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‘Refugee Families in Milwaukee’

Walker’s Point Center for the Arts documents journeys to new land

Aug. 3, 2010
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Portraiture captures moments in time, immortalizing people, places and eras. Subjects may vanish instants after an image dries or a camera clicks, but the moment remains. Within this framework John Ruebartsch and Sally Kuzma present “Here, There, and Elsewhere: Refugee Families in Milwaukee” at Walker’s Point Center for the Arts (WPCA).

Throughout the year Kuzma and Ruebartsch have talked to refugees in Milwaukee and documented the stories of individual families. Refugees differ from immigrants in that they are displaced from their homelands by crises, often war or famine, and seek sanctuaries in which to begin a new life. Typically this journey begins at a refugee center; many people here are adjusting to the Midwest from countries in Southeast Asia and Africa, including Burma, Laos and Somalia.

The WPCA displays about 30 of Ruebartsch’s giclée prints on rag paper in which he photographs individual and community moments without romanticizing misfortune. Though he remains objective, Ruebartsch uses his photographs to transport observers to a particular place to reveal the emotions of his subjects.

Kay’s Son Tends Chickens pictures a boy peering through the wire grid of a chicken coop, a chicken clutched in his hands, in a tender interpretation of farm life. Children Assemble for Burmese New Year’s Blessing portrays four boys dressed in oxford shirts with their hands held in prayer. The up-close, slightly angular perspective dramatizes these pensive young faces, evoking great empathy for a family suddenly finding itself in a foreign land.

Certain photographs in the exhibition provide viewers with a phone number that will allow them to hear the voices of the subjects. These excerpts could stand to offer more insight, but there is pleasure in hearing the exuberance in many of the voices.

Through experiences in their own lives, Kuzma and Ruebartsch truly relate to these portraits. A catalog documents their process and purpose with heartfelt credibility. “Here, There, and Elsewhere” provides a valuable introduction to new Americans by pointing out the similarities among us. Everyone needs food, water, shelter and acceptance, no matter what land we call home.

“Here, There, and Elsewhere: Refugee Families in Milwaukee” continues through Aug. 28 at Walker’s Point Center for the Arts, 839 S. Fifth St.

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