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Artists turn to film to express empathy

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

LAWRENCE – Knowing that her Jewish ancestors were forced by the Nazis to flee Europe and that those who did not perished in the Holocaust, University of Kansas Professor of Visual Art Tanya Hartman has always made art that is sympathetic to the plight of immigrants and refugees.

Now, with the controversies raised by President Donald Trump’s anti-immigration policies, Hartman’s work is more relevant than ever. Perhaps that’s why the film she’s working on was accepted into the Open Spaces Kansas City Arts Experience, which kicks off Aug. 25 and runs for nine weeks at various locations around town. (See below for show times and location.)

“I was trained as a painter, but I work most comfortably in mixed media,” Hartman said. “I love to write and often have text in my work. Before this, I had been working with people who had survived wars and genocides around the world, particularly in South Sudan, trying to tell their stories in text-based works of art. I felt something was missing because the dynamic and sympathetic nature of their personalities wasn’t coming through. I wanted to let them speak for themselves. The camera lets them do that better than having me as interpreter.”

Hartman said she began meeting and working with African refugees after she learned Kansas City, Missouri, is home to a significant South Sudanese and Somali immigrant community.

“A lot of people from South Sudan got relocated to Kansas City arbitrarily by the U.S. government, and they’ve been through terrible things,” Hartman said. “There is an ongoing war that has started and stopped and started and stopped, so I got really interested in their plight.”

Hartman expanded her involvement in 2016 while taking part in a National Endowment for the Humanities grant-funded program organized by the university’s Kansas African Studies Center and dedicated to exploring the experience of immigrants in the heartland.     

As part of that program, Hartman led a creative-writing and art-making workshop for refugee high school students in Wichita.

“I thought they were so amazing that I wanted to make a film about that particular program in Wichita, the newcomer program that teaches English as a Second or Other Language,” Hartman said. The Wichita Public Schools program serves refugees from Africa, Asia and Central America – anywhere, in fact.

So, she reached out to her friend and former student, Brian Hawkins, who now works as a photographer for the Department of Visual Art, and they started to film, traveling to Wichita one week a month during the past school year. He shoots, and they edit together.

“We were traveling down consistently, filming and observing,” Hartman said. “It would be great to follow the class until each student graduates and is fluent. That way, we have some sort of closure. The stories are so compelling that, otherwise, you could follow them forever.”

“We are there to see what it’s like to be an immigrant in Wichita, Kansas, and we intend to continue for a couple of years,” Hawkins said. “High school is a pocket of time that has a beginning and an end.”

“We think the kids are beautiful human beings and deserve to be here,” Hartman said.

Familiarity with the refugees’ stories, Hawkins said, “breeds empathy.”

“You see how hard it was to come here,” he said. “They are not coming to get handouts. They crave work. They have a life that embodies those American values that people idealize – faith and hard work.

“Family is the most important thing to them. They are not materialistic people. It would be almost impossible to do this project and not come away with experiences that change you. It’s like travel – experiencing another culture.”

Hawkins and Hartman have tentatively titled their film project “How to Leave Your Country.” The 20-minute excerpt they’re showing at Open Spaces is titled “Murmurations.”

“When you see flocks of birds moving in weird formations — clouds of starlings — that’s a murmuration,”  Hartman said. “For me and Brian, sometimes the kids remind us of birds moving from one place to another.”

The filmmakers said half the students they started filming had moved by the end of the school year – to another school or another place altogether.

“There are so many moments of beauty in the time we spend embedded in these families — small moments of tenderness, so precious and beautiful and universal — we just want to show that,” Hartman said. “Art is about showing beauty, and there is so much to be shown here.”

“Murmurations” will be shown as a part of the Open Spaces Kansas City Arts Experience at the office of Jewish Vocational Services, 4600 The Paseo, Kansas City, Missouri, as follows:

  • Noon-1 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 6 
  • Noon-1 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 13 
  • Thursday, Sept. 27, VIP screening and panel discussion
  • Noon-1 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 4 
  • 5-6 p.m. Monday, Oct.15

Top photo: Students in the Wichita Public Schools’ English as a Second or Other Language program come from many nations. Credit: Brian Hawkins
Inset photos: Tanya Hartman (top) and Brian Hawkins