Diary of a Poet

Pictures & Words: My Visit to New York City

As I was getting ready to leave New York City last week, it occurred to me that much of the art I saw on my trip, from the Statue of Liberty to the majority of the art at the MOMA, was a response to oppression. I started thinking about what it means to live in an age when so much of the work of artists is a form of resistance. Of course, artists and poets have always functioned as truth-tellers, often to their peril, but the intensity and scale of the art I saw emphasized this fact to me in new and thought-provoking ways.

For example, on the Statue of Liberty tour, I learned that the statue was more than just “a gift from France to the people of the United States,” as I’d been told as a child. Its main purpose was to commemorate the end of slavery. Hidden at the statue’s base are broken chains, meant to symbolize the freeing of America’s enslaved people; the statue’s designer, Frederic Bartholdi, “originally designed Lady Liberty holding broken chains, but later deemed the explicit reference to slavery too controversial. Instead, a broken chain and shackles lie at the statue’s feet, delivering the abolitionist message more subtlety.” 

It’s beyond ironic that a statue celebrating the end of slavery had to be toned down. Our tour guide told us that Bartholdi took this action, at least in part, to appease wealthy donors whose money was crucial in paying for the statue.

The statue is also the site of one of the world’s most conspicuous displays of ekphrasis: Emma Lazarus’s poem, “The New Colossus,” printed at the statue’s base. Many phrases hit me as I read the poem: “brazen giant,” “imprisoned lightning,” “world-wide welcome,” and of course, the famous lines about the tired, poor, the wretched refuse, homeless and “tempest-tost.” The poem asks the world for these “huddled masses,” indeed demands them. Not the wealthy, the educated, the strong and beautiful, but their polar opposites.

“The New Colossus” transformed the statue from its original purpose to “the role of unofficial greeter of incoming immigrants,” as New York journalist John T. Cunningham put it. On that windy dot of an island in the New York Harbor, I was profoundly moved, imagining boatload after boatload of immigrants being greeted by this gigantic Mother of Exiles, as Lazarus calls her, before they landed at Ellis Island. 

Of course, I couldn’t help but remember that in 1886, the year of the statue’s dedication, women in America were over thirty years away from obtaining the right to vote. At the same time, Jim Crow laws oppressed African-Americans, denying them the freedom our country supposedly stood for. So it must be stated that the statue is as aspirational as it is symbolic. 

At the MOMA, I was happy to observe many artworks that combined images and words. Walking through the Barbara Kruger exhibition, a graphic compendium of provocative statements confronted me: “money talks,” “this is about who gets what and who owns what. About who is remembered,” “in the end, you’ve had your chance.” The gallery, its walls covered floor-to-ceiling with Kruger’s forceful and ominous proclamations, was a fitting introduction to a lot of the art I saw there. For example, Chilean artist Cecilia Vicuña created a series of drawings that reinvent words as “palabrarmas,” or “word-weapons,” intended to “mobilize poetic language as a form of political language.” Another Chilean, Alfredo Jaar, created “He Ram,” a screenprint on a mirror containing quotes from “Seven Social Sins,” a list that Gandhi published in 1925. The list is also printed on Gandhi’s tombstone. (“He ram, he ram” means “Oh God, oh god.” They were Gandhi’s last words.)

I saw many amazing works of art, but a collection that stands out for me is “Our Selves: Photographs by Women Artists from Helen Kornblum.” The exhibition asked the question, “How have women artists used photography as a tool of resistance? As a way of unsettling established narratives? As a means of unfixing the canon?” The images were from all over the world, but a common thread linked them: they showed women as seen by women—the all-important gaze was female, not male. Photographs showed women and girls powerfully engaged in their environment, negotiating space, and standing up to systems of oppression.

Standing in that particular room, I felt the strength of those artists, “unfixing” the canon, expanding our consciousness to include their lived experiences.

I felt the power of art.

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