Caption:  Artist Miguel Luciano and DREAMers (undocumented youths) launching DREAMer Lizbeth’s kite on November 4, 2012 in front of the Washington Monument and White House on the National Mall in Washington DC. (all images courtesy of the artist unless noted)

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INTRO

If art is about showing us new visions of what is possible in the world, Miguel Luciano’s DREAMer Kites project allows us to envision an America in which young people, including undocumented immigrants, can soar in the sky and fly like superheroes. Among many things, Luciano’s project is about dreams — the dream of flying and freedom, the American Dream and the need for federal passage of the highly politicized DREAM Act (“Development Relief and Education for Alien Minors” Act).

DREAMer Lisbeth’s kite in the sky above Washington Monument

On November 4, 2012, a few days before the presidential election, neither of the candidates nor many in the national media were discussing immigration issues or what kind of an impact the Latino vote would have on the outcome of the presidential election. On this cold, windy day, artist Luciano and a group of undocumented students gathered to fly enormous hand-built kites they had made themselves and decorated with life-sized photo self-portraits on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. As each kite soared in the sky above the White House and the Washington Monument, each youth appeared to be flying or hovering in the sky among these symbols of American power and freedom.

Curator Raquel de Anda launching DREAMer Noemi’s kite

DREAMer kite flying above the White House two days before the presidential election

Luciano’s DREAMer Kites project is a part of “The Ripple Effect:  Currents of Socially Engaged Art,” an exhibition curated by Raquel de Anda which is on view at the Art Museum of the Americas (the visual arts division of the Organization of the American States) and co-sponsored by the Washington Project for the Arts (“WPA”). With additional sponsorship/support from CultureStrike and United We Dream, Luciano created this project to provide an empowering experience for undocumented students and give them an opportunity to make a poetic visual statement about themselves and immigration issues. The DREAMer Kites group was joined on the flying date by youths from Campaign for an American DREAM (thedreamwalk.org), who had just arrived in DC the day before, after having marched 3,000 miles across the country from San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge to call attention to immigration issues and the DREAM Act. All those present at the event were able to witness powerful images of these kites of dreams flying in the sky juxtaposed against DC monuments and the home of the leader of the free world.

There will be an opportunity on December 7, 2012 at 12 pm noon to join the DREAMers on the National Mall in Washington, DC as they fly with a new, additional group of undocumented youths who built new kites with Luciano during the preceding week. This performance/public art event will be preceded by a panel discussion on the evening of Thursday, December 6 at the Art Museum of Americas with the artist, curator and several of the DREAMers who participated in the November flying event.

THE DREAM ACT

When a college degree is nearly universally regarded as the gateway to the American Dream of upward social mobility, the denial of higher education is a crushing blow, especially to immigrants who endure what they do to make homes in a new country to earn for their children the opportunity for better lives. While President Obama’s Memorandum this past June directs the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to defer deportation proceedings for undocumented youths under the age of thirty-one years through the “Consideration of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals Process” (uscis.gov/childhoodarrivals), this directive can be reversed by future Presidents and does not establish residency for students. Obama’s directive allows undocumented young people under certain conditions and age to obtain work permits or go to school, but Mitt Romney would likely have reversed it had he won the election. (Romney as governor had vetoed a state legislation equivalent of the DREAM Act in Massachusetts.) And the directive does not establish residency to qualify for in-state tuition at state or community colleges nor establish non-foreign student status to qualify for financial aid at private colleges, sometimes making the cost of going to college unaffordable. Federal DREAM Act legislation, which has had difficulty moving forward due to opposition from many Republican lawmakers, is an issue passionately supported by many in education, immigrant and Latino communities.

THE ART

In a city full of formidable national monuments made of marble and stone, Miguel Luciano essentially presents a new type of public monument with DREAMer Kites — temporary and ephemeral, but reaching for the skies and inspiring awe nonetheless.  Where local and Federal regulations limit the height of buildings to keep them lower than the Washington Monument and prohibit the trespass of the airways above the White House, these handmade kites float over them, apparently unbound by such rules. Those who see and experience DREAMer Kites witness the visual conception of their own power and seemingly unlimited potential. Using non-traditional materials and methods, Luciano helps us continue to change the way we think about public art — just as artists like Maya Lin and Robert Smithson did in the past.

Brooklyn-based Luciano was born into a political family in Puerto Rico and grew up engaged in social and political issues. Influenced by Latino artists Pepon Osorio and Juan Sanchez, Luciano has throughout his career created projects with roots in popular and traditional Puerto Rican culture that directly interact with community members in thoughtful, meaningful ways. Luciano, who has extensively exhibited his art at museums and public art spaces, believes making art objects is secondary to his goal of creating experiences, saying:  “The art for me, as much as it’s about building the objects, … it’s even more for me about building an experience and [creating] exchange.” Some of Luciano’s past multi-media performance art projects include:  Pimp My Piragua, 2008-2010, a Queens Museum of Art commission, in which Luciano souped-up a pushcart typically used by Latino street vendors with larger wheels and a hi-fi sound and video system to sell shaved ice (piragua) in Latino neighborhoods of Corona, Queens and Bushwick, Brooklyn and La Mano Poderosa Racetrack (2001-2006), in which he built sculptural-interactive installations for Hot Wheels racing competitions, recreating the popular Puerto Rican social pastime which had produced record-breaking sales for Mattel Corporation. In these interdisciplinary art projects and many others, Luciano incorporates popular traditional and modern Latino culture with direct participant/”viewer” exchange.

FLYING

In the late 1990s while an undergraduate, Luciano was working with children at The Barnyard Community Center in the historically-black (of Afro-Caribbean descent) section of Miami called West Coconut Grove or the “West Grove,” where nearly half its residents at the time lived below the poverty level. Instead of painting a typical street mural with the kids, Luciano wanted to do something more collaborative, and discovered through long discussions that everyone had had a dream in which he or she flew. Luciano wanted to recreate that sense of freedom and feeling of power from those dreams and, working with these children, created winged sculptures affixed with each child’s life-size image. The sculptures are installed from the ceiling rafters of the hangar-like building and each child who spends time at the community center can look up and see someone who looks like him or herself “flying” in the air.

Kenyan, 10 years after Miguel Luciano’s Dream Project (1996), with sculptures “Asia” and “Kenyan” at The Barnyard Community Center, 2006. The Dream Project sculptures are still in place at The Barnyard and the project is still one of Luciano’s favorites to this day.

Making participants’ images actually fly happened in 2002 in Luciano’s Chiringas de Paz para Vieques (“Vieques Peace Kites”), an art project supporting the civil disobedience movement in Vieques, Puerto Rico, which protested the U.S. military’s use of the island as a weapons testing ground. The military’s occupation of the island since 1941 had resulted in displaced communities and a lost way of life, enormous environmental damage, greatly increased cancer rates for residents and accidental weapons deaths. For this project, Luciano traveled as a teacher (and artist) with a group of students from Brooklyn to Vieques and, incorporating the popular tradition of making and flying kites in Puerto Rico and the Caribbean, joined local youths and residents in handmaking kites with life-size self images and flying them over the military fences of the island to interfere with the firing of weapons as symbolic human shields and to “occupy” symbolically the military compound.

Documentation images from Luciano’s Chiringas de Paz para Vieques (“Vieques Peace Kites”), 2002

By using humble, low-tech, flying “toys” made by local residents and tradition in direct contrast with the high-tech fighter jets and weapons of destruction of the U.S. military, the Chiringas de Paz project aptly spoke out for the restoration of a peaceful lifestyle that the residents had had unjustly taken from them. And Puerto Rican artists who had been building elaborate handmade kites for generations became involved in teaching the craft to participants, becoming an important part of the exchange and community-building of this project.

THE EXHIBITION

As part of “The Ripple Effect” exhibition at the Art Museum of the Americas, Luciano’s DREAMer Kites project corresponds with curator Raquel de Anda’s objective to showcase artists whose works move beyond gallery walls and engage creatively with communities on socially relevant concerns. On display in the museum during “The Ripple Effect” are kites from Luciano’s Amani Kites project from Nairobi, Kenya of earlier this year (“amani” means “peace” in Swahili). Through the sponsorship of smARTpower (an initiative of the U.S. State Department which is administered by the Bronx Museum of Art), Luciano worked with children from Lunga Lunga, an extremely poor industrial area where families from rural areas resettled to live right by the factories where they look for work, as well as local artists and the Kuona Trust in Kenya.

In addition to the display of Amani Kites inside the museum, both de Anda and Luciano wanted a public, interactive component for his art and they decided to produce this project which eventually became known as DREAMer Kites. Its success required tremendous logistical planning as well as the coordination of a myriad of local and national organizations that work with immigrant youths. As part of DREAMer Kites, De Anda and Luciano obtained additional sponsorship and support from CultureStrike, attended a youth summit meeting with potential participants to explain the project in October, conducted a workshop a week later so the participants could learn how to build large kites and pose for life-size self-portrait photographs, and maneuvered through bureaucratic rules and regulations to obtain all the proper permits in a timely manner to fly as a group on the National Mall in a specific location near the White House and the Washington Monument. They coordinated all phases of the project with the Art Museum of Americas, the WPA and CultureStrike, as well as the additional organizations that became involved, such as United We Dream, Gandhi Brigade, Latin American Youth Center, Many Languages One Voice, Critical Exposure and Split This Rock.

All of this was happening months before we started hearing in the media about the Latino community’s impact on the presidential/national elections and how that will now influence immigration policy and legislation. Before all of this, it was artists and the young showing us the possibility of a changed world. Curator de Anda observed: “As culture shifts, I think artists are the main conductors of its path. Moments like these are a testament to this belief. ”

DREAMer Lisbeth building her kite during the DREAMer Kites workshop in October 2012 at Art Museum of Americas

DREAMer Francisco working on his kite during the DREAMer Kites workshop in October 2012 at Art Museum of Americas. In the background is a view of Miguel Luciano’s Amani Kites on display as part of “The Ripple Effect” exhibition, curated by Raquel de Anda and co-presented by the Washington Project for the Arts and Art Museum of Americas/Organization of the American States.

VOICES

I thought it was important to share the thoughts of those who made the DREAMer Kites project happen, from the participants to the organizers — in their own words.

The Organizers:

I think the Ripple Effect is a very important exhibition in that many of the artists and their projects give a voice to the voiceless, the powerless or oppressed among us. So many of these projects are beautiful and illuminating, and instill in us a feeling of hope — all the best qualities of art. Miguel’s DREAMer Kites project does that so well. It brings attention to an issue that is not being so widely discussed now and does so in an incredibly poetic way. It puts a face (literally! on the kites!) on the issue of undocumented youths and the struggles of the DREAMers.

- Lisa Gold, Executive Director of the Washington Project for the Arts (commenting before the election results and recent media attention on immigration issues)

It was quite moving to see the kites dominating the skies flanked by the White House and the Washington Monument, all moving in the same direction as dictated by the wind. That participants are able to see themselves flying in the air above is not only a visual metaphor for freedom; they gain a sense of heroism and pride through the experience. Seeing themselves fly in the sky makes them feel and look like Supermen.

 The Art Museum of the Americas (AMA), the visual arts wing of the Organization of American States (OAS), has historically viewed contemporary art as instrumental in providing a means for hemispheric cultural integration and exchange, and has also helped launch the international careers of major Latin American artists. The AMA’s mission now also includes working on the principle that the arts are transformative for individuals and communities. This politically and socially charged exhibition simultaneously demonstrates this principle as well as serving the core values of the OAS, such as human rights and justice. The OAS, through AMA, provides a constructive vision of the future of the region. In essence, The Ripple Effect with Miguel’s kite project and his effort to raise awareness on the rights of immigrants perfectly fit into AMA’s current mission.

- Andrés Navia, Managing Director of the Art Museum of Americas (AMA)

Many of the youths involved in the project are self-identified DREAMers and very active within the movement to  change immigration policy. They are extremely informed, articulate and witty. It was a total joy to get to know each one of them better, help them glue their kites or chat about all sorts of things — from their family history to facebook, hip hop and their favorite artists.

 Getting to know the youths intimately and then seeing them in public with their images boldly displayed as temporary monuments was really inspirational. This was a fun experience and brought us together with the common goal of communicating our shared desire for achieving freedom and fulfilling our dreams.

-Raquel de Anda, curator of “The Ripple Effect: Currents of Socially Engaged Art”

The Artist:

It is a symbolic action to raise our own images into the sky and celebrate our dreams, desires, and indeed our right to fly and be free. These are universal desires, and can be applied to community struggles throughout the world.

-Miguel Luciano, creator of the DREAMer Kites project and the entire series of collaborative, site-specific interactive projects (2002-2012) in which local participants learn to make their own life-size kites by hand and see their images fly in the sky.

The DREAMers:

DREAMer Francisco Gutierrez with his kite

It was a very empowering time in my life. I had just turned 21 the day before we flew the kites and it served as a reminder of how powerful I am, how powerful my community is and how much more powerful we can be as a collective. I recall how high my kite flew (over 500 feet in the air) and how strong it got at one point, which only reinforced my sense of our potential.

 Making the kite was an interesting process. I never thought I would fashion a kite from scratch and, more importantly, that my face would be plastered on it. It was flattering and also communicated the message, “Listen to me!” – hence, the hollering expression with my hands around the mouth area. The floral shirt was what really personalized the kite. It was an LGBTQ statement, but it also reminded (and communicated to those who don’t know me) that I am a very happy and colorful person. 

 When Miguel told us that we were free to pose as we’d like, I was nervous. I was never used to having so much freedom and normally did well following instructions.  However, this time I would decide my portrayal. After a few ideas, I was still not convinced that I had chosen the “right” expression and I spoke to Raquel, the curator of the project. She asked me what I do best and would like for others to see. I immediately responded, “screaming… that’s what I do a lot.” I explained that I was tired of people not listening to us and that I wanted to be heard.

- Francisco Gutierrez, a student at Georgetown University who has been involved with the New York State Youth Leadership Council, the leading organization in New York on undocumented youths issues, and United We Dream, one of the sponsors of the DREAMer Kites project. He founded the Brooklyn Immigrant Youth Coalition last year, worked with the Orange County DREAM Team in California last summer and is the current Founder and President of Georgetown University’s Hoyas for Immigrant Rights.

DREAMer Marco Saavedra in past activist rallies. Image courtesy of Marco Saavedra.

Marco with his DREAMer Kite.

I had known some of the other DREAMers in this project from activist rallies and events. I am usually working in these tense, serious situations where people might get deported and we’re fighting to prevent that from happening. In this project, we actually got to have fun together. It was exciting and enjoyable; I had never flown a kite before. We learned how to make our own kites and then we got together to fly them.

 I am religious, of the Episcopalian Faith tradition, so the pose here is one of an Orant — a prayerful pose. What I’m saying is: ‘America, I’m here, take me as you wish.’ The shirt I wear adds a sense of inevitability:  The Dream is Coming, PERIOD. So take me as you wish, either with hands wide open or with a clenched fist.  The DREAM, it’s coming. 

- Marco Saavedra is an artist/activist (undocumentedohio.com  and http://anillegal.tumblr.com/) and recent graduate of Kenyon College who works with the National Youth Immigrant Alliance, largely fighting deportations. During the summer of 2012, he purposely got himself detained at Broward Transitional Center, an immigration detention center in Florida, and then wrote about the experience to share with the public.

Information on DREAMer Kites Events:

DREAMer Kites Panel Discussion: Thursday, December 6, 6-8pm at Art Museum of Americas, 2nd Floor, 201 18th St. NW, Washington DC 20006

DREAMer Kites Flying Event: Friday, December 7, noon-4pm at National Mall in front of the Washington Monument (15th St. NW and Madison Dr.), Washington DC

“The Ripple Effect:  Currents of Socially Engaged Art” is on view October 15, 2012 – January 13, 2013 at the Art Museum of the Americas, 201 18th St., NW, Washington, DC 20006. Artists in the exhibition include Annie Albagli and Vadim Ogievetsky, ASCHOY Collective, Floating Lab Collective, Ghana Think Tank, Olivier Giron, Miguel Luciano, Pedro Reyes, Mark Strandquist and Lina Vargas de la Hoz.

For more information, see: wpadc.org and amaMuseum.org.