New exhibit at Teen Gallery celebrates the immigrant experience

“The Stories that Make Us” is the title of the new exhibit at the Teen Gallery located in the ICA Seaport Studio


Photo: Desirée Vignola-Hung

Boston, Massachusetts – Jan. 27, 2023: Student artist Sophia Vaz places her newly-made artwork on one of the walls for the “Stories that Make Us” exhibit, which recently opened at the Teen Gallery of the Institute of Contemporary Art Studio in Seaport. The space was filled with pre-made art plus, as the night evolved, immigrant teenagers of diverse backgrounds worked on small 3×3 mirrors using colorful markers to tell stories of their new lives in the U.S.

Desirée Vignola-Hung, Reporter

Spotlights of pink and white illuminated the walls of the Institute of Contemporary Art, or ICA, Seaport Studio. They shined on the soon-to-be-placed artwork from teens throughout the Greater Boston area. A long mirror at the end of the hall reflected the anticipation.

 “The Stories that Make Us” is the title of the new exhibit at the Teen Gallery located at the ICA Studio. The exhibit opened its doors on Friday, Jan. 27, and will be on view until the summer.

The artwork showcased in this gallery is specifically made by teens and for teens, through the ICA’s Teen Exhibitions program. This program consists of a group of high school students, mostly from Boston Public Schools, or BPS, who work to put on two exhibitions per year to celebrate teen art. For this exhibit, artwork was featured by students from Everett High School, Horace Mann School for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, Boston International High School and ENLACE Academy.

These students work together “to imagine what a teen gallery space looks like,” said Nohemi Rodriguez, the Teen Program’s manager at the ICA who works with the Teen Exhibitions program. “They are in charge of organizing, installing, curating all of the artwork that is in that space.” 

Boston, Massachusetts – Jan. 27, 2013: “The Stories that Make Us,” the new exhibit by the Institute of Contemporary Art’s Teen Program will be on view until this coming summer. It showcases artwork made by teenagers of different backgrounds who have one thing in common: they are immigrants who have been in the process of integrating into the American culture.

Around 6 p.m., the gallery started to fill with teenagers and families, and the artwork began. On small 3-by-3 mirrors using different colored markers, the artists started making what later would become part of the art inside the gallery.

There was also some art already on display. Presented on window frames, the artworks showed feelings of immigrant youth coming into the U.S. and how they deal with day-to-day life while learning a new culture and language. Using black markers and black vinyl, the art pieces varied from depictions of longing, like an airplane or a friend left behind, to those of joy and even frustration. 

Lina Bonilla, a student at Everett High School, one of the schools involved in the gallery, arrived in Boston two and a half years ago. She reflected on her experience and how art has helped her express her own struggles. Her piece shows two people trying to communicate with each other.

“Sometimes, when you arrive to this country, it is very difficult because it is difficult to communicate with the native speakers,” said Bonilla in Spanish, “so you have to find ways to make yourself understood and to interact with them.”

Boston, Massachusetts – Jan. 27, 2023: Lina Bonilla arrived from Colombia two years ago. Her piece, in Spanish, reads “it is very difficult for me to communicate in English, so I have to look for creative ways to also make myself clear,” referring to the way a person must use their hands and sometimes raise their voice when their English is limited. (Photo: Desirée Vignola-Hung)
A close-up of Lina Bonilla’s piece. Photo: Desirée Vignola-Hung

“The Stories that Make Us” was put on display in conjunction with I Learn America, or ILA, which is an initiative by Jean-Michele Dissard who, a few years ago,  released a documentary telling the stories of recently-arrived immigrant and refugee children to the U.S. The documentary has now been shown all over the country and was an inspiration for the ICA exhibition. 

Everett High School became part of the project after the school superintendent, Priya Tahiliani, met Dissard while still working for BPS as the assistant superintendent overseeing the Office of English Learners. Tahiliani believes that this exhibition offers a space for the teens to come together and explore their identities with those who have had similar experiences.

“In this space, I think what is very important is making sure we’re honoring all of our students and their backgrounds,” Tahiliani said. “And I think this particular project really recognizes and lifts up the stories of our students that recently immigrated to the country and have been trying to find not only their language but their voice in this country and who they are.”