Art

Delicate and Detailed Paper Sculptures by Chinese Migrants Detained in the US

An exhibition at the Museum of Chinese in America chronicles the tragedy of the Golden Venture, a ship carrying 286 undocumented immigrants from China that ran aground in New York City in 1993.

Installation view of FOLD: Golden Venture Paper Sculptures at the Museum of Chinese in America (all images courtesy the Museum of Chinese in America)

As the immigration “conversation” in the US continues to devolve, it’s important to remember that Republican governments aren’t the only ones in recent memory that have sought to curb migration through scare tactics and nationalistic policies. During World War II, the Roosevelt administration denied admittance to thousands of Jewish asylum-seekers fleeing the Holocaust, effectively sending them back to the concentration camps. More recently, there was the Golden Venture debacle under President Clinton, which resulted in a large number of undocumented Chinese migrants spending years in detention. As that event’s 25th anniversary approaches, a new exhibition at the Museum of Chinese in America,  FOLD: Golden Venture Paper Sculptures, takes a look back at that tragedy and some of the artworks the ship’s ill-fated passengers made while in prison.

On the morning of June 6, 1993, a cargo ship named the Golden Venture ran aground on the Rockaway Peninsula. From its hold emerged 286 undocumented Chinese migrants, many of whom jumped into the Atlantic, hoping to swim ashore and apply for asylum after the harrowing 120-day journey, according to Patrick Radden Keefe’s 2013 New Yorker article commemorating the event’s 20th anniversary. But because the shipwreck was so well publicized, the Clinton administration decided to make an example of the people on board by sending them to immigration detention while they awaited their hearings. Previously, they would have been released and assigned court dates. But many people had been skipping their court dates, opting to remain in the country illegally. Keefe contends that the Golden Venture decision paved the way toward greater imprisonment of undocumented immigrants. Many of the Chinese migrants remained in custody at York County Prison in Pennsylvania, some for almost four years. Even once released, more than a dozen of them remain in legal limbo some 20 years later.

Installation view of FOLD: Golden Venture Paper Sculptures at the Museum of Chinese in America

In a gallery adjacent to the museum’s permanent collection, FOLD gathers paper sculptures made by Golden Venture passengers between 1993 and 1997, while they waited for their fate to be decided at York County Prison. Made from toilet paper, towel strings, lined paper, and discarded magazines, the sculptures are impressive in their meticulous precision. As the exhibition’s title suggests, many of the works were made through complex folding patterns. One of the most arresting works is a large pagoda made almost entirely of rolled pieces of paper, creating the illusion of logs and roof tiles. “American made” stickers cover each balcony on every level, reminding us of the desperate plight of the detainees.

In fact, many of the paper sculptures include American flags, and the show contains a large number of birds, particularly eagles. There’s a Statue of Liberty and Donald and Daisy Duck, too. Through their artwork, the detainees hoped to prove their loyalty to a country that had imprisoned them for merely stepping foot on its land. They started making the sculptures to pass the time, but eventually, a community of supporters who lived in the prison’s vicinity began selling the works to raise money for their legal funds (and to buy more paper to make more sculptures).

Installation view of FOLD: Golden Venture Paper Sculptures at the Museum of Chinese in America

Proving one’s allegiance through art making while in prison is a topic that has been in the fore recently, especially when it comes to imprisonment without trial. Last year at the National Museum of American History in Washington, DC, an exhibition marking the 75th anniversary of the executive order that created Japanese internment camps during WWII included objects made by internees. The most memorable were carved birds and pieces celebrating American culture, like a pair of Mickey Mouse sandals. Last fall, a show of artworks made by Guantanamo detainees on view at John Jay College featured a painting of the Statue of Liberty.

While the last of the Golden Venture passengers were released from York County Prison in 1997, their sculptures in FOLD all remain anonymous. As the introductory wall text explains: “They have cited anxiety about the current political climate and recent shifts in immigration policy.”

FOLD: Golden Venture Paper Sculptures continues at the Museum of Chinese in America (215 Centre Street, Chinatown, Manhattan) through March 25.

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