Coming to America

African-born artists chronicle what they left behind--and what they've found

Tanaegh Holder Haddad is a committed advocate for community development, a graphic artist for a local nonprofit, and the granddaughter of a murdered president and an exile from her homeland. The life of Tanaegh Holder Haddad has the makings of an epic African drama. Back in the artist's native Liberia, a rebellious general executed Holder Haddad's grandfather, then the nation's leader, in a military coup. At that time, when Holder Haddad was only months old, her father served as the Liberian minister of defense; he soon landed in prison, where he was tortured.

The 24-year-old artist shares this chilling history on a serene Friday afternoon at Intermedia Arts in south Minneapolis. This is the site of a groundbreaking exhibit showcasing Holder Haddad's work, along with that of Minnesota-based artists from across the African continent. Organized by Trú Rúts Endeavors, "Ndimgbe: A Compendium of African Visual Artists in Minnesota" represents what might be the first collection of work from the state's growing pool of African immigrants. (The show runs through April 18, with a party on Friday, April 2.)

Holder Haddad says that her family survived that political tumult by God's hand alone and later became some of the first Liberian refugees to come to Minnesota. (She arrived in 1986.) The local population from that West African nation now numbers in the tens of thousands, as new generations escape an ongoing wave of broken governments and civil wars.

"I'm an African of American ancestry," she says, later explaining that relatives on her mother's side were once slaves in the U.S. "And with my ancestors it's almost a circle, where before I was in Africa, I was in America, and before that I was in Africa. In my art, I'm telling my journey, and that doesn't start with where I was born."

And so it's not surprising that nearly all of Holder Haddad's artwork in the exhibit is grounded in America's past, even though her family's role in Liberia was a far more prominent one. As she talks about becoming an American citizen last month, Holder Haddad sits beside a piece called "The Compromise," which rests on a small bench. Segmented on three separate wooden trays, it's a painting of a crying, chained black baby. The tray with the baby's head has a quote from the Declaration of Independence; the one at the baby's feet has an advertisement for a slave market.

"The baby represents America in its infancy," she says. "The bordering colors [red and green] represent blood and money. The chains are slavery. The trays are like servitude or service platters, which also show a violence and the divisions of the nation."

As Holder Haddad rises to walk through the exhibit's two small rooms and highlight some of her other works, she is joined by John Adesiji, a 29-year-old painter from Nigeria. His hardscrabble life in Africa was starkly different from his peer's, and it's this contrast between immigrant experiences that is one of the clearest expressions of "Ndimgbe."

Adesiji cracks a smile when we reach a series of Holder Haddad's satirical mock products, such as a burlap pouch of "Big Dick's Tobacco," with an emblem of a cigarette-smoking, black-faced minstrel. Other products are lined up in front of a mirror, including cosmetics that promise to make "Nose Be Small," "Lips Be Thin," and "Naps Be Gone." Holder Haddad explains that she started to create these "beauty" products as she became increasingly aware of the internal fault lines of racial identity in America. Adesiji adds that, these days, cosmetics such as skin-bleaching creams can also be found widely across Africa.

Having immigrated to Minnesota three years ago, Adesiji says he knows little about the inner workings of African-American self-image. Even though he's going on two hours of sleep after working his regular graveyard shift at a factory in Maple Grove and then speaking to successive classes at a north Minneapolis school, Adesiji still becomes animated when he talks about his homeland.

Unlike Holder Haddad's powerful relatives, Adesiji's family came from a class of farmers and factory workers. His artistic path began on the streets of Lagos, Nigeria's sprawling metropolis, where he smoothed out wooden sculptures for hack artists in pursuit of tourist currency. Through high school and college, he paid for art materials by completing art assignments for several of his classmates, mimicking their style and level so closely that even art teachers never noticed the trickery.

His vibrant paintings offer traditional scenes of Nigerian villages and tribal customs, with only a few subtle political overtones. Two of his large paintings, "Life in the Village" and "Market Square," depict women carrying platters of plantains on their heads, children playing in open dirt roads, and other communal scenes. The canvases offer such warm tones that even the village's rusted iron rooftops radiate a gentle beauty. You can almost sense a longing behind the brush strokes.

"Sometimes, I miss my home very much," he says. "I came here to live with my brother for studying art, but I did not have enough money. My art was dead for many months and I couldn't work."

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