09/15/2008 09:29 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Immigration Art Haunts; Teaches

When I recently visited two art galleries on back-to-back summer days, I ended up haunted by these immigration exhibits that could have been in adjoining rooms because their content was connected. Instead, they were five miles apart and set across decades.

I smiled at a comment left in one of the guest books by a viewer: "I stumbled upon this exhibit."

So many of us are stumblers when it comes to art -- viewers who begin a day drinking our coffee harvested in distant countries and slipping into clothes made by laborers in Asia.

Four summers ago I bumped into the work of Sebastiao Salgado by chance. I have never recovered. His black and white photos were displayed in companion exhibits at the Chicago Cultural Center and at the Harold Washington Library Center, two of my frequent city destinations.

Part of the Salgado narrative has been in my notebook since 2004: "Most migrants leave their homes filled with hope; refugees usually do so out of fear, yet in different ways all are victims of forces beyond their controls."

Most people don't slow down long enough to make the distinction between refugee and migrant, much less to forge the link Salgado does through his work.

An art alliance could strengthen the thought process (or motivate thought) about immigration. A national network of museums is on the brink of formalizing efforts to display immigration art and launch related conversations. Representatives of several Chicago museums met last month at Ellis Island to discuss how this work could raise the level of debate about immigration. The Field Museum and Jane Addams Hull-House Museum were participants.

My August visit to the National Museum of Mexican Art show in the Pilsen neighborhood, "A Declaration of Immigration," was a rich mix of experiences and viewpoints of more than 70 artists from dozens of immigrant communities. It closed Sept. 7, but a companion film series continues through Oct. 2.

Visitors could sign their support of "A Declaration of Immigration," which stated, among other things, that the United States is a nation of immigrants and no human being is illegal. The sweeping sense of the show was that being undocumented is a civil violation, not a crime. Moreover, both hope and faith drive immigrants to leave their homeland behind.

The National Museum of Mexican Art has made a three-year commitment to immigrant-centered programs.

My other August art stop was a walk through the Michigan Avenue Galleries at the Chicago Cultural Center. Huge color photos of Ellis Island are on display until Oct. 5.

Ellis Island -Ghosts of Freedom is an exhibit by Stephen Wilkes. It offers stunning photos of long-abandoned buildings on the south side of Ellis Island where 12 million immigrants entered the United States between 1892 and 1954.

Wilkes found places there that were neglected and battered when he spent five years (1998-2003) exploring and recording the hospital complex. Unlike the restored and celebrated parts of Ellis Island, these buildings had been neglected for almost half a century. The measles ward, the power house, a mental ward all still hold odd remnants of their history. Through Wilkes' lens, the spirit, beauty and haunting nature of this place we thought we knew, is alive. It is a broken, yet evocative place.

Experiencing art can be political. There are worse things than stumbling into lessons. Immigration is a powerful issue to rediscover through art.