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Art is a tool for building communities

Define American Art Fellow Elnaz Javani unites changing immigrant neighborhood with art

The first year of the Define American Undocumented Artist Fellowship concluded on November 30, breaking new ground on the type of support available to undocumented and immigrant artists and the amazing work they can produce individually and in collaboration with their local communities. We are beginning the new year reflecting on the work of the incredible artists in the program and sharing stories of their partnerships with community-based organizations. The first artist fellow we are profiling this year is Elnaz Javani, an accomplished artist, educator and researcher. 

Elnaz Javani and Margo Rush at OGGI Gallery. (Elnaz Javani)

Born in Iran and currently living in Chicago, Elnaz’s work explores memory, body and the scars left by cultural uprooting, an attempt to understand a place of uncertainty. Last summer she had the opportunity to partner with Margo Rush of OGGI Chicago — an artist-run gallery, community art center, listening room and gathering space in the Heart of Chicago/Pilsen neighborhood. Through this partnership, Elnaz curated and installed her first solo American art show.

Pilsen neighborhood mural merging Italian and Mexican designs. (Margo Rush)

Pilsen has long been an immigrant neighborhood. New Americans from Italy built the neighborhood in the late 19th century, and it continues to welcome immigrants from all over the world. Today, OGGI is located in a community that is the home to many wonderful, hard-working Americans, some of whom also happen to be undocumented. OGGI’s mission is to create and inspire a healthier community through the arts and the organization is committed to offering a creative platform for artists of all ages and abilities.

Local writers read their work as part of programming for Inner Compulsion. (Elnaz Javani)

OGGI’s desire to connect with the immigrant population in the neighborhood intersected with Elnaz’s desire to make her exhibition a welcoming space for all visitors and to bring in people who may not be regular gallery attendees. So she curated a program of poets and writers of diverse backgrounds and filled the space with community members eager to see her work and hear from these writers. Many of the visitors had never been to the space before, and afterward, some local immigrant artists expressed interest in exhibiting there as well!

Inner Compulsion by Elnaz Javani at OGGI Gallery. (Elnaz Javani)

“My work explores the complexity of identity, gender and class,” said Elnaz, who was active in the women’s rights movement and showed her work widely in Iran. “Moving to the U.S and going through the painful, dehumanizing process of immigration changed the core of my practice. It made me more sensitive and aware of immigrants’ rights and issues.” 

Through this partnership, Elnaz furthered her experience in curation and art event programming — opening up another aspect of her work as a creative living in Chicago — while also furthering her connection to her local community and OGGI Gallery in particular. OGGI is interested in continuing its collaboration with Elnaz by offering her other curation and programming opportunities. It’s always exciting to see the way these collaborations come together and produce impact even beyond what was originally planned. 

We’ll keep sharing these stories in the coming months, including another Chicago-based artist fellow next week! 

The Undocumented Artist Fellowship is made possible through a grant from the Kresge Foundation. Read about more artist fellows! Want to see more great work? Support our 2020 artist fellows by donating today!

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