Alexa Frangos’ artist statement begins with “I am the daughter of a refugee.” Frangos goes on to say that her mother’s family fled Nazi-occupied Ukraine on foot, finding their way to a displacement camp in Austria first and then to America through Ellis Island, as did so many others in that desperate time. Her father emigrated from Greece, making Frangos herself part of that patchwork of ethnicities and cultures so common in America.
The papers, photographs and other memorabilia the two families brought across the sea drew Frangos into this series and she has used them to great effect. In “The Suitcase,” she has placed a cutout photograph of her parents with a small girl, presumably Alexa, standing at the bottom of an open wooden suitcase, while other photographic portraits float above. Another image, “Her Cross to Bear,” is created from papers and a photograph, perhaps of Frangos’ mother, shaped into a Russian Orthodox cross laid on a bed of human hair. Frangos has cleverly used black backgrounds behind the objects, giving them the precious quality of jewels displayed on a velvet tray. All of the constructions are so beautifully captured they almost appear to be three-dimensional.
In “Detained,” period-costumed relatives gaze out through the panes of an actual window. Two small photographs of the Statue of Liberty are framed in some of the windowpanes with a torn political cartoon proclaiming “Power of the Federal Government” as a man cracks a cat-of-nine-tails labeled “Deportation” over his head. “We the People” merges cutout photographs of family members and outlines of people cut from identity papers and immigration forms. The exhibition’s postcard image, “Huddled Masses,” is created in the same fashion, but some of the human forms are also cut from assorted colored papers.
“Forgotten, Not Forgotten,” another poignant piece, features six small round, gilded picture frames, only four of which contain images—three women and one man. The other two frames are empty. The background is composed of a few dried flowers like something one might press in a journal or book of poetry. In “The River,” a faded photograph of a river scene and one of a lovely young woman, with a dried flower covering one of her eyes, are juxtaposed with a page torn from a book, clearly a translation, a knotted piece of raffia and a few coins.
This is powerful work—personal, bold and remarkably meaningful in light of the current refugee and migrant situation throughout the world. It’s difficult not to draw parallels between that time period and the one we are living in today. And Frangos’ work blurs the line even further.
“Alexa Frangos: Ghosts of Displacement” at Perspective Fine Art Photography Gallery, 1310 Chicago Avenue, Evanston, through October 1.