Of Two Worlds, 2018-2019 series

Each morning, I am greeted by two portraits of my husband’s great great grandparents painted sometime in the mid-1880s. They were the first in their family to make their way to the United States from Germany. My own relatives also came from Germany and England. I no longer define myself by their origins, but often think of family members who pioneered a new life in America and how they added to that rich stew of combined ethnicities and cultures lies at the very heart of this country.

When the Smithsonian Art and Space Museum contacted me about the Faces of Our Planet Exhibition, I immediately thought about the unique city of Los Angeles, rich with diversity, intermingled sensibilities and nationalities. Close to nine million people live in the City of Angels, speaking about 185 different languages. The city is home to huge communities of immigrants from the Pacific Rim, India, Mexico, the Middle East and Central and South America, each culture adding flavor and spice to the olio that is Los Angeles. And because of this, I have been lucky to grow up and live in a city where so many faces reflect all corners of the globe.

For the project, I have selected unique faces of immigrants who have enriched in my life in ways both large and small. I have presented their portraits with a sensibility towards 18th and 19th century heroic portrait paintings, as a way to elevate the Ellis Island, tattered-suitcase visual that comes to mind when we think of “the immigrant.” For this series, I asked each person to wear or hold something they brought with them on their journey to the United States. Whether a beloved child conceived on other shores, tribal scarves from Nigeria, a machete for night fishing from the Philippines, each object represents a significant personal connection to a place that was once called home.

This project gave me the profound privilege to better understand the immigrant’s journey. By hearing their stories and learning the hurdles and hardships they endured (and continue to face) as people of two worlds—one foot rooted in the culture that shaped their identity, and one foot rooted in a country built on hope, I now have an even greater appreciation for their sacrifice and dreams.

-Aline Smithson

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