By Matheus Maynard & Claudia Drdul
Self, Made, an exhibit exploring individual and group identity featuring the stories of 25 students involved in City College’s English Second Language Non-credit program, opened at the Exploratorium on May 23 and will remain open through September 2.
Students of Professor Ann Fontanella worked through the Spring 2019 semester to portray their cultural identity through an object and an analysis of said object in both their native language as well as an English translation.
“I wish I knew all my students’ stories. They are so beautiful, poetic and powerful, and they [the students] entrusted me to read their stories and this changed our relationship,” said Fontanella.
The exhibit was organized by museum director Melissa Alexander who said, “Identity is a central human experience, and just like our bodies we all exist within them. Our identities are formed and modified and reformed by a multitude of experiences.”
Alexander was extremely grateful for the experiences City College students brought to the installation. She was moved by the work of one specific student Imene Boukhalfa Hanafi, whose olive tree figurine was displayed in its own case as a central piece to the installation.
The figurine represented the struggles of Hanafi’s Tunisian family for over two centuries: “My illiterate grandfather not only educated all his children but also taught them love for the land. My father did the same, insisting that my brothers and I join the annual ritual of collecting olives to make us feel the deep connection with our homeland,” said Hanafi.
As explained in an Exploratorium press release, the purpose of this Summer installation “invites visitors to explore how we form and perform identity through dozens of new interactive exhibit experiences, works of art, and curated collections of cultural objects.”
Hundreds of museum-goers visited the exhibit on opening night and some visitors were in tears after forming personal connections to the stories behind each display.
Visitor and classmate Maviane Ribeiro said “When we arrived here in the United States, we kind of lost a little bit of our identity. And when we had the opportunity to write about who we are, it makes a difference” after viewing the display.
One of the most eye-catching items present was a peasant-style blouse, embroidered with violet and dark green flowers along the neckline. Student Wendy Moreno explained “It’s not just a blouse. It is a life. [Salvadorian workers] eat because of the blouses. I chose the blouse because I’ve always admired my mom, she’s a hard-working Salvadorean single-mother. I want people to believe in opportunities. One woman can make a difference”.
Moreno was introduced to City College’s ESL program through her husband who took a class with Professor Fontanella over a decade ago. “It’s so powerful how you can teach one student and then they remember you ten years later,” said Fontanella.
Another student, Xiaoling (Elaine) Dai, also praised the importance of City College’s ESL classes in her life. Upon moving to San Francisco, Dai was unable to find a job without speaking English, however, after beginning a series of ESL classes, she was able to secure a job at a Marriott hotel.
CCSF ESL non-credit provides opportunities and helps to connect foreigners with our culture. This partnership between City College and the Exploratorium is raising the awareness of the cultural identity of those students and how hard can it be to move away from their home countries and diving into a new and unknown culture.
ESL Department Chair, Greg Keech, was contacted by the museum for this exhibit because of the positive past experience the museum has had with building community alongside City College students.
With City College’s pending class cuts, partnerships like this may be negatively affected. The ESL department has already experienced large reductions in class offerings from Fall of 2018 to Fall of 2019, which puts experiences like this at risk of elimination.
Being featured in Self, Made is just one of the various opportunities City College has brought to immigrant students. All community members are invited to check out the exhibit through September 2, at Pier 15. Students and teachers receive a 16 percent discount on the regular ticket price.