H-1B visa exhibition at the Smithsonian: of goddess who gives visa, to women on H4 status in shackles

A probing, laudable exhibition curated by Masum Momaya.

By Sujeet Rajan

‘Voyage’ by Venus Sanghvi

WASHINGTON, DC: Have you ever had a dream of a goddess with two hands, one using a keyboard, and doling out H-1B visa from the other hand? Maybe not. But if you go to the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center’s digital exhibition, “H-1B” – starting on November 29th – to mark the 25th anniversary of the H-1B visa, and created by the Immigration Act of 1990, you would see such a tech-savvy, divine and benevolent painting.

The unique exhibition is a spin-off from the successful ‘Beyond Bollywood’ exhibition, which explored the life of the Indian and Indian American immigrants in the US. This new exhibition, however, is more probing, direct and highly laudable. It dissects the life of those who are on the elusive, but life-changing visa, and also amplifies the plight of others who are taken along that journey, specifically spouses on H4 visas.

The exhibition has been in the works for two years. It was commissioned by the Smithsonian. A total of 17 Indian and Asian American artists use the H-1B visa as visual inspiration to comment on their immigration journeys. Works by the 17 featured artists depict the range of emotions—anxiety, dignity, isolation and opportunity—associated with living in America, according to a press release.

The employment-based visa permits non-U.S. citizens with exceptional skills in science, technology, engineering and mathematics to work on a temporary basis. H-1B is of particular relevance to immigrants from India. Many were trained in technical schools that opened throughout India following its Independence in 1947. Today, approximately one-third of H-1B visas annually are issued to South Asian workers.

“Our H-1B Visa exhibition explores a historic part of the American story from the perspective of South Asian Indians,” said Konrad Ng, director of the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center, in a statement. “The artwork captures the experiences of people who come to America for the American dream.”

Passport-Size Portraits by Arjun Rihan
‘Passport-Size Portraits’ by Arjun Rihan

For the past 25 years, several generations of young scientists and engineers from all over Asia have come to be part of a “New America” and shape United States’ culture of innovation and entrepreneurship. For many, the H-1B visa is more than a piece of paper affixed in a passport; it determines so much of life in America and the opportunity to become American.

Dr. Masum Momaya, curator of “H-1B”, as well as the curator of ‘Beyond Bollywood’, told NBC News that the exhibition “illuminates an immigration status that often gets stereotyped or left out of dialogue around immigration in this United States. Each year, people from all over the world come to the United States for a better life; some find opportunity, and others endure great hardship. The artists in this show take us through the emotions and nuances of their journeys, illustrating new and complex layers of what has been a defining characteristic of America and American history: immigration.”

One of the artists in the exhibition, Aishwariya, has had experience watching an H-1B visa holder from close quarters. She is married to one such visa holder, and was herself on an H-4 visa, the much reviled spouse visa, which forces talented and skilled women to sometimes waste years without being able to work, due to visa restrictions. There has been some respite of late for those who have been for long on such visas, and have got work permits, but many more women continue to face a dilemma they did not envisage when they got married to an H-1B visa holder based in the US.

She writes of her work ‘Dual Intent’: “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.”

Another work by Juhi Bharat shows the plight and helplessness of thousands of spouses, mostly women, on H4 visas, who languish without being able to work: a woman in shackles is a powerful testament to the predicament.

Another artist Venus Sanghvi writes of the long journey some visa holders go through to get the visa in hand, right from the time she enrolled for school in the US, to the time she secured a job and then got the visa to carry on working.

ruee gawarikar goddess of visas
‘Goddess of Visas’ by Ruee Gawarikar

Artist and activist Tanzila Ahmed writes about her work ‘Borderless”: “I wanted this painting to reflect the complexity of distance and longing that comes with immigration, lack of a nation-state identity and diaspora.”

The painting of the goddess with the keyboard and visa is by Ruee Gawarikar, who terms the visa as the “ultimate blessing on her devotees.”

Arjun Rihan succinctly brings out the journey to get that “ultimate blessing” though a series of passport size photos of himself, and the visible aging is apparent in the photos, as the arduous process of multiple applications takes years, especially with the Department of Homeland Security, to renew visas and then to get work permits.

Artist Yamini Someshwar gives a very Indian outlook to the H-1B visa, with her poignant work of juxtaposing a leaflet out of a passport which has the H-1B term written on it, and a bindi emblazoned on the figure of a woman’s head, in the above portion of the work, signifying at once rootlessness and creating new worlds in new lands, which readers of Jhumpa Lahiri will be familiar with.

“Nothing speaks larger than the simple bindi, which when Americanized became the ‘dot’. We connect our dots to find out who we are and where we come from,” writes Someshwar.

Some of the artists delve into the hardships that come with an H-1B visa, and more often than not has connotations with being overworked and ‘indentured’ to the employer. Lilaben Leher’s work showing an H-1B visa holder pulling a cart, with a presumably American employer making him do the strenuous task, is one such work.

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