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Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Families Seeking Refuge in Milwaukee

Photographs of ‘A New Life’ at Alfons Gallery

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I confess, and maybe you do the same, to having a keen curiosity about other people’s lives. What are their experiences? Where do they live? “A New Life: Portraits of Refugee Families in Milwaukee” features photographs by John Ruebartsch and is a collaborative effort with Sally Kuzma, a visual artist who teaches English as a second language. The exhibition introduces families whose lives have been turned upside down by war and struggle, but came to Milwaukee to craft a new life.

Kay Xiong Yang and her husband Lee Yang head one of the families featured in the photographs. Xiong Yang came to the United States about 20 years ago, her own family having fled their rural Laotian village because of government persecution. Xiong Yang grew up in a Thai refugee camp and today rents a farm in Oak Creek where 22 acres are a source of income, pride and fulfillment. Ruebartsch captures a portrait of Xiong Yang on her 1950s Allis Chalmers tractor, an image of determination and strength.

Culture may reflect the place we come from, but it can also be carried along wherever we go though the clothing worn or the objects, both symbolic and decorative, we choose to have in the place we live. Yarey and Adey are two sisters from Somalia who live in different households with their children but maintain close family ties. Ruebartsch’s portrait of Yarey brings us into her home where her love of crochet and textiles is well represented by the handmade bed cover and decorative fabrics on the walls. Her clothing—a long printed skirt, orange paisley blouse and diaphanous green turban—reflects an adherence to cultural identity which is an aspect a number of the exhibition portraits highlight.

“A New Life: Portraits of Refugee Families in Milwaukee” reveals a side of our city we may not be aware of or not see except in brief passing moments. It is an exhibition documenting the extraordinary stories, accomplishments and hopes of fellow citizens and neighbors.

“A New Life: Portraits of Refugee Families in Milwaukee” continues at Alfons Gallery (St. Joseph Center, 1501 S. Layton Blvd., second floor) through June 22.