes in Boston, its next appearance will be at the SITE Santa Fe biennial in New Mexico in February 2020.
“What has struck me most throughout this project is the sense of gratitude,” Wu says. “Gratitude to have made it to the United States, and gratitude for the opportunity to build a better life in a new country. There is much hope for the future of their children and their families.”
Yu-Wen Wu’s “Leavings/Belongings” is on view at the Pao Arts Center through Aug. 10.