A new art exhibit in Sioux City asks a simple question on the surface, “What does it mean to be American?”
This rare art initiative showcases a diverse dialogue for people living in Siouxland.
“Looking for America: Siouxland” features works by a dozen artists at the Betty Strong Encounter Center.
The pieces include photos, mixed media, graphic design.
"It’s a pig.”
“Whole Hog” by Rich Yates shows parts of the animal with words sometimes used to describe others, like “them”, “different”, “deviant” and “strange.”
“Even though we are all part of the same community.”
One of a handful of paintings, includes a John Deere Tractor. Others abstract thoughts.
REPORTER: “What does America mean to you?’
“I’m not sure, good question.”
At a special gathering to launch the exhibit, Christine McAvoy snaps pictures of some of the women whose faces cover nearly a full wall.
“I am a lone photographer in this exhibit”.
“The women that I photographed are women from a mentoring group called emerging women's voices myself and Mary Day have been working with these women for several years. We meet every single Tuesday and we become a very close-knit group of individuals. I wanted to photograph them. And when I first broached the subject everybody was like, oh no, no, no, no. No, I don't have my picture taken. I slowly wore them down and started photographing the women. Once they saw the results they were willing to be photographed. So, it’s been a great journey. I wanted to photograph them as I see them. I see them as strong women, interesting women. I see them as a great contribution to our community.”
REPORTER: “Can you tell me a little bit about some of the women in the photographs?”
“The women come from all over. We have women on the wall that represent East Africa. We have women from Pakistan, Central America, Jamaica. There is just a plethora of women represented.
One of the images shows a young teen smiling in a sea of multi-colored basketballs.
“I like it because you never really see a Muslim girl playing basketball.” I feel it’s good to show other people. Yes, you can play.”
“My name is Zakia, and I’m 15-years-old and I go to North High School”.
“I think it was beautiful with all of the different kind of girls who are showing ethnicity, religion and how we all came together, became one and become united.”
Zakia, an Ethiopian, was born in Kenya before moving to the U.S.
“I came here when I was about six months. My mom was new to this country. It was hard. “
REPORTER: “Do you think this is a community that embraces diversity?”
“I have been living in Sioux City for six years now. I think we have people from other countries moving here.” I feel Sioux City changed and became more open.”
Dan Wallace is the Director of Projects for New American Economy, a bipartisan research and advocacy organization out of New York City.
“What we are doing is asking people, ‘what does it mean to be an American in your community?’ So, we wanted to ask people who come from lots of different places. Not only big cities, not only places on the border, or places in the national conversation on immigration.”
Sioux City is one of only six communities across the country chosen for this art initiative with a goal of bring people of different background and beliefs together.
“There’s room for a lot of perspectives, the diversity, religion and walks of life and come together and get excited to get to know each other and it’s unique to America.”
“When we were thinking about where we wanted to go. We wanted to have geographic diversity, demographic diversity and political diversity. And, so on our way we have already started in Detroit, Salt Lake City, Anchorage Alaska. This is our fourth stop. We are on our way to El Paso, Texas and then to northwest Arkansas. That is part of the reason we are here. Another reason is we worked with an organization called One Siouxland the last couple of years.”
“I’m Erica DeLeon, the Director of One Siouxland.”
“When they called and said do you want to do it? I said, absolutely.”
“One Siouxland about two-years ago was awarded a ‘Gateway for Growth’ grant. It really looks at the economic impact of immigrants and refugees to our community. As part of that coming up with a strategic plan to be more inclusive to our community.”
“We have gotten so far away from civil discourse in this country in a lot of incidents that it’s important to get back to us looking as us as humans instead of Republican and Democrat and how we label people.”
REPORTER: “Do you think Sioux City embraces diversity.”
“Yes, I think we do. People here have Midwest values and can connect with others regardless of what country they are from.”
That’s a sentiment, echoed by the artists, including photographer Christine McAvoy.
REPORTER: “What does America mean to you?”
“What does American means to me? The biggest thing I think is acceptance. I don’t care where you are or where you are from American means acceptance.”
The American University School of Public Affairs, CuriousityConnects.us and The Tenement Museum also helped support the art initiative with finding from the Gilchrist Foundation and the Missouri River Historical Development.
On opening day of the exhibit the artists and participants took park in a community dinner to continue the dialogue about "What it Means to be an American?"
For a look at the exhibit we have a video posted on the Siouxland Public Media Facebook Page.