For the children and later generations of immigrants, their cultural roots intermingle as the old meets the new in terms of customs, language, and socialization. Leaving behind a country can mean a sense of loss when it comes to identity and where one came from. In America, we’ve seen the big parades for St. Patrick’s Day where it seems everyone has some Irish heritage and wants to celebrate.
Immigration also means leaving things behind. The novelty question “what would you pack if you only had one suitcase?” can be fun to ponder hypothetically. For many who leave their homeland, it also means making heartbreaking decisions about what to keep and what to give up. Sometimes the decision isn’t even theirs. For example, photographer Tom Kiefer’s project El Sueño Americano (The American Dream) shows images of items confiscated by American border officials from Mexican refugees that were deemed “non-essential.” However, many of the belongings were for hygiene, protection, and personal comfort.
The Suitcase Project, an exhibit which runs at the Cleveland Print Room from April 30 through May 31, focuses on what’s inside immigrants’ suitcases as an examination of the cultural and social landscape of Cleveland.
Nine participants from immigrant families, up to two generations removed, were chosen for the exhibit. Each artist created one suitcase of meaningful artifacts and new artwork inspired by their families, home countries, or a combination of the two.
Mallorie Freeman, who is also a Project Coordinator for SPACES gallery in Cleveland, is one of the selected artists. She chose her Filipino mother, Merlyn McCollum, as the inspiration for her piece titled “Off The Record.”
McCollum, who went by the stage name Mer-lyn, was a singer that got her start in the late ‘60s as a teenager. Freeman isn’t even sure of exactly when her mother moved to the U.S. with her Navy enlisted grandfather. Unfortunately, a lot of that knowledge has been lost to time with shoddy record keeping and the death of various family members. Freeman had already started on a journey to find out more about her mother. A personal project to try to find out more about her mother’s story and to find some answers about her past. Even details of her mother’s birthdate are hazy.
“There were a lot of articles also written about my mother because of her singing career,” Freeman explains. “There was one article I read that said my grandpa and grandmother met because my grandmother was a guerilla fighter in the war.”
McCollum retired from her singing career at the age of 23 when she moved to Cleveland to start a family. She once explained to Freeman that she was tired of the grind and being on the road since her teenage years. Mer-lyn had spent time recording and performing since she was just 16 years old which included rubbing elbows with folks in Atlantic City during the rat pack era. She was a starlet of sorts.
For her contribution to The Suitcase Project, it made sense for Freeman to use her talents as an artist and combine them with her mother’s voice in song. She created a suitcase that’s a working record player to play her mother’s songs. The argon sign that adorns the piece was fabricated by local artist Jeff Chiplis and reads “Mer-lyn” in Freeman’s mother’s handwriting. Along with that, she included old, faded photos, newspaper articles, solar dye prints, and personal effects. Freeman intends to continue the journey to find out more about the story she’s learned so far about her mother.
Freeman’s piece about her mother is just one of nine personal stories that make up the The Suitcase Project. Each is a tale about immigrants who became Americans. In a one-bag allowance, the exhibit displays the spirit and essence of those families and their journeys through art.
The Suitcase Project will be on display at the Cleveland Print Room from April 30 through May 31 and will then travel to Akron Soul Train for another four weeks. To find out more visit clevelandprintroom.com/projects.
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Tesh Ekman was born in India, moved to the U.K. when he was 4, and came to Cleveland, OH, USofA in 1992 at the age of 14. An Ohioan since, he absolutely hates the question “Where Are You From?” Tesh is both a U.K. and U.S. citizen - however, India no longer wants to claim him as one. While difficult to be shunned by one’s own birth nation, it also means he’s used to rejection, which has served him well as a writer and person in general. Tesh is mostly a homebody, but if he does venture out, he can usually be found at various local establishments, drunkenly rueing his life choices and/or supporting Liverpool FC in a sudden-onset English accent.