“Did you know that Indianapolis has a larger Burmese population than any city in the United States?”
It's a question human rights photographer Katie Basbagill ends up asking just about every time she talks about her latest work.
The answer is usually, “No,” sometimes followed by, “You mean those families that are in here all the time?”
Yes, those families, and as part of the INDYrefugee project, which will occupy Gallery 2 of the Harrison Center this Friday, Basbagill has been photographing and interviewing one Burmese family that landed in Indianapolis in April.
The family — a husband, wife; and three daughters, all shy of 10 years of age — arrived in Indianapolis after a years-long struggle to escape Burma. The thumbnail sketch: Dad was arrested and detained by Burmese police, from whom he managed to escape (they were drunk). He headed into the jungle, and, after hitching a ride to Thailand (21 people in a 14 passenger van), he took a fishing boat to Malaysia (communing with the fish under a tarp), eventually to arrive in Kuala Lumpur. Three years later (during which he didn't see his family), his wife and two daughters made the same journey he did.
They made it to the U.S. in April with the help of the local non-sectarian refugee resettlement agency Exodus Refugee Immigration Inc., which brought more than 650 displaced refugees to Indianapolis in 2010. That's when Basbagill first met the family: She had pitched Exodus an idea of telling the story of Indy's Burmese refugee population through art, and they gave her a call one morning at 7 a.m. (far too early, if you ask Basbagill or her friends) to announce that a family perfect for her project had arrived.
Months of interviews and photography sessions followed from there, and Basbagill will show some of the fruits of her labors during INDYrefugee night at the Harrison.
Basbagill and illustrator Joel Rockey have collaborated on several pieces for the project, with Rockey's thought balloons and text layering over Basbagill's candid, vibrant shots. Photos sometime play against text in a playful fashion; for instance, a photography of a pious woman holding a Bible is layered with a quote from an interview in which she admits to talking back and beating up the boys when she was younger.
Basbagill's goals — and those of INDYrefugee — are twofold: to educate the American people about the current political climate in Burma and why it's leading to such an exodus of refugees; and to connect Indianapolis residents in a very practical way with Burmese refugees.
Friday's show will be, according to Basbagill, “an opportunity to invite Burmese people and as many people from the community as possible to engage in a facilitated evening of communication.” Those wishing to get involved with the Burmese community will have the chance to talk with representatives from Exodus.
The culminating event of the INDYrefugee project will take place this summer, when INDYrefugee plans to present a much larger art installation, including a replica of a refugee hut and extremely large installations featuring photos with illustrations. Basbagill recently received a small grant to defer the printing costs for the show, which she hopes will coincide with World Refugee Day, which falls on June 12, 2012.