Smithsonian Art Exhibit Explores the Experience of H1B Workers

When the Immigration Act of 1990 was signed into law, it created a watershed moment in the world of immigration by introducing the H1B visa category. Designed as a way for highly educated, professional foreign workers to fill skills gaps in the U.S. labor marketplace, the temporary work visa was hailed as an innovation that would help both the United States and immigrant workers. With this month marking the 25th anniversary of the Immigration Act of 1990, the H1B category continues to offer opportunities for foreign workers, it can also usher in a period of anxiety and uncertainty as they and their families adjust to life in America. A new digital art exhibit at the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center, simply titled H1B, explores this complex reality of the impact life in H1B status has on foreign nationals.

The exhibit, which features the work of 17 South Asian American and AsianAmerican artists, uses the H1B category as a launching point to explore the multifaceted experience of immigrants adapting to life in the United States. Konrad Ng, director of the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center, noted in an interview with NBC News that over one-third of H1B visas are issued to South Asian workers, and that the exhibition “explores a historic part of the American story from the perspective of South Asian Indians. The artwork captures the experiences of people who come to America for the American Dream.” Tanzila Ahmed, an artist with a painting that is featured in the exhibit, feels that one of the main themes of the H1B exhibit is that of a complicated identity. “I wanted this painting to reflect the complexity of distance and longing that comes with immigration, lack of a nation state identity and diaspora.” Aishwayra, another artist with work featured in the exhibit, gave a voice to the often-overlooked dependent spouses and children of foreign workers who hold H-4 visas. “Drawing heavily upon my experience as a spouse living on an H-4 visa, my work traces everyday manifestations of the duality of belonging and alienation for families living here in the United States on this visa category,” she explained to NBC News. [See New Smithsonian Digital Exhibit Explores Immigration Stories Through H1B Visas, by Frances Kai-Hwa Wang, NBC News, 23.Nov.15.]

The H1B visa continues to be in high demand for skilled and educated foreign workers who want to experience life in the United States, and the employers who wish to benefit from their skills, hard work, and ingenuity. But following the dream of a life in America, while mourning the separation from a native country, can be a complex and difficult process for many foreign workers. H1B at the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center explores this concept with nuance and sensitivity, thanks to artists who speak to the immigrant experience through their work.


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