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Art Installation Explores the Life-Defining Act of Immigrating

By Teri West

The act of immigrating is so impactful that it can create or erase entire identities.

Artist Miguel Pérez Lem, explores this concept in Identity, an installation featured at the Embassy of Argentina until June 15.

The exhibit consists of seven pieces placed at intervals along the walls of an ovular room, each a portrait of Lem, identical but for the solidity of the image. Upon entering the room and making a left, the first painting is a faded, patchy self-portrait. Each progressive version grows more and more complete until a fully formed face stoically looks back at you in the seventh. The installation has the opposite effect if one simply begins from the other direction.

This reversible nature was intentional. It reflects the different potential outcomes of immigration or migration and whether one gains or loses an identity in the process, Lem said.

Moving to a less oppressive society can be freeing and can help one gain a fuller identity, the artist said. The opposite can occur as well, however, especially in the case of migrants who are frequently on the move and do not have the opportunity to fully settle into a new life.

Lem, an immigrant himself, created these pieces using Japanese black ink on rice paper. He layered the pages and painted from the top. The ink’s impact decreased with each layer, depending on the amount of ink and pressure used.

In the embassy’s showing, the thin paper hangs loosely from metal rods about a foot off the wall. Each image is backlit and split in half, allowing air to breeze through the middle. The simplicity and modernity of the concept feels fitting with the theme of immigration, a timeless issue that is constantly evolving but will always remain a unique challenge for each individual.

Japanese ink on rice paper depicts a faded self-portrait in one version of Miguel Pérez Lem’s piece. (Photo: Embassy of Argentina)

“For an immigrant, it never was easy and it never will be easy,” Lem said. 

He feels lucky to have immigrated by airplane while many do so on foot through the desert and risk death in the process. He doesn’t believe that there have been major changes in the realities of immigration in the 13 years since he arrived in the U.S., but rather that the variations occur case-by-case.

“It’s tough,” he said. “No story is the same.”

Over the years, Lem has formed a solid identity as an artist in Washington, D.C. Born in Cordoba, Argentina, he spent many years traveling the world as an interior designer before immigrating to the U.S. in 2004. He is based out of the Mid City Artists studio on 14th Street.

Nature tends to reoccur as a theme in his painting and photography, though Identity is not his only work that has strayed from that trend; he has depicted everything from Geisha to tangoing couples.

His styles range as well. Lem has worked with techniques such as oil painting, airbrush, and gilding to create a ranging portfolio. Some of his photography plays with motion while other images are as simple as a quintessential D.C. cherry blossom.

Though his artistic style fluctuates, the sketch-like quality of the Identity self-portraits stand out from much of Lem’s previous work. In the fully formed version, the eyes, lips and ears are made up of simple solid lines while the beard and eyebrows are filled in without decisive color-shading. It’s in the six other versions where the patterns and shading emerge. While the subject’s expression remains consistent among the seven, the emotion behind it feels varied. Pain and weakness emerge as the ink fades. Coming from the opposite direction, the figure appears to grow increasingly confident. Identity is Lem’s second solo exhibition that has been featured at the Embassy of Argentina.

From left, Embassy of Argentina Curator Alfredo Ratinoff, Miguel Pérez Lem, and Cultural Attache, Minister Luis Levit at the opening reception for Identity. (Photo: Embassy of Argentina)

“I was extremely pleased with the show because… it’s not just about the paintings, the color, the impression on the viewer, but it’s a show that transmits an entire experience of Miguel’s life,” Argentinian embassy curator Alfredo Ratinoff said.

He has enjoyed seeing the progression of Lem’s art over the years. As a curator, he loves being able to transmit the emotions and experiences of the artist to the public.

“The show was very, very intense but also when I saw Miguel for the first time I realized that he was really intense,” he said. “Intensity, talent, aura of mystery- all of those elements are great elements in the persona of the artist to ultimately create incredible work.”

Lem, reflecting on his own experiences, encourages those who are considering immigrating to take the risk.

“It takes a lot of you to move from one place to another, but at the same time if you are strong enough you will flourish,” he said. “You really will be renewed.”

Teri West is an editorial intern of The Washington Diplomat.



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