Immigrants Are People, Too

In 1984, Nancy Ann Coyne began her career working as a photojournalist, editorial photographer and foreign correspondent based out of Vienna and Tbilisi. During that time, she freelanced for the Austrian Standard, London Guardian, Prague Post, Travel and Leisure and Soviet media outlets. She was working, in part, with the legendary American journalist, the late Alan Levy. As a 25-years-old in 1987, she pioneered documenting the experiences of Vienna Holocaust survivors and resistance fighters who returned to Vienna after 1945, becoming the youngest person, ever, to receive Austria’s esteemed Theodor Körner Prize for innovation in arts and sciences. In 1991, she was the first photojournalist and correspondent to witness the beginning of the Civil War in the Republic of Georgia, imbedded with the Opposition Army, leading to the overthrow of President, Zviad Gamsakhurdia.

Coyne has participated in gallery and museum exhibitions in Austria, the former East Block and Soviet Union, China and the United States. Coyne received her MFA from the University of Applied Arts Vienna where she studied under artist Ernst Caramelle, graphic designer Tino Erben and public artist Johanna Kandl.

Coyne has been a visiting artist/curator at the University of Minnesota (2005; present), the University of California, Berkeley (2000), Hebrew University, Jerusalem (1998), Oxford University (1997), Center for International Studies, Vienna (1994) and the Republic of Georgia Film Studio, Tbilisi (1990).

Her projects have been published in International Herald Tribune, www.NewYorkTimes.comPublic Art ReviewUrbanLand, Afterimage, SEGDesign and AIGA Voice among others. A former Fulbright scholar and fellow at Oxford University, she has received numerous fellowships and grants including from the Austrian Arts Council, the Republic of Georgia Arts Council, National Endowment for the Arts, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and the National Foundation for Jewish Culture.

Her most recent project is the monumental “Speaking of Home.” Coyne used the skyway system in St. Paul to frame images that represent the immigrant experience in America. “It is the grand scale of this work, offering a total aesthetic experience that makes it a powerful picture out in the world,” notes Mary Jane Jacob, professor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and executive director of Exhibitions and Exhibition Studies. I asked Coyne to discuss this project that is so timely now yet has absorbed her life for a long time.

Exterior view of two skyway bridges experienced at the street level in downtown St. Paul (photo: David Turner)

View of one skyway bridge where immigrants’ images and histories symbolically merge with those of pedestrians (photo: David Turner)

The immigrant issue is polarizing. How has it been in the Twin Cities?
Historically, for decades, Minnesota has been a major yet often unheralded safe haven for refugees from all over the world–a gentle giant in the Midwest. Today, that historical continuity is demonstrated by Senators Franken and Klobuchar, Attorney General Lori Swanson, and Governor Dayton, who have been outspoken against the Travel Ban, while the Cities of St. Paul and Minnesota are sanctuary cities.

I cannot personally speak to the state’s rural areas and Twin Cities suburbs, but in the downtowns of Minneapolis and St. Paul, the public generally appears very sympathetic to the plight of others and is against President Trump’s Travel Ban. In January 2017, it was encouraging to see demonstrations at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport. But, like everywhere, there is insularity. For example, Twin Cities residents I’ve spoken with (including, yes, even some designers) fear the influx of Syrian refugees to Minnesota. And, while dining out one day, I overheard people discussing their support of Trump and the Wall being built.

But to try to grasp how polarizing the issue is, talk with someone whose family fled Somalia. In Minnesota, where the largest Somali community in the United States resides, the Somali way of life has been truly threatened by the Travel Ban.

I spoke with Yassir, a Somali computer science student who works in my building and came here in 2005. Yassir says: “Since the election of Trump, I feel I have to apologize for who I am–like I’m a suspect. We’re afraid. Community members have been physically and verbally attacked. Some families have been here for over 20 years and have put down roots–they advocate for hope. Others are selling their homes. After I graduate, I’m planning to leave for Africa, probably Kenya. The economy is booming there.”

1. Portrait of Franklin Onyango-Robshaw and his sister in Nairobi, Kenya, right before emigrating to Twin Cities in 2009 (photo: Peter Von De Linde)

Portrait of Leila Habashi taken in Tehran, Iran, in 1988, right after Iran-Iraq War (photo: Peter Von De Linde)

What have been the responses of your community to your project?
I have observed and interviewed people in the project’s four skyways and four anchoring buildings and below on the street to hear how they interact with the project and to find out from business owners, police, security guards, passersby, employees of multiple ethnicities how it impacts them.  I expected a range of responses, from positive and ambivalent to caustic. Ultimately, I was rather surprised by how very positive the feedback was. Here are some snapshots.

  • Kelly Smith, the owner of a yoga studio: I see it from my studio; it makes the skyway a safer place to be.
  • Steve Papciak, a passerby: They should keep it up forever–gorgeous.
  • David Allen, a security guard: ­It brings me to pasts I never knew.
  • An employee at a Minnesota state office: It’s captivating … and profound. In each story is a different message.
  • Adnan Shati, a Speaking of Home immigrant participant: It elevates the spirit of the city at a time when it is really needed.

Particularly, I was struck by Pam Krank, an exuberant business owner in one anchoring corporate building, who provides her employees with a half-hour paid break time to visit Speaking of Home. “We should welcome people with open arms. And OPEN people’s eyes at a time where there is now a political debate. Immigrants are not a threat to the economy but a contribution. Minnesota’s workforce needs diverse people. As an employer, I have to be able to recruit a team from different backgrounds that can get along with each other.”

To date, I am impressed that no one has tried to damage it–that speaks volumes. Furthermore, this year for the first time in the St. Paul skyways’ 50-year history, there has been ongoing vandalism, gang activity, and other safety issues, sparking outcry from on-site business owners, public scrutiny, and media coverage. So when a business owner, just a few days before install, warned me he thought it would certainly be vandalized in the next week, I froze like a deer in the headlights. Oh —-, what was I thinking?

But I am thrilled to see how the community is embracing Speaking of Home. There has been good, positive local press. We have also begun an impact study. In what ways can Speaking of Home impact and create value for the immigrant community and the public at large, municipality and private properties? Can it serve as a model how experiential design can invoke critical thinking and build community while democratizing the built environment?

Interior view of skyway pedestrians passing by and stopping to appreciate the installation (photo: Peter Von De Linde)

Three co-workers of Emmanuel Munyankusi from Kibuye, Rwanda, view his 1975 portrait [in middle] during their lunch break (photo: Peter Von De Linde)

How did you fund and otherwise organize this project?
Speaking of Home was financed, in part, by grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Knight Foundation among others, and in part by in-kind contributions of professional services from the local and national creative community and design industry. Senior design leadership figures who were with me since the project’s inception include Michael Haug, the design director, project manager, and principal of Engrafik; and Steve Carpenter, CEO, and Jenny Kruse, VP of Archetype.

The St. Paul skyways, the world’s largest publicly owned system of second-level pedestrian walkways, are owned by the City of St. Paul while building easements are owned by the anchoring four private buildings. Although the Mayor’s Office gave us the initial green light to use the skyway for the project, we still had to receive a formal approval and permitting.

This led to years of endless meetings and talking with the Mayor’s Office, the city’s Department of Safety and Inspections, city officials, the Right-of-Way Office, the city’s BOMA, private property management, nonprofits, and an advisory board. We were getting nowhere. Although this should have been the first order of business (but stakeholders always said, “no need”), I eventually engaged a permitting and zoning lawyer–a former Minneapolis city lawyer and a real pro–and worked with the project’s senior design leadership to start the process all over again and secure the approval.

Finally, on July 6, 2016 the St. Paul City Council held a public hearing to create a specific ordinance to enable public artwork and design works in the St. Paul Skyway’s public right-of-way.

Michelle Davis, employee of Pam Krank, visiting project with her family after work. “I would feel hurt if it [the project] was vandalized.” (photo: Peter Von De Linde)

Night exterior view of two skyway bridges experienced at the street level in downtown St. Paul (photo: Peter Von De Linde)

What is your hope for its outcome? What do you want your public to learn, understand, and take away?
“Speaking of Home” questions our own assumptions and ingrained prejudices about immigrants. Simultaneously, it is designed as an homage to their journeys, transforming a pedestrian walkway into a symbolic place of safe passage, of welcome.

I never thought this country would regress to this point regarding immigration legislation. My family fled Europe for Ellis Island in the early 20th century. As immigrants, they contributed to advancing public and immigrant health and the arts and culture in New York City.

The public needs to recognize that the Trump Travel Ban undermines the fundamental ethos that the U.S. was built on, our unalienable rights. The grand irony here is that refugees who fled political hegemony and sought a new life in the U.S. are facing a form of subjugation, yet again. What do we want for this country’s future? A democracy or a new segregated society where cultural xenophobia and racism are sanctioned? We cannot be complacent and go backward in time.

My intention is that Speaking of Home triggers the public’s conscience and brings about a fresh awareness and respect for our most recent immigrants – in relationship to our own roots, shared histories, and the current oppressive political climate. Moreover, my hope is to replicate Speaking of Home with immigrant communities, and private/public partnerships across the country, using the public domain to create a place that connects newcomer and homegrown alike, with a renewed sense of belonging and home.

Furthermore, there are so many underutilized, sad, mundane physical spaces and transportation systems in U.S. and international cities, begging for an overhaul, for TLC. Public officials, municipalities, and private property owners should consider how they can add value to the infrastructure and community while humanizing the environment through public installation and creative placemaking. How can the built environment be transformed from a generic “no-place” into a place that sparks critical thinking and curiosity, wonder, and joy, a place people enjoy and feel safe in, where they want to be? “Speaking of Home” contributes to this discourse.


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