The positive concept of liberty is “to choose to live as they desire.”
-Isahia Berlin, 1969.
A deeper glance into the sculptures of Zac Hacmon, an Israeli-born artist based in New York, will invite the viewer to be part of a revealing conversation between the artist and Alexa: a Nicaraguan asylum seeker awaiting her immigration hearing in New York. Their collaboration took place in the RDJ Refugee Shelter in NYC. Hacmon’s body of work evokes social injustice, suffering, and adversities but, also hope and strength. Each sculpture is an entity that confronts the viewer first, through a subtle seduction of its unique aesthetic, and secondly, by inviting us to reflect on the challenging times of migration we are living today. What better way to engage with such topics than through three large-scale and interactive capsules that are as powerful as they are appealing? This is the culmination of a two-year project that was supported by the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council Creative Engagement Grant that comprises urban research, social participation, and a one-year collaboration between Hacmon and Alexa. These sculptures portray imaginary, mental, political, and geographical boundaries that transform into intimate conversations that narrate Alexa’s life story. Hacmon’s work is featured in Sanctuary City: Three Artists Explore the Refugee Experience in New York City (on view March 23 to Summer 2022) at Hunter East Harlem Gallery, NYC. Curated by Arden Sherman with assistance from Zac Hacmon, the exhibition engages with the experience of advocating for one’s own refugee status and asylum case. Also on display are the videos, Night Watch and Night Watch Documentation by Simon Attie, and the sculpture 26 Federal Plaza by Catalina Antonio Granados.
Hacmon’s minimalist work alludes to the constructivist architecture by manipulating and occupying the space as a metaphor for social intervention. With geometrical and edgy forms, his sculptures trace the challenging journey of an asylum seeker. One can visualize that a shelter is an impermanent place. Commonly said in Latin America, Sólo estamos de paso, which translates to We are just passing through. In white color, the artist allows us to see the cuts and the material of the sculptures alluding to a security booth. Made of wood, aluminum, and PVC in an industrial architectural manner, the sculptures follow the anthropomorphic principles of a human shelter. Welcoming the exhibition, Chinandega is located at the entrance of the gallery acting as the guardian of the installation as a whole. Although the shape of this piece is symmetrical, we find ourselves before an entity whose ventilation ducts are in the opposite direction, referencing its natural quality of being a receiver and a transmitter. Hacmon provides Alexa protection and a platform to be heard. The artist utilizes his art as a medium to illuminate the civil rights violations, and the harsh conditions that immigrants go through.
Subsequently, we find Mia resembling a crescent moon form, concluding with square-shaped vents on each end, the structure is named after Alexa’s daughter. The direct translation of mía in Spanish is mine; it is the feminine possessive pronoun. In the context of the installation, mía encapsulates appropriation, femininity, identity self-empowerment, resilience, and love. The fusion of the sound of the ocean with the melodious voice of Alexa reciting four poems to her daughters captures the viewer’s eyes and ears. The equilibrium and solidity of the sculpture, as well as its tension and pressure points, are so exact that we cannot ignore the breaking points of the refugee life, experience, and process. It represents Alexa’s suffering, not only because of her asylum status but, also because of the adversity she faces as a transgender woman.
Continuing the dialogue, we find Unite 6 marking the growth of the body of work. The persistence of mixing media affirms the importance of focusing our senses on the artwork to reflect on Alexa’s story. While entering the unit we can immediately hear the song La Cumbia Chinandengana by Jorge Paladino, and once inside we discover a fire alarm above the viewer’s head and a flat-screen showing Alexa in a Nicaraguan traditional dress. The flat panel light on the ceiling creates a sense of place by putting the viewer on the spot. The result is an ironic reversion where the work contains the viewer, keeping them static while watching Alexa dance gracefully and self-empowered. As if that was not enough, the artist makes the viewer observe and be observed by placing a window on each side of the top of the sculpture, allowing whoever is on the other side to see the viewer’s reaction.
We are looking at a compelling exhibition where Zac provides Alexa a shelter where she is guaranteed humanity and freedom. We can see a transgender woman as representing all migrants and refugees who live in precarious conditions that lack human rights. In Hacmon’s body of work, we can see a splendid balancing act as he takes on the role of artist and activist. Through his activism, he illuminates the importance of human rights by focusing on social inequality, gender, racial discrimination, and migration, where poverty and homelessness are the results of the lack of human rights. The beauty of the sculptures reflects the bitter truth: refugees do not just flee their home countries to avoid persecution, but also as a last resort.