Art Preview: Art project traces what drew refugees to Pittsburgh

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One of the images in "Body: in Diaspora," new works by Maritza Mosquera.

By Monica Haynes
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

"Who are they, and what are they doing here?"

Those are the questions that came to mind when artist Maritza Mosquera noticed a number of Africans in the Philadelphia International Airport while returning from a trip to her native Ecuador a few years ago.

Those questions also came to mind when Ms. Mosquera encountered a group of very friendly women at the Jewish Community Center in Squirrel Hill speaking a language she did not know.

The images of those two disparate groups of people stayed with the artist, fueling even more questions and leading to a new work, "Body: in Diaspora," which opens tomorrow at the American Jewish Museum in Squirrel Hill.

Described as a community art project, it brought together Somali and Jewish refugees to talk about their emigration experiences.

Maritza Mosquera

Coming exhibit events at the Jewish Community Center:

Bookmaking workshop with Maritza Mosquera. 1:30 p.m. Oct. 5. Open to the public but reservations required (412-521-8011, ext. 105).
CD-Rom release party and artist talk, 7 p.m. Nov. 2.
The exhibit runs through Dec. 1 and kicks off tomorrow evening with an opening reception from 7 to 9.


Primarily a printmaker, Ms. Mosquera said this project is "pretty much about photography and about homing in on a moment that I'm observing closely. ... I was really interested in how people held their hands or spoke with their eyes, how I was in the room or how we were in the room with each other."

The exhibit comprises photographs, inkjet prints, text and a digital movie.

"I came [to the United States] when I was 10. I came to Washington, D.C. I moved to different places, and I landed here in Pittsburgh. These people also did the same thing. That interested me."

To learn the who, what, where, why and how of people creating a new life in this country, the artist sought assistance from Leslie Golum, who at that time was the director of the American Jewish Museum.

The two had worked together before on what Ms. Mosquera called some other "racism-ending" projects.

She garnered grants from the Mid-Atlantic Arts Foundation, the A.W. Mellon Educational and Charitable Trust Fund of the Pittsburgh Foundation, the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts, the Anna L. Caplan and Irene V. Caplan Endowment Fund and the Jewish Healthcare Foundation.

The 45-year-old artist, who lives in Highland Park, began building relationships with the women she encountered at the JCC.

"They weren't speaking English. They were speaking some other languages. They were all older women, and they were all very happy. There was some thrilling happiness in them," Ms. Mosquera said.

"I think it's because they had community. They were part of a larger community and they knew it. They weren't isolated."

She also found people through the Pittsburgh Refugee Center, Jewish Family and Children Services and the Holocaust Center.

In talking to Holocaust survivors she got to know a deeper story, she said. "I used a technique of listening called re-evaluation counseling."

She had people tell their stories in English and then asked them to talk about their experiences once more in their native tongue. Some people said they no longer even thought in their native languages.

But then, said Ms. Mosquera, it began to come back to them, and they told their stories in richer detail.

"It's really sweet how their faces change when they speak their native tongue," she said. "There's some really endearing quality."

Through Shannon Mischler at the Greater Pittsburgh Literacy Council, Ms. Mosquera met some of the Somalians who've settled in Pittsburgh.

Ms. Mosquera began talking to Somali immigrants to whom Ms. Mischler was teaching English. Ms. Mosquera also began instructing them.

"I taught them artistic words, taught them drawing and even parts of the body, portraiture and face drawing," said Ms. Mosquera, who worked for 10 years as a museum educator at The Andy Warhol Museum.

But she did more than that. The artist went to soccer games and shopping trips and ate with those involved in the project.

"One of the highlights was bringing a group of Somali women to the JCC," Ms. Mosquera said.

Looking at film of their visit to the center, she noticed they were looking into the pool as the Russian women swam.

"The visual I had in my mind a couple of years ago before any of this happened," Ms. Mosquera said, "came true."

Monica Haynes can be reached at or 412-263-1660.


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