Exhibit Examines Immigration Through the Eye of Political Cartoons

As the Trump Administration continues its assault on immigration, the average American watching the news today may be under the impression that fear, xenophobia, and hostility towards immigrants is a relatively modern concept. But a current exhibit at the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum at Ohio State University reveals that immigration has long been controversial, and is ingrained as such in our nation’s history. “Looking Backward, Looking Forward: U.S. Immigration in Cartoons and Comics” focuses on immigration through the lens of political drawings dating back to the 1860’s and continuing to present day. The exhibit presents a diverse array of opinions and attitudes towards immigration over a 150-year period, and the exhibit’s curators hope that its complexity will resonate amidst the Trump era.

“There is a very rich history of cartoonists commenting on what’s going on in the world in terms of immigration to the United States, reflecting what people are thinking and saying, but also, we think, impacting how people are thinking about it,” notes curator and assistant professor, Jenny Robb, in an interview with Columbus Alive. “So we wanted to take a look back at the past 150 years and see how cartoonists dealt with it in their work. And not just editorial cartoonists, but in comic strips and comic books and, more recently, graphic novels.” Exhibition co-curator and OSU professor, Jared Gardner, agrees that the scope of the exhibit is designed to present a comprehensive view of the immigration debate. “We wanted to show how the current debate – with all its attendant rhetoric over immigration is of relatively recent vintage, beginning in earnest in the years following the Civil War, following a period of massive immigration from Ireland and the beginnings of new waves of immigration from Eastern and Southern Europe on the east coast and Asia on the west coast.” [See “Arts Feature: ‘Looking Backward, Looking Forward’, by Jim Fisher, Columbus Alive, 21.Nov.2017.]

The exhibit highlights several important historical touchstones in the immigration debate. Several featured cartoons comment on the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which is widely regarded as the first immigration law that explicitly targeted immigration based on national origin and race. The Immigration Act of 1924, which instituted a multitude of restrictions and quotas based on race, is also the subject of several pieces in the exhibit. The curators of “Looking Backward, Looking Forward” consider Joseph Keppler’s 1893 drawing “Looking Backward” to be the showpiece of the exhibit. Originally featured in the political magazine Puck, the cartoon depicts American descendants of immigrants who benefited from the opportunity to begin a new life in the U.S. denying entry to the next generation of immigrants. Robb noted to Columbus Alive that the piece is particularly impactful because it remains relevant to the current political firestorm raging over immigration. “You could run that today, it would just be a different group of people.”

“Looking Backward, Looking Forward: U.S. Immigration in Cartoons and Comics” is scheduled to run at the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum in Columbus, Ohio, from November 4, 2017 through April 15, 2018.


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