Aman Mojadidi shines a light on immigrant voices

More than 40 million people living in the U.S. today are immigrants, according to the Pew Research Center. If current demographic trends continue, future immigrants and their descendants are projected to make up 88 percent of the U.S population by 2065.


While the topic of migration has been at the forefront of every academic, social and political discussion, Afghan-American artist Aman Mojadidi has taken a unique, artistic approach. Mojadidi held a coffee talk Sept. 15 in Carlson Library to discuss his latest art piece.


Using his interactive public art piece, Once Upon a Place, Mojadidi is bringing attention to immigrant voices in the United States. Visitors are invited to enter a telephone booth, pick up the receiver and listen to one of 70 stories shared by immigrants living in New York.


While most stories shared are in English, people will also hear stories in Spanish, French, Tibetan and Ga.


"I intentionally didn't want to translate these stories and left them as they are in their original version, because how do you translate the emotion in a person's voice?” Mojadidi said. “You can translate the words. but you can never translate the feeling in the person's voice."


While collecting these stories Mojadidi said he encountered suspicion, due to widespread xenophobia. Of the 200 people he approached, only 70 opened up to him.


Mojadidi also incorporated phonebooks into his project. The white pages display percentages of the immigrant population in New York and graphs showing which parts of the world the immigrants came from, while the yellow pages include information about the 27 countries that participants are from.


“My artworks have always had this social component,” Mojadidi said. “I go out and engage with people and the artworks would be developed, even conceptualized, through conversation with people.”


This project was first communicated as an idea via email in 2014. Mojadid spent much time looking for funding to do research on neighborhoods that included a high percentage of immigrants. It wasn’t until fall of 2016 that Mojadidi started collecting information himself.


At the coffee talk, he shared that he stopped making art for some time. It wasn’t until he moved to Kabul, Afghanistan, that he felt the need to start creating again.


“I started realizing how I could use my ethnographic knowledge and methodology that I learned in ethnography and anthropology,” Mojadidi said.


During his time in Kabul, Mojadidi mentioned how taxi drivers shared stories about corruption, specifically the tea money they had to give policemen at checkpoints. He used this idea to curate a work where he set up fake checkpoints with men wearing police uniforms, stopping cars and instead of asking for money, they gave money back to taxi drivers with an apology.


Mojadidi has also done projects in other parts of the world, including U.K., U.A.E, India, Germany, Denmark and Bangladesh. His work is exhibited internationally and he was selected as a TED Global Fellow in 2012.


Now exhibiting his work in the Toledo Museum of Art, Mojadidi’s approach to involve activism and political aspects in art perfectly fits with the mission of the Toledo Contemporary Art, said Brian Carpenter, an art lecturer at UT.


"For me, as a curator and artist, I come from this view that art is a tool just like a hammer or screwdriver. And it’s something that, I think, if done in the right way, can start changing or reorganizing how you sort of view things or how people view things,” Carpenter said.


Through his artwork, Mojadidi said he tries to provide a different approach for people to understand a topic and see different perspectives. He hopes that whatever the attitude or perspective of the listener is, at a minimum, the work helps create a dialogue. 


"As an artist, I don't think it's my responsibility, or that I would even be able to, provide answers to all of these problems. But, what I can do is throw a hornet's nest into these questions, maybe," Mojadidi said.


Growing up in conservative north Florida with racism and xenophobia being fairly prevalent, migration and cultural integration has always interested him, Mojadidi shared.


"We were raised very Afghan within the house, but lived very American outside,” Mojadidi said.


He didn’t visit Afghanistan until he was 19 years old, which was when he realized that he wasn’t like everyone else living in Afghanistan. This realization interested him in the multicultural movement in the U.S and the way people are defining themselves as Asian-American or Afghan-American.


"Ultimately, through this experience, I realized that it's not about trying to live on the two sides of that hyphen but to live on it and it's the only way to kind of come to peace with your identity,” Mojadidi said. “Living within cultures is to accept that you live within, that you're neither here nor there."


Mojadidi shared that biculturalism has been a large part of his identity. Now, being married to a French Cambodian woman, for him, migration really is the new norm.


"I think ultimately, these old ideas of nation states, these old ideas of closed borders are going to have to change," Mojadidi said.  


He added the borders won't disappear, but there's going to have to be a different system of movement, a freedom of movement across them.


In his discussion, he shared he doesn’t feel 100 percent comfortable in America as an American or in Afghanistan as an Afghan. However, that is okay with him since his identity isn’t tied to the passport he owns.


"In how the world functions, we have these national identities that allow us to move around and to cross these borders,” Mojadidi said. “In my mind, my identity of who I am as an individual is not tied to that. It's not tied to being an American as a national identity, even if that's where I grew up and it's not tied to being Afghan, even if that’s where I lived for years, where my family and heritage is from."


You're in the middle, you’re in that line. You're everywhere and you're nowhere, Mojadidi said.

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