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“Fly to Freedom: The Art of the Golden Venture Refugees”

Viewed without knowing their backstory, the pieces of art now on display at the American Immigration Law Center’s exhibit hall on F Street NW might be mistaken for the sort of tchotchkes you’d find gathering dust in an eccentric old grandmother’s living room.

There’s an assortment of mantelpiece-ready figurines—a fluorescent-orange peacock, a bright-green Statue of Liberty, a family of white owls—that could have been ordered on a whim from a Franklin Mint ad in Parade. A garish gold Buddha sitting in the lotus position and a warrior in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon robes look as if they were acquired from a gift shop on a trip to Chinatown. And then there are the flying eagles, with wide wings—some several feet across—made of thousands of painstakingly folded and interlocked paper triangles. A gift from a friend on an origami kick, perhaps?

But the curators of “Fly to Freedom: The Art of the Golden Venture Refugees,” have gone to great lengths to make sure the works in the exhibition are not viewed by folks who don’t know the pieces’ history. When you first walk into the gallery, all you can see is a wide, U-shaped fiberboard box—8 feet high and 24 feet across—covered in text.

Only a series of narrow rectangular windows carved out of the box’s drab brown walls reveal the colorful artworks within. You have to press your nose right up to the window slits to get a decent look at the objects, so there’s no getting around the text. Perhaps that’s just as well, because the sculptures inside the box are powerless without the story printed on its outer walls.

Eight years ago, the Golden Venture, a decrepit ship carrying some 300 illegal Chinese immigrants, ran aground off the coast of New York City. The TV pictures of the surviving Golden Venture passengers shivering on a beach at sunrise—and the newspaper exposés of the crime syndicates that had charged each of them tens of thousands of dollars for the privilege of traveling to America in a cargo hold—faded out of the national consciousness not long after the last passengers were rounded up by the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service and transferred to prisons across the country.

But for many of the immigrants, the Golden Venture story dragged on for years, as they sought political asylum as Christians or democracy activists or potential victims of forced sterilization back home. The INS adamantly denied them bail while they waited for their cases to be resolved.

To pass the time—and to create gifts for their pro-bono lawyers and supporters—a group of refugees who had been sent to the York County Prison in Pennsylvania began making traditional Chinese paper sculptures out of the everyday materials of life behind bars: magazines, legal pads, toilet paper. Later, wardens provided the refugees with glue, markers, and blunt scissors. The prisoners applied their skills as former woodcarvers, kite makers, and theatrical set designers to their new media. And over the course of four years—from 1993 until the last inmates were paroled by President Clinton in 1997, pending final rulings on their asylum claims—they produced some 10,000 objects: massive folded-paper birds, crabs, and pineapples; papier-mâché crucifixes, dragons, and ships; rolled-paper pagodas, gazebos, and bird cages.

The sculptures gained the attention of art collectors and activists alike. In 1996, folklorist Bill Westerman and the staff of the Museum of Chinese in the Americas mounted an exhibit in New York to help publicize both the skill and the plight of the Golden Venture refugees. Five years after that show, the museum has put together a modest traveling show of 25 works made by more than a dozen of the artists—five of whom were able to win permanent U.S. residency on the basis of their “extraordinary artistic ability.”

You can see that ability in the artists’ efforts to turn toilet paper and Elmer’s into something more precious. The delicately molded feathers of Zheng Kai Qu’s Family of Owls could easily be mistaken for porcelain; the fluid draping in the toga of Yang You Yi’s Statue of Liberty and the sinewy muscles of Shi Jian Le’s Warrior on a Horse look like finely carved lacquerware. The lumps and rough pulpy bits that betray other artists’ sculptures as papier-mâché have been expertly smoothed away.

The Golden Venture artists were also excellent reproductionists. Wu Luo Zhong’s Lion, Zheng Lian Bin’s Statue of Buddha, and Zou Xue Can’s Dragon With the Word “Dragon” on the Base look just like the mythic Chinese creatures being churned out on assembly lines and sold in gift shops on both sides of the Pacific. The artists were equally adept at copying American trinkets: an anonymous artist’s Tortoise and the Hare illustrates Aesop’s fable with a Bugs Bunny-like figure relaxing with a pretty pink flower and a tortoise that looks as if it were shipped straight from the Lenox factory.

But other papier-mâché pieces look decidedly amateurish. A large model of the Golden Venture by Cao Xiang Gui features brightly colored flags and moving components, but nonetheless appears clunky and cardboardish. And the wide-eyed, cartoonlike Christ figure of Lin Yeng Ming’s Crucifixion of Jesus seems more alien than human.

Folded-paper eagles represent another significant part of the Golden Venture repertoire. The irony of prisoners carefully folding thousands of color-coordinated magazine pages into triangles and shaping them into one of the United States’ best-known symbols of freedom was not lost on the artists. There’s a bird standing in the middle of a cage with “CHINA” spelled into its bars; there’s an eagle perched on a white branch inscribed with “Fly to Freedom” in both English and Chinese.

Ultimately, however, I was unmoved by these eagles, or any of the sculptures in the exhibit. Throughout my visit, I continually forced myself to push out of my mind the words I most wanted to use to describe the pieces before me: “tchotchkes,” “junk art.” I tried my best to absorb the text on the fiberboard case describing the artists’ plight and to remind myself of their ingenuity with commonplace materials.

But every piece in the exhibit seemed a bit too safe, too banal, too appropriate for the coffee table. I couldn’t help wondering what other pieces the artists might have come up with if they’d attempted to convey the horrors of the shipwreck, or the grinding poverty and oppression they were trying to escape in China, or the realities of prison life in America—what they might have created if they’d allowed themselves to transform not only toilet paper into porcelain, but also their own powerful stories and dreams into equally powerful art. CP