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Women Artists Take Over Artpace with a Trio of Exhibitions Tackling Gender, Race and Identity 

click to enlarge From left: Roshini Kempadoo, Jennifer Ling Datchuk and Sama Alshaibi - COURTESY OF ARTPACE
  • Courtesy of Artpace
  • From left: Roshini Kempadoo, Jennifer Ling Datchuk and Sama Alshaibi
Quite often with the exhibitions born out of Artpace’s world-renowned International Artist-in-Residence program, connections and common threads can be elusive at best. The opposite might be said about the trio of forthcoming exhibitions created by current residents Jennifer Ling Datchuk (San Antonio), Sama Alshaibi (Tucson) and Roshini Kempadoo (London), three accomplished women artists selected by Deborah Willis, a New York-based curator and professor who chairs the Department of Photography & Imaging at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. Beyond echoing Willis’ area of expertise by employing photography as a tool for expression, all three artists took the opportunity of the residency to realize fascinating, multifaceted projects that explore race, identity, cultural stereotypes and the representation of women.

Born in Ohio and raised in New York, Datchuk investigates conflicts associated with her Chinese, Russian and Irish ancestry through ceramics, including porcelain objects adorned with blue-and-white patterns reminiscent of Chinoiserie. While her Artpace exhibition involves fashion photographs made in collaboration with Lané Pittard and handcrafted, collected and curiously altered porcelain objects, the focal point is something she says she’s “always dreamed about doing” — a massive red curtain made from synthetic hair that’s been tricked out with porcelain beads adorned with affirmations such as “You Have as Many Hours in a Day as Beyoncé” and “Be Brave, Don’t Be Bitter” as well as region-specific sayings like “One Potato at a Time.”

Raised in the Middle East by a Palestinian refugee mother and an Iraqi father, Alshaibi creates interdisciplinary work rooted in both her family’s loss of homeland as well as the Western world’s history of misunderstanding and
click to enlarge Curator Deborah Willis - COURTESY OF ARTPACE
  • Courtesy of Artpace
  • Curator Deborah Willis
misrepresenting the realities of Arab women. Directly referencing staged, costumed portraits created by Orientalist photographers working in the Middle East in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, she creates sculptural props — including dysfunctional vessels, burdensome luggage and conceptual water pipes — and models for her own photographs, which jab at the source material from a feminist perspective but also address pervasive issues Arab women still face today. Simultaneously beautiful and bizarre, Alshaibi’s latest black-and-white self portraits are joined at Artpace by visual responses to ways in which Palestinian women were represented in the media in the ’60s and ’70s, archival news footage mixed with performance-based video work and a neon sculpture based on Ali Baba’s clever slave girl who killed the 40 thieves in One Thousand and One Nights. Taken together, Alshaibi’s collected works offer what she describes as “a history, a timeline, of the presence of [Middle Eastern] women in images.”

A self-described “media artist” who spent her formative years in Guyana and later helped establish the U.K.-based Association of Black Photographers and the women’s photography agency Format, Kempadoo boasts an impressive background in documentary work but has never been fully satisfied with the limitations of traditional photography. Working with Photoshop since its inception, she creates montages that blur lines between fantasy and reportage — imagined narratives that play out against real-world backdrops. Like the work of Datchuk and Alshaibi, Kempadoo’s is closely tethered to her heritage and deftly challenges cultural misconceptions. During our studio visit, she explained that she “came into photography being very aware that there was an incredibly strange perception of what the Caribbean was at that time.” Upon receiving her invitation to travel here for an Artpace residency, she decided to research connections between Texas and the Caribbean, which she inevitably found through oil and gas.
click to enlarge Jennifer Ling Datchuk, Dark and Lovely, 2014 - COURTESY OF JENNIFER LING DATCHUK
  • Courtesy of Jennifer Ling Datchuk
  • Jennifer Ling Datchuk, Dark and Lovely, 2014
Jennifer Ling Datchuk

Is the red curtain the main focal point?
I am trained as an object maker so there will be objects ... I always thought of the curtain as the main focal point of the show; and then how the objects on both sides of the curtain relate to one another. Thinking about thresholds that we cross daily and the experiences we have to navigate. So, that time when you’re a girl and then you walk over and become a woman, and how girlhood has been taken away much sooner in our lives and we’re not allowed to be girls for a certain amount of time. How as a woman walking into spaces that are all male, confronting power. And then a person of color when they walk into all-white spaces. This is what the curtain is kind of representing. And as you walk through the curtain, there’ll be porcelain beads dangling from the hair, and written on the porcelain beads are affirmations, sayings, words of encouragement that I’ve been collecting from Instagram and communities — anything from “Be Brave, Be Bold” [to] “You Have as Many Hours in the Day as Beyoncé.” I realize some of the ones I’ve gotten have come from RuPaul’s Drag Race.

Excellent, which ones?
“Be Brave, Don’t Be Bitter.” They’re pretty good. Some from Finland, someone sent in one that said “One Potato at a Time.” And I love how they’re cultural references. I’ve gotten some really beautiful Korean ones. We are all in this together and we all need help as we cross different thresholds in our lives.

So, have you started making the beads already?
I have about 3,000 beads that I had made in China last summer. This is something that I always dreamed about doing. And I started getting these beads in China before I knew I got this residency. I love that it somehow got put out there in the world that this needs to come together.

So, you’ll knot the beads onto the strands?
I’m really inspired by the hippie beaded curtains from the ’70s, and when you went through the curtain you’d hear that clang of the beads. But it’s really rooted in materials too. In the ’70s, ceramics, pottery, or textiles were really rooted in women’s crafts, and they were seen as less than. They weren’t considered art. And a lot of those techniques and skills, both with pottery and textiles, were learned in community centers, churches, after-school centers. And they really become places where women could gather … the whole sisterhood and camaraderie of making. But I think of the women’s rights movements at that time and how, in some ways, these things were taught to us to kind of pacify us and keep our hands busy — instead of burning our bras or protesting or picketing. Really what this was inspired by was recontextualizing those materials and kind of breaking down hierarchies of materials, too, that are really still prolific in the art world.
click to enlarge Jennifer Ling Datchuk, Girl You Can, 2017 - COURTESY OF JENNIFER LING DATCHUK
  • Courtesy of Jennifer Ling Datchuk
  • Jennifer Ling Datchuk, Girl You Can, 2017
And what about the color?
I never work with color. I’m blue-and-white forever. It’s something I hold close. The red felt the most visceral. I think the red really captures the anger I feel as a woman today. Of how we still haven’t come much further. A lot of this is about my anger — and kind of navigating power structures.

What else can you tell me about the objects?
I’m kind of asking questions about the role I play in feminism. I’m an intersectional feminist, but I’m still a woman that can’t leave the house without putting makeup on my face. I’m kind of complicit in these power structures within beauty and identity. [There’s a] photograph of me wearing prosthetic butt underwear with a tattoo on my back painted with skin bleaching cream. Skin bleaching cream is a multimillion dollar industry. Even Asian women who are white and fair still want whiter skin.

Is the tattoo visible once it’s painted in skin bleach?
You have to do it a lot. I’ve done it a few times. [I’m also] thinking about how a lot of people get Asian tattoos on their back not understanding or researching the iconography or the symbols that they’re using. I collaborated with a Los Angeles painter and she came up with this pattern, referencing blue-and-white Chinoiserie. We’re all appropriating within this, not fully aware of how complicit we are in perpetuating colonization.

So, this photograph will be on the wall?
It’s a framed photograph resting on a shelf, so even the photograph and frame feel like an object. These blue-and-white objects I’ve been collecting, like the Asian girl carrying a heavy load. Even the back of this Buddha [has] all the different patterns. And you can always tell it’s an Asian person because of the slits painted for the eyes. I’ve been making these brick purses. I worked with this purse maker here in town, Lizzy Gladstone from Sun Nation. These are bricks made from handkerchiefs, boyfriends’ T-shirts and crocheted doilies. It’s something about feeling safe and secure, like having this weight and this weapon on you, and that I can take the purse strap off and throw it, if I need to.
click to enlarge A sneak peek of the focal point of Jennifer Ling Datchuk’s Artpace exhibition - BRYAN RINDFUSS
  • Bryan Rindfuss
  • A sneak peek of the focal point of Jennifer Ling Datchuk’s Artpace exhibition
And when you say it’s made from those things, are those actually inside there?
I coated it all with porcelain slip and packed it and then fired it. They burn away, but it still leaves the detail of the doily and the handkerchief lace. It’s like the emotional weight of the materials. And they say “Girl Power.” As a young girl we’re taught to be delicate like porcelain teacups, and I feel like we need to be bricks. Bricks are a foundational material. This is actually referencing a brick size that’s called “Queen.” I thought that was a really wonderful name for a brick. These will be hanging on the wall with a photograph of myself and a friend modeling them. In many ways it’s about reclaiming this power in this way. It’s understanding feminism. The photograph of my friend and I, it’s a very touching, sincere photograph of how we’re there for each other — women supporting women. I’m really interested in the history of porcelain objects. These are plates made by Lenox China, it’s a company in the United States. They’re plates celebrating the White House confederacy, and these are made in the ’70s. I worked with a metal fabricator here and we water-jet cut out some of the central images. This was Stuart, one is Jackson, and [I’m] putting them on rapper hip-hop chains. And I have two young badass Latina girls modeling them. So, removing their power, cutting their image away, the absence of their image, and then turning the pieces into almost like tokens, like the prizes from reclaiming the space.

When you say they’ll be modeling them, that’s during the reception?
It’s a photograph. I think it was important to see this plate on the body and see that negative space cut out. I [also] made a porcelain grill to wear and I have a photograph of it on my teeth. So, it’s the same, it’s this idea of fronting, of flaunting this power through this lens of pop culture. For the show, they’ll be on display in museum cases with the photograph next to them. I worked with a photographer to help me shoot these.

Who’s the photographer?
Lane Pittard. I love her work. She’s really great and we’re on the same wavelength. And that was something I thought about too, even the people I was working with — small businesses, Leo Barrios helped with the wooden shelf, Lizzy Gladstone from Sun Nation, and working with women. I think that was something I really wanted to make an effort and point to — is to collaborate with more women in San Antonio.

It’s cool that it’s an all-female group here, too.
We were talking about this, too. During the opening, we have to do our talk and we want to really make sure we don’t get marginalized in the conversation, too, because we’re all from different places, and our work is really concerned about the representation of women. It’s been really great conversations between the three of us. It feels like it’s the best girl band you could ever be in.
Roshini Kempadoo
  • Courtesy of Roshini Kempadoo
Could you give us a brief introduction and explain what your work typically addresses?
I live in London, and I work as an academic but also as a scholar and researcher and artist. I describe myself as a media artist. I come from a photographic documentary background. And I always have moved into thinking about the limits of the photograph — never really being quite satisfied with photography’s connection to the real and this problematic kind of space around there. At the same time that I was doing documentary work, I helped to set up Autograph, which is the Association of Black Photographers, which is still going. I was also part of Format, which was a women’s picture agency in the U.K., and the only one of its kind. It ran for a while, coming out of the Greenham Common ’80s-’90s movement. I was part of that as well. The kind of bread-and-butter stuff of photography that I did was emerging from that and was contributing to that.

When you were working as a documentary photographer, were you traveling the world?
No, I was mostly doing U.K.-based, probably pro-union work. At the time, in the ’80s and ’90s, it was really anti-Thatcherism. It was really quite political a time, particularly for people of color. It was about, on the one hand, supporting the idea of workers’ rights and better housing. It was very much about bettering social conditions. My work has always come out of that, and that’s what I’ve always been interested in.
click to enlarge Roshini Kempadoo, Ghosting, 2004 - COURTESY OF ROSHINI KEMPADOO
  • Courtesy of Roshini Kempadoo
  • Roshini Kempadoo, Ghosting, 2004
So those were projects you pursued on your own as a photographer or were you assigned to follow them?
Partly assigned, but I always worked in the gallery space as well ... and that would be my personal projects. My first project was with the Icon Gallery in Birmingham. It was called My Daughter’s Mind and it was looking at three generations of women of the Asian diaspora, just interviewing them and doing a kind of documentary reportage work around the grandmother, mother and daughter. It was about exploring identity and thinking about nations of color in relation to disenfranchised groups as well. I was very much a part of that group.

What can you tell me about the fictional aspect of your work?
[It goes] back to the limits of whether a photograph can reveal [certain] stories. The idea of people perceiving something as being truthful with the photograph, I bring that into question by working with montage … I was working with the first version of Photoshop when it came out — a long time ago — as woman, which is quite unusual [laughs] … Being from the Caribbean — my parents are from Guyana and my formative years were in Guyana — I came into photography being very aware that there was an incredibly strange perception of what the Caribbean was at that time. I guess my visual language was always in response to that — trying to uncover how you might understand a different type of Caribbean and the Caribbean diaspora.

What are some of your impressions of San Antonio so far?
It’s very, very different. I’ve been to Houston and haven’t really been [anywhere in Texas] outside of Houston. Very different to Houston, so a lot more low-key in terms of both the buildings and in terms of space and pace, which I find much more enjoyable. I really like the cultural quarter around Blue Star. [It’s] very interesting and I think, obviously, we get a very different perception of what Texas might be [laughs] in England. I think it’s very interesting to see how different it is. And it does depend on how the media presents it.

Is your Artpace exhibition part of a preexisting project?
It was a project I thought about when I got the invitation. I thought about how important it would be to link, to think about the space of San Antonio with the Caribbean. And, of course, what happened was: it’s through oil. So I’ve got an oil drum in the gallery [laughs]. One of the things that’s happened in Guyana and off Venezuela, is that they’ve found one of the biggest deposits in the world of oil and gas … Guyana only has 800,000 people. It’s really a massive place with very little population, so the impact of that money is going to be quite something. And nobody knows what it is going to be … That’s almost an unpopulated space … We have an indigenous population that may well be affected … And it’s very, very remote … What I’m trying to do is make that connection through the oil, and really evoke the inequality — what impact that might be, and to just put those two quite different cultural spaces together. 
click to enlarge Photographs created by Roshini Kempadoo during her Artpace residency - BRYAN RINDFUSS
  • Bryan Rindfuss
  • Photographs created by Roshini Kempadoo during her Artpace residency
So, you photographed indigenous communities?
No, not really. I didn’t want it to be an ethnographic [project] in that sense. What I was doing was listening and recording … I’m not really going to directly use those stories or their voices in audio, but evoke another narrative, an imaginative narrative, from those stories I heard. The idea is that there are two fictional characters: one living here, who is of indigenous/Latina origin who has been very aware of the Dakota Access Pipeline and the connection that’s had to the Trans-Pecos Pipeline, as an activist. [I’m] thinking about environmental activism and two women characters who come from those spaces who are familiar with each other but are actually doing very different things. It’s a what-if scenario; it’s also just thinking about how we approach the environment. And my interest in particular in indigenous people — both here and in Guyana — is based on the different knowledge they have about the land, which we don’t. We don’t have the same knowledge at all. When you listen to people, they actually are talking very differently about the way in which you think about land, and think about space, and think about what we occupy.

Other than the oil drum, I see some sort of glass dome.
Those a parabolic speakers. What’s happening is we’re [hanging them], and it’s a combination of images, photographs that will be framed, and an audio narration with some music that you’ll hear in the space. Separate from that is a small, short video loop that kind of gives some idea of movement, a journey. One of the interesting things, in amongst this kind of story, is the issue of migration, which affects everybody. Venezuelans are moving into Guyana, as well as here. So, you’ve got this incredible movement happening as a result of Venezuela. Literally people just take boats and hop across the border. The border doesn’t mean anything in so many ways. It doesn’t mean anything to indigenous people either. This idea of movement is quite an important one as well.

And the oil drum? Will that stay in the space?
I think so. I think we’re going to hang it, suspend it somewhere. I did a green-screen shoot with Maria Ybarra, she works in theater. I used two actresses here. Amalia Ortiz, she’s a performer as well, and we had quite a lot in common in terms of just talking about what she does and how active she is in terms of thinking about some of the issues of women’s rights and equality. Maria, her friend, who’s Latina as well, worked with the oil drum.

So are they the two characters in your exhibition?
Yes. They just registered a little bit in the image, in the photographs. The idea isn’t to pause and dwell on them in a major way.

Are they inserted into some of the images you made in Guyana?
Yes. Only two will be in Guyana and some of them here. I took a combination of images … In making images, the space that you’re making images in, the emotional space you might be making images in, one of the things I’m realizing: I just think there’s an urgency around what we need to do now, in terms of working with artists.
click to enlarge NEIL CHOWDHURY
  • Neil Chowdhury
Sama Alshaibi

What can you tell me about your upcoming exhibition?
I researched all of these historical images … but then I deconstructed what was going on in [them], which are primary albumens and photogravures from the late 19th century and early 20th century. I created a bunch of sculptures that are used as my props [for photographs] that deconstruct what’s going on — staged fantasies — and then I use myself. I’m the subject. All of them have these elaborate sculptures that are on top of my head. A lot of the images you see from this period … had either headdresses [or] vessels … Women were always carrying them. It’s this idea of the burden of representation. The water pipe, mashrabiya lattice work, those are tropes that get recycled over and over again.

So these would have been done in a portrait studio?
Some. Some are outdoors … Some of them are in Turkey, the majority are from the Middle East and North Africa. You have arbitrary things. A lot of these are costumes, and you have the same models being used over and over again. Some of them are authentic, some are fully staged … Some of [my photographs] are really just poking at those images and some of them deal with the issues that Arab women — I’m Palestinian and Iraqi — deal with … The whole idea I started off with is the West’s obsession with the image of the so-called oppression of Arab women, and how that gets conflated with democracy, and all Western kinds of interventions taking place in the Middle East and North Africa. This is often put onto the burden of the female — oppression through what women do or do not wear in the Middle East. Primarily the hijab or the abaya or the niqab. That garment [can be] a trigger for these kinds of fantasies or misconceptions. This is a historical thing, this representation of the Middle East through the woman’s body. Representation happens in a number of ways. The Orientalist photographers photographed that region two different ways. One, looking at the woman as a sort of sexual being: the fantasy of the harem — as much sex as you possibly want, multiple wives, this kind of fantasy for Western audiences … These women, most of them had no agency in having their images taken like that, with exposed bodies. Or [they were] hidden — completely covered. If a woman is completely covered and she’s Muslim, conservative and modest, she’s not going to be modeling for a Western male photographer. It just shows that these are staged and contrived images. That’s really where this started … I’m [also] making a series of posters [that deal] with images of Palestinian women in the ’60s and ’70s when they started creating their own content, knowing how that iconography of the female in military clothes with a gun was very potent for a Western audience. And we see that now, too. Kurdish female fighters that are fighting in Iraq against ISIS, [these are] the kinds of images that the West was really putting out there. [As if] this is how we’re going to combat ISIS: We have these female guerrilla fighters. This becomes potent imagery to legitimize the morality of Western interventions in the Middle East, especially U.S. interventions … I have video, too, where I’m using early news cinema. I’m looking at early British Pathé films made in the Middle East, primarily in Palestine, Syria, Egypt [and] Iraq. I have archival footage that I’m layering with a performance piece with a gun and a performance piece with [a vessel with] water rushing out. Upstairs will be a neon piece [based on] a very famous water feature in Baghdad … It’s called Kahramana, and it’s a tale from the One Thousand and One Nights … she’s the slave girl that saves Ali Baba, and saves herself. When she hears the 40 thieves hiding in the vessels, she pours hot oil [on them] and kills them all. This was done by an artist who [was] a friend of my father’s. I had an interview with him before he passed away. And I was talking about this idea of why he used a female figure and the Scheherazade story. He had his own reasons for it. But the reason I’m using it is actually Iraqi women’s disappearance from the social sphere since the United States invaded it in 2003. [During] the Bush administration [when] the war was not popular, the United States … backed a particular group in Iraq that [was] against Saddam and against the Sunnis, but they wanted to change the Constitution. What the United States turned a blind eye towards was the fact that women’s rights would be changed … That was the beginning of women’s rights and opportunities eroding. Yet we sold this war in the United States conflating that we were going to be exporting some sort of democracy to women and giving them rights. [But] they’ve always enjoyed their freedoms and rights. They could vote, they worked, they were in government, they drove. It was a [completely] false representation. To this day, if you Google “Iraqi women,” you’ll see the purple-stained fingers [showing] that they voted. They’ve always voted. It’s interesting to me how the justifications and misunderstandings that people have of that part of the world often deal with this representation of a woman being oppressed and covered. [I’m] looking at the truth, the complexity of what women experience there. They’re not a homogenized group: they have different experiences, they have different religions, they’re as complex as their Western counterparts. [And] it gets reduced down to what they do and don’t wear … [The exhibition is] like a play between old and new … It’s a history, a timeline, of the presence of [Middle Eastern] women in images, in the public sphere, through sculpture, through photographs.
click to enlarge A deconstructed trunk factors into Sama Alshaibi’s exhibition as a sculpture and photographic prop - BRYAN RINDFUSS
  • Bryan Rindfuss
  • A deconstructed trunk factors into Sama Alshaibi’s exhibition as a sculpture and photographic prop
How has San Antonio been so far? What have your experiences been?
I haven’t seen a lot of San Antonio [laughs], I’ve seen a lot of my studio. But my husband and kid came out for a few days. I go running on the River Walk and that’s been beautiful. I’ve been to Blue Star [and seen] really great exhibitions there. And people are really kind and generous. It’s the South, [people] are very sweet, very nice. San Antonio’s a little bit like Tucson. It’s kind of similar, so it feels familiar to me. I haven’t been out so much, but I did one work at the San Antonio River, which was really cool. I was born in Basra, which is on the river. You know, Iraq has two very important rivers — the Tigris and the Euphrates — so I’ve always liked places with rivers. I saw [a particular part of the San Antonio River] and thought, that looks like Iraq [laughs]! I had some fun there doing that.

I saw that you are represented by a gallery in Dubai. What can you tell me about the art scene there?
It’s phenomenal. I have to say that, what is happening in the arts in Middle East is pretty extraordinary. And Dubai in particular, they just made this decision years go that they were going to — in the United Arab Emirates specifically — be a cultural capital in the world. And they’ve done an excellent job. Now that it’s really past its infancy, it’s been more than 10 years and you have the Louvre opening and the Guggenheim, the work is so good. First of all, I think Middle Eastern artists are powerful. They have a very strong history and culture in arts. Arts is very much centered and celebrated in the culture. It’s supported in a way that it isn’t in the United States. Yes, there’s a commercial avenue for it and Dubai is a place where there’s money, so there’s definitely support. But in general, you’re talking about a population of people who’ve, for better or for worse, for the last 100 years — colonialism, post-colonialism, wars, civil wars — people have really seen and experienced a lot. And it’s articulated through the work. There’s still a lot to be done and growth, so that artists in the Middle East can study in the Middle East. You know, a lot of them have to go abroad, or there’s a certain point they can get to and then they have to go abroad. But I would say the Middle Eastern patrons are very supportive of their artists. They buy their artists, they also buy Western artists. Art Dubai is I think in a week or two. The Sharjah Biennial is going on right now. Sharjah Biennial is one of the best biennials that I go to. It’s world-class work — really interesting, progressive ideas, lots of risk-taking.
click to enlarge Sama Alshaibi, Between Two Rivers, 2008-2009 - COURTESY OF SAMA ALSHAIBI
  • Courtesy of Sama Alshaibi
  • Sama Alshaibi, Between Two Rivers, 2008-2009
So, does your work come across as controversial there at all?
I don’t think so. I think that’s what’s really interesting. The most pushback I’ve ever had in my work is in the United States. Because of the sort of censorship that goes on in certain periods and times when certain politics fall in and out of favor. I think if you were in certain countries in the United Arab Emirates and you were criticizing their king, or their ruler or their leader, yes, you’d probably get in trouble. But that’s not the nature of my work. I’ve shown stuff where I’m pretty exposed. There are some limits to where you can go, but the Middle Eastern art scene is very supportive of its artists, and especially their female artists, which I think is pretty great.

When did you arrive in the U.S. and what were the circumstances that led your family to relocate?
I arrived at age 13. We escaped Iraq during the Iraq-Iran War and we fled to Saudi Arabia where I lived for a couple of years, followed by Jordan and then the United Arab Emirates. There was a mass exodus and brain drain from Iraq — Saddam responded by basically threatening other Arab countries not to give work visas to Iraqi citizens living in exile. It was difficult for my father to keep his work visas in various Arab countries that were afraid of Saddam Hussein. He was obliged to work for Iraq for a number of years because they paid for his Masters and PhD [abroad], but he was concerned for our safety so we fled. Our escape put us on a blacklist in Iraq. My father [was] also Shia and didn’t want to sign to the Ba’athist party, which also made him a target when we were still in Iraq. The war was very dangerous. A number of incidents transpired including Saddam executing his entire cabinet, one of which was my father's friend. We first left Baghdad and went to the south. We lived in Basra to stay under the radar. However, Basra is on the Iran border, so the war was very bad where we lived. We eventually escaped, but my mother and all the kids, including myself, went back to Iraq to try to sell the house and retrieve our personal items. We were stuck for a year because Iraq closed her borders. We eventually escaped, which is another long story. My mother is a Palestinian refugee. All refugees that left in the 1948 war were not allowed the right of return to their country. So, we could not go to Palestine, and we could not go back to Iraq as long as Saddam and the Ba’athist party were in charge. My father didn’t want to settle in the USA — he also couldn’t find work in the USA — and my mother didn’t want to wait for the war to end to move back to Iraq; my father did. She spent her life watching her father wait for his return to Palestine, which never happened. He died in Iraq. She wanted to settle somewhere safe and where she believed she and her children could have a future. So, we moved to the USA. My father didn’t come with us, and after one year, they divorced. Which made us illegal — we [had] entered with a student visa [and my mother] couldn’t pay for university. My father passed away a couple of years ago. He didn’t move back to Iraq until a few years before he died. So, that tells you how long he waited … I lived here for many years as an undocumented person in the United States. After Iraq invaded Kuwait and the United States invaded Iraq, they started looking for the Iraqis who’d come into the country and never left. We were visa overstay. They found us and they put us up for deportation; we went to court and had two days to fight our case in court, and we were granted political asylum. So from political asylum to green card and then I became a citizen in 2004.

Wow. That’s an amazing story.
It’s all in my work somewhere. Two generations of loss of homeland — one, when the state of Israel was created with no right of return for refugees. That idea of the empty suitcase, the empty vessels, that is my family’s story — lose everything, and then they lost everything again, in Iraq.
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