‘Testimony’ Complicates Assumptions with Empathetic Portraits of Immigrants

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Eliza Gregory, 'Alma’s notebook,' 2017, from the series 'Testimony' (© Eliza Gregory)

How we’ve come to see immigration and its larger political narrative, and policies, is so often ham-fisted into a general categorization of feeling. It’s a strict black or white, good or bad, depending on which side you take: the idealistic, impractical open arms of liberalism, or the unfeeling, hardline conservatism devoid of any humanist element.

It’s easy to enter a project like the Asian Art Museum's Testimony, a new exhibition focusing on immigration, with a preconceived notion of which side it takes. And indeed, San Francisco artist Eliza Gregory did intend to imbue a sense of empathy in the work, which features portraits of ten different Bay Area-based immigrants in their homes, accompanied by excerpts of interviews she conducted with them about their lives, family histories and contexts of migration.

But upon closer inspection, Testimony avoids the political clichés of a topical, immigrant-focused work; it's guided instead by inquiry and human interest. “I don’t think I can have a political agenda that is very set and also feel genuine curiosity at the same time,” says Gregory, who chose subjects both within her own network of acquaintances and through secondhand connections.

Eliza Gregory, Liên and Dũng, San Francisco,' 2017 from the series 'Testimony'
Eliza Gregory, Liên and Dũng, San Francisco,' 2017 from the series 'Testimony' (© Eliza Gregory)

The exhibit — featuring, alongside the interview text and plainly staged portraits, photos of their living spaces and various objects and memorabilia they own — is instead meant specifically to combat our ingrained and unspecified beliefs, to re-frame the conversations we have around immigration, Gregory says.

“This wasn’t meant to be a reactive project in any way, shape, or form,” says Marc Mayer, the museum’s senior educator of contemporary art. This show is the third part of a larger, multifaceted project the artist began in 2015, called Testimony Project. The first part interviewed service providers of immigrant communities — health care workers, attorneys, nonprofit executives — while the second documented young students relating to immigration as part of the Community Arts Internship Program at San Francisco's Southern Exposure gallery. Gregory chronicled those public conversations at the museum in two booklets.


“In my work I like to zoom in and zoom out and see how if you look at the conversation or topic at different scales — how does that change how we think about the topic?” she says.

On a zoomed out scale, the current iteration of Testimony as a whole encapsulates the broadness of the word immigration: Its subjects provide stories from China and Germany to Guatemala and Russia, observing the varied logistic and political mechanisms of border-crossing. Combined, the exhibition and its detailed newspaper handout span ten different countries via 12 subjects.

Their individual stories provides the zoom-in — how single lives exist and are shaped in the complicated continuum of immigration.

Eliza Gregory, 'Khanh's Sculptures, San Francisco,' 2017, from the series 'Testimony'
Eliza Gregory, 'Khanh's Sculptures, San Francisco,' 2017, from the series 'Testimony' (© Eliza Gregory)

Molly, a Korean-American who was born in Korea but grew up in Michigan with her adopted family, speaks of reckoning with the political implications of her American upbringing. In her words, “creating space to hold the complexities of loving your adopted family while simultaneously being critical of the inequality and oppression that causes transnational adoption in the first place.” Alma, a Dreamer under DACA, speaks of her complicated relationship with her father and of the misleading glorification of San Francisco as a “sanctuary city.” Three different Vietnamese subjects, each of their journeys to America shaped by the Vietnam War, provide a range of perspectives on their relationship to the conflict and the notion of home.

With each portrait, Testimony has a way of complicating our assumptions, providing texture instead of sweeping, political rebuttals. There is, for instance, no fetishization of immigrant suffering. Testimony, Gregory says, intends to question the very ideological values that shape the equation of immigration policy — as in, structuring it as a meritocracy or around a “quota of misery.”

“I think there’s a problem with this [mentality] of, only people who can achieve or only people who have been through something terrible,” Gregory says. “What about people in the middle? There’s something about that paradigm and the way that’s set up that is problematic.”

Gregory doesn’t have a solution or an answer, and Testimony is less about providing one than wondering aloud about the messy human realities of movement.

Eliza Gregory, 'Passport pictures, Nancy and her mother,' 2017, from the series 'Testimony'
Eliza Gregory, 'Passport pictures, Nancy and her mother,' 2017, from the series 'Testimony' (© Eliza Gregory)

“It’s not so much giving people information, as giving people permission to talk to each other,” Gregory says. “Giving people permission to talk about difference or to talk about cultural identity.”

In its relatively unadorned portraits, Testimony intentionally reflects an attitude of the commonplace; there’s a sense that the subjects can be stand ins for many of those living in the Bay Area's diverse community. Paradoxically that means that a project like this is needed more in a place like San Francisco, where the city’s proud badge of acceptance might be misleading, or even self-defeating.

“I think we still feel a lot of hesitation in that, because of our respect for each other and because of wanting to make people feel welcome, there’s a reticence sometimes to address some of these issues,” Gregory says. “And actually, when you are able to talk about cultural identity, cultural adaptation — some of those dynamics that the project talks about — you feel more welcome, and you feel a closer connection with the people around you.”

'Testimony' is on view at the Asian Art Museum opens April 6—June 10, 2018, with an opening night reception on April 5. For more information, click here.