A new exhibition opening at The House of the Seven Gables on January 30 features a series of deeply engaging photographs of foreign-born Massachusetts residents — all naturalized U.S. citizens. Photographer Mark Chester’s cultural diversity project is an ideal fit with The Gables’ dual mission to both preserve the historic structures on its 2.5-acre National Historic Landmark site and to support its 108 years of settlement work with immigrants.
The exhibition, “The Bay State: A Multicultural Landscape,” also speaks to The Gables’ 350th anniversary celebrations ongoing this year. John Turner, the son of an indentured servant from England, built the iconic mansion 350 years ago.
The Gables’ first Community Conversation of 2018 will kick off the exhibition’s launch on Tuesday, January 30. Diane Portnoy, the director of the Immigrant Learning Center in Malden and Mark Chester will engage the audience in a discussion about the impact of immigrants in Massachusetts, while sharing some of the stories associated with the images on view. All are invited, free of charge, to attend the opening reception, followed by the Community Conversation. Events take place between 6 and 8 p.m. on January 30.
“It seems destined that this exhibition has found its way under The Gables’ roof at this time,” says Chester, a world-traveler, esteemed photographer and Massachusetts resident himself. “It’s a historic time to herald our multi-heritage population. Foreign-born citizens are an important part of the American experience.”
Chester has photographed people from 180-plus countries now based in Massachusetts. These are not formal portraits, but environmental. “I love to travel but with this photographic project, I say I’m traveling the world without leaving the state.”
Mariame Bah and her mother Hadja Toure
And all of a sudden, he says, the project has become meaningful and important in ways he hadn’t expected. Curiosity, connection to people and a passion for photography, not politics, are what motivated Chester to produce this series of compelling photographs — each with its own unique story.
For example, says Chester, “I had never met anyone from the country of Chad before, so meeting this person from Chad and being invited into their home was wonderful. It’s great to be in this world of countries. We’re in a world of countries here in Massachusetts. What I think about this project most is how I connected with each of the people.
Photographs from the collection of more than 400 are exhibited frequently. The response has been exceedingly positive. “The goal of my exhibit project is to find funding to print 3,500 copies of the companion book to give to schools and libraries (and the participants, themselves); to bring awareness of our foreign-born population, its cultural and educational contributions to America, and to help create a dialog for the foreign-born to live here in equal, sharing harmony,” says Chester. “Also, I’d like to see the book used as a supplemental teaching vehicle, a spring-board, so to speak, for teachers to create projects for their students touching on citizenship, immigration, community harmony.”
But there’s nothing quite like standing in front of the image itself. The viewer connects with the myriad details — a person, an environment, a story. “Seeing the work at The Gables is so much different than seeing the photographs on the website, for example,” says Chester. “It’s like seeing a play as opposed to the movie. At The Gables, you’re part of the transaction. You can look at the photo and it’s the real thing right there before you. There’s a relationship and an intensity between viewer and image. It’s more personal.”
“The Bay State: A Multicultural Landscape” will be on view from January 30 through March 2.
Those interested in attending the reception and Community Conversation are asked to RSVP by visiting 7gables.org or calling Ryan Conary at 978-744-0991, ext. 104.