NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ - For a local resident like Claudio Mir, with roots in New Brunswick, waking up to news of a flyer that read “America is a white nation,” was an unpleasant surprise.
He came to the United States as a young adult, and graduated from Rutgers-New Brunswick in the 1990. He has lived here since.
As an artist, a photographer and community activist, he’s decided to fight back.
The flyers were posted up and down George Street. They read that “white Americans” have a “civic duty” to report undocumented immigrants to ICE, and included a phone number to the homeland security tip line.
“That flyer said ‘America is a white nation, it’s a white county,” Mir said. “So I changed the photo. I said `America,' and then I broke down ‘is’ somewhere in the picture, ‘a’, is somewhere else and ‘country is somewhere else.”
Mir’s photo, 30 by 40 feet, shows a young woman, with very light skin and an Afro. Across the photo are words including “LGBT,” “Christian,” “Muslim” and other demographics, to imply that the United States can - and is - any one of those things.
“She’s obviously a mix, she’s not black, she’s not white, it’s hard to pinpoint where she’s from. She has all these features that come from different places, from Africa, from Europe,” Mir said.
Mir’s art is one of dozens that for the next month will be lining the streets of New Brunswick and Highland Park as part of the first-ever “Windows of Understanding” art project.
For Highland Park, New Brunswick and the Mason Gross School of the Arts at Rutgers University, the Windows of Understanding is an opportunity to combat hate through art.
The art is displayed inside businesses or on their window sills, creating literary “windows of understanding,” according to co-founder and organizer Cassandra Oliveras-Moreno, an administrator at the Mason Gross Visual Department.
For the next month, the artwork will be on display on dozens of businesses on Main Street Highland Park and New Brunswick’s two business districts: George and French streets.
“Disruptive bright spots,” as Oliveras-Moreno describes them, the work will send a message to combat the hate and bias incidents, which have been on the rise in the past year.
The project’s official kick-off was Jan. 15, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, and featured walking tours of the various businesses displaying art.
One of the main kick-off events, “Listen to Your Neighbor, Listen to the Land,” was aimed at paying homage to a sometimes divided and neglected urban environment.
“You can’t have windows of understanding without listening and knowing the environment,” hence the title of the exhibit, according to Jamie Bruno, an artist with the Lower Raritan Watershed Partnership and key program organizer.
Bruno’s worked, displayed at the window sill of Kim’s Bike Shop, on French Street, featured shoes hung from the sealing, painted bronze and each home to a living plant.
“There’s a huge mythology around shoes strung over telephone wires,” Bruno said. “Is it about someone being bullied, or is it a gang or someone selling drugs, or this is our turf?”
"Listen to Your Neighbor, Listen to the Land" art project by Jamie Bruno. Credit: Windows of Understanding
Bruno added: “I wanted to create this kind of visual meme, that the soil and the plants kind of embody that hope that we have to each other, that we have to the land.”
The next day, on Jan. 16, the organizers and participating artists gathered for an opening reception at the Zimmerli Art Museum.
Two artists, both owning an art studio in New Brunswick, said they wanted to focus on the youth and development of urban African Americans.
“We did pro-African American pieces,” said Rich Duverger, one of the artists. One piece had a woman with a crown on her head.
Duverger added: “The other one was a real popular thing, a thing that’d been trending lately was the H&M Hoodie with the black kid. We took the kid and we put him on a canvas and we put ‘no monkey business’ on his hoodie, put a crown over his head.”
A third piece depicted a woman with a graduation cap and inspiring words emanating from her head.
Duverger and the other artist, Kjuan Turker, talked with the NAACP Rutgers chapter to get an idea of what they’d focus their art on, coming up with the three unique art pieces.
“We’re proud, we’re proud black Americans, well we lived that, so it wasn’t too much.” Duverger said.
Most notable at the reception was a crowd of kids from the New Brunswick Middle School, who were able to take part in “Windows of Understanding,”
For one student, Arianna Meneses, her artwork depicts an eye and two hands holding each other, which she said represents “unity” and an inseparable bond.
“When I was drawing the holding hands, I thought more about how together we can see through hate,” Menesis said.
Arianna Meneses' artwork, on display at Costa Chica Restaurant. Credit: New Brunswick Middle School
Menesis’ participation is owed to Danielle Fleming, a visual arts teacher at the New Brunswick Middle School, in an effort to have student’s creativity become part of the project.
Throughout the month, organizers will host a slew of other events coordinated across New Brunswick, Highland Park and Rutgers University.
TAPinto New Brunswick is partnering with ProPublica to track hate crimes in the region. The partnership is part of a nationwide project to track and report bias incidents across the country.