The new faces of America

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All images courtesy Jila Nipkay

Compared to coastal and southern states, Minnesota has a reputation for being “white bread,” i.e. dominated by people descended from Scandinavian and European heritage.

While that description is to a degree accurate (88% of Minnesotans identify themselves as “white”) it is certainly not the whole story, and in fact the ethnic make-up of Minnesotans is changing rapidly.

Photographer Jila Nipkay wants people to see how beautiful that change is. Her series “Faces of New America” – now on display at Minneapolis Central Library – focuses on Minnesota’s immigrant youth, and the rich cultural heritage they bring to the state. She says the inspiration came from a visit to a St. Paul public school three years ago.

This was the first time I walked in a public school with such a high population of immigrant students. Immediately, I felt that I have stumbled into a hidden but extremely beautiful world. The whole school was pulsating with an incredible energy that radiated from the youth, intensified by their cultures and histories as immigrants. I had an urge to talk to these kids and find out about their journey of becoming Americans and translate it in a visual form.

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Nipkay visited schools, asking for volunteers for her portrait project. The only requirement was that they be immigrants themselves or the children of immigrants. She did not tell them what to where; she only suggested that the present themselves as they wished the public to see them.

At times, I was surprised by their choices. For example, some wore traditional clothes from their cultures while at school the same kids might wear clothes that made them look tough, hip or simply like their peers. Then I realized they saw the portrait as an opportunity to present a part of themselves that did not have a public presence. For most of the kids, presentation of their cultural identity through clothes and objects was a pripoity over looking “right” for school.

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Nipkay says she hopes the exhibit, which will be touring other metro libraries in the coming months, will spark curiosity about the changing faces of American identity, and ideally, help foster a dialogue between recent immigrants and “natives.” She says she’s working on expanding the exhibition into an installation that can tour colleges.

They are fertile ground for examining how new immigrants impact the American identity. This has already happened through some of my residencies in schools in Twin Cities. I have had exhilarating discussions with my young students about how America is changing; they are simply more in touch than their parents about the new realities of American culture.

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“Faces of New America” is on display at Minneapolis Central Library through January 30.

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