Press & Interviews


Miami Artist Takes a Stand for Immigrants in For All Boat People

Courtesy of Gina Cunningham

FRIDAY, FEBRUARY 10, 2017 AT 10:05 A.M.


In the days following President Donald Trump’s executive order prohibiting Syrian refugees from entering the United States and banning citizens of seven majority-Muslim countries in any visa category, heated protests broke out at airports in many states where travelers were detained. For many people, particularly immigrants, it has been an exhausting and devastating couple of weeks since Trump took office. 

Miami-based artist Gina Cunningham knows the struggle. She has been producing work about the plight of immigrants for years. “As an artist, I raise social and moral issues. It’s particularly important at this point in this crisis that I feel we’re having with the government,” she says. 

Cunningham’s latest installation, For All Boat People, is a continuation of the work she has been doing locally and internationally in Haiti, Russia, and Iceland, among other locations. The show will open this Sunday in what has been framed as “an emergency protest against Trump's anti-immigration ban,” according to a news release. 

For the show, the artist has created a collection of boats, both large and small, made of paper and industrial material, in a reference to the poem “Boat People,” by Haitian writer Félix Morisseau-Leroy. The poem reads, “All Americans are immigrants/But it’s us they call boat people/We don’t come to make trouble/We come with all respect/It’s them who call us boat people.” 

The installation integrates several artistic modalities and consists of indoor and outdoor components. The indoor installation has video, photos, 200 small paper boats, and a large eight-foot boat. The small boats are made of weather-proof plastic paper, while the large canoe was purchased and wrapped in a metallic decorative material. The canoe also serves as an altar of sorts, where visitors can place devotional offerings with a wish or a prayer for the safety of refugees and travelers. 

Canoes hung in a tree at Standing Rock by the disputed Cannonball River, with the Dakota Access Pipeline in the far background.

Courtesy of Gina Cunningham

"Unless you’re a Native American, you’re a boat person as well," Cunningham says. "With the current ban, it’s our moral duty to stick up for the disenfranchised. We’re all immigrants; this country is built on immigrants.”

The four videos in the piece are from different locations where she has staged the installation: the United States (Standing Rock), Russia, Iceland, and Mexico. The video she shot in Mexico is particularly relevant to the Trump administration. The footage shows Mexicans in their day-to-day lives with a running news ticker that says, “You generalize immigrants as drug traffickers, criminals,and rapists when you, a direct descendant of immigrants, are married to one. Do you think you and Melania are different because you are white? I cannot think of any other reason for your blatant insult and denigration of immigrants, especially Mexicans.” 

Outside, there will be a dance performance with water and fire elements, choreographed by Colleen Farnum. The performers were chosen for their diversity; there are untrained dancers and professional ones, including immigrants from Haiti, Southeast Asia, and South America, as well as Miamians. 

For All Boat People was not a direct reaction to the immigration ban that Trump issued January 27. In fact, the installation had already been in place at the nonprofit arts venue Under the Bridge when the executive order was announced. Curator Jane Hart and Cunningham decided to reorient elements in the installation in response to Trump’s order. They displayed the video from Mexico and the photographs referencing Trump more prominently. 

“The overall environment in the gallery had been one of reflection, reverence, and ritual before. With Trump and what happened, it’s more frenetic, but it’s important to bring that more to the fore,” Hart says.

Screenshot of the Mexico/Trump video

Courtesy of Gina Cunningham

Cunningham’s work is political, but not aggressively so, Hart says. There are elements of meditation and reflection to her installations about displacement, immigration, and identity. "Her work is poetic and political," Hart says. "She is an artist/activist, not an artist passively creating work. Her work transcends being merely political, but it's political and poetic. We need more work in the world that can speak truth to power.” 

The artist aims to address moral and social issues in her art, and she reflects on the importance of politics in the art world as a whole. “It’s important at a time like this for artists to create work that speaks out about what is happening in the world,” Cunningham says. “It’s not about the market, not about the money. Yes, [the artworks] are for sale, but they transcend that. It’s about making art that will shift people’s focus.”

For All Boat People
Opens with a reception from 4 to 7 p.m. Sunday, February 12, at Under the Bridge, 12425 NE 13th Ave., #4, North Miami; email Admission is free. The dance performance begins at 6:15 p.m.

Art Uzel
Корень нового: Джина Каннингхем
The Root of the New, Gina Cunningham

English translation of the article scroll down this page and see below
September 26, 2016


Gina Cunningham, Boat Tree
February 1, 2016, Haiti


The Root of the New with Gina Cunningham,, 26 September 2016

From 10 September to 10 October, as part of the annual festival of colors "Colors of Autumn", The Botanical Gardens of Moscow State University "Apothecary Garden" will hold a Festival of Contemporary Art "The Root of the New" dedicated to the 310-year anniversary of the garden. The project involves more than 30 well-known artists of different genres and styles from the UK, Spain, Italy, Switzerland, Germany, Poland, France, Ukraine, Sweden, USA, Martinique, India and Russia.

The curator of Gina Cunningham's installation and performance piece "boat" is Anya Dorofeeva.

In her work, the artist Gina Cunningham first of all, raises social and moral issues. Gina has taught visual arts and cinema in the United States, India and Haiti. She has directed 18 short documentaries on the themes of social justice, in which she defended immigrants and the poor.

Gina herself is an example of fortitude and perseverance in the face of difficulties. At age 28, she got into a severe accident: hit by a truck on her bicycle,. Gina has gone through many operations and long-term treatment, however, she did not stop creating. Despite the fact that this injury has forever changed her life and future plans, she never perceived herself as a victim and would not let her condition determine her way of life. She has worked with a variety of schools, non-profit arts and social justice organizations and as an artist.

 Alexander Ryazanov: How did you come to the idea of reating a "boat" project?

Gina Cunningham: With my husband Peter, I witnessed an immigration crisis in the 1990s. Many people from Cuba and Haiti were forced to leave their homes and flee to the United States. We could not remain indifferent, so we sheltered about eleven people in our home and helped them find work. We are still in contact with most of the families As a direct result of this experience, we opened the famous Tap Tap restaurant in Miami Beach, where we also showcased the art of Haiti.

Recently, as I read the sad news of this current wave of people forced to leave their homelands, I knew I had to dedicate some of my art to all of them. To me "boat “is a beautiful and charming piece, but at the same time, it symbolizes the pain and bitterness of exodus".

AR .: As far as I know, you have a whole series of video works featuring boats and dedicated to the spiritual path of man.

Gina DK .: I have created these works several times - in Iceland, in different parts of the Americas, and now in Russia. Every time, I produce "boat", the piece manifests itself in a different way, but each time my boats symbolize the same unimaginable fears.

AR .: In a video you shot in Iceland you burn a small boat floating on the water. The video was made in Iceland, but it has something to do with Indian culture, you spent time in India?

Gina DK .: I was heavily influenced by my last trip to India, especially when I was in the area by he Ganges river. Hindus believe that if a person dies close to this sacred river, then he is a lucky man or woman, because this is a sure way to achieve moksha, to be free of the painful cycle of life.  Of course, the sight of burning bodies so close by often scares some visitors from the West, but it fascinated me.

AR .: What are the nuances, due to the venue of the festival (Botanical Garden), you take into account when creating this work?

Gina DK .: The festival takes place at the start of a month of great change in the weather, so we used water-resistant materials for the installation to survive the autumn rains. Everything has to be large and in great quantity, as the site is very grand. Despite the fact that my work is about a very serious topic, it is colorful and bright, and at first glance, very pleasant.

AR .: And did you take into account the peculiarities of Russian culture while creating this work? What did you consider?

Gina DK .: Russia is  a vast country, so I tried to emphasize the immensity here by the large size of my installation.

AR .: The key task of the artists participating in this festival is to  reveal the relationship between their work and nature, paying tribute to the natural beauty of the Apothecary Gardens. How do you cope with this task?

Gina DK .: I have tried to create an interaction with nature by the color palette I chose. I have used bright, metallic colors like silver and purple in my installation to contrast as much as possible with the natural color of the autumn leaves.

AR .: What is the effect of this work? In your opinion, what thoughts should it provoke in the viewer?

Gina DK .: I would say that my work has a lot of meaning to mebut everyone should understand it in his own way, isn't this the beauty of art? I try to talk about serious things, but aesthetically, the installation is a fun piece, it was designed elicit joy. But, I also hope that while people will enjoy the entertaining part, but they might also feel the loneliness, sadness, uncertainty and death, that it also symbolizes.

AR .: What is more important to you to be understood or to express?

GinaDK .: Oh, I'm more than sixty years, and I've never been understood very much. I think expression is more important, because expression informs every artist.

AR .: What do you like most about Russia?

Gina DK .: I am in Russia for the second time. This time, I was absolutely delighted to be invited here by the curator of the festival, Anna Dorofeeva. Thanks to her invitation, I was also able to visit St. Petersburg and we were amazed by the grandeur of the Hermitage .  I really like Russia, and I hope to come here many more times.


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