Irina Boboia created a multimedia project about the immigrant and refugee experience.

COURTESY: IRINA BOBOIA - Stefana Berceanu, a Romanian immigrant living in the Portland area, holds up a photograph of her mother as a child. Berceanu is one of the subjects of Irina Boboia's multimedia art project, titled "Two Worlds and Nowhere."Irina Boboia lived as an undocumented immigrant for four years in Los Angeles in the late 1970s and early 1980s — but not once did anyone ask her for her papers.

Boboia, who now calls Beaverton home, is originally from Romania, and she recognizes that because of the color of her skin, she has had a starkly different experience from many of her fellow immigrants.

"Nobody ever thought that I as an immigrant," Boboia said. "I'm that kind of immigrant that had it easy, and I know there are people who didn't have it as well as I did."

Still, Boboia said, there are common themes that connect all immigrants and refugees — and that is what she explores in her new multimedia art project, titled "Two Worlds and Nowhere."

The project includes both live-action video and animation, and tells the stories of eight immigrants and refugees living in the Portland area. Boboia interviewed the eight individuals in different local parks, then spliced "b-roll," or ambient footage that goes over the main interview shot, of scenes from the park.

Merging the idyllic, calm shots from the parks with the sometimes harrowing and chaotic stories of immigration was a deliberate choice on Boboia's part. In one of her videos, Boboia interviews a Portland woman named Salomé Chimuku, whose parents immigrated to the U.S. from Angola in the 1970s. As Chimuku talks about how her father used irrigation techniques to make sure their refugee camp could grow enough food, the screen shows people tending the community garden in Portland's McCoy Park.

This is just the sort of juxtaposition — from a refugee camp farm to an American community garden — that Boboia was aiming for.

"It's always very strange to me how the life around you arranges into giving you answers," said Boboia, who shot her b-roll the day after the interviews. "The life around you almost echoes your own questions and problems. … When I did shoot the b-roll in the parks, most of the times the interview was in my mind. So I knew what I was looking for, but what I discovered was, it was more looking for me than I was looking for it."

Boboia is no stranger to searching. Her family left Romania for Israel in 1970 — at the time, Romania's communist government was accepting money from Israel in exchange for Jewish immigrants. She was 17 at the time, and soon left Israel to travel the world for five years.

In 1975, she ended up in Los Angeles, where she planned to study art. After losing her student visa and living undocumented for four years, Boboia met her husband — at the time a Romanian refugee — and the two enrolled in California Institute of the Arts together in 1980.

After living together in Berlin for 10 years after college, Boboia and her husband wanted to start a family, and they longed to return to America's West Coast — so they decided to move to the Portland area.

"At the time we had the small kids, Portland was financially possible for us to buy a house," she said. "Plus, it was in the summer when we came to visit, and it was really beautiful."

Over the two decades years of living in the area, Boboia said she can see and feel a difference in terms of diversity.

"We witnessed in the last 20 years a change in the area in terms of diversity," she said. "When we came, it was very white. It started to change and also in the Beaverton area, it's amazing, the change. We have so many people from different parts of the world now here, and it's so beneficial to the culture."

Boboia showcases that diversity in "Two Worlds and Nowhere." He subjects come from Iraq, Somalia, Angola, Romania and more. And she uses humor to do so, both in the animated videos and the juxtaposition of b-roll and interviews in the live-actions portions.

"I always use humor as part of my art, because I find that a lot of times, it gives you just the right kind of answer," she said. "This kind of situation that an immigrant finds themselves in — often, it's very funny. You're a foreigner, and you're put in situations that are almost comical."

Boboia compares the immigrant story to Homer's "The Odyssey," in terms of the twists and turns it can take, and the ground it covers, both literal and metaphorical. And while each immigrant's circumstances are different, she does note a few commonalities.

"Having to be in multiple cultural realities, these people lost this naiveté about nationalism," she said. "They've been in multiple cultures, and all of these countries are trying to convince you that they're the best. And when you hear that, again and again and again, you start asking questions. How can they all be the best?"

Instead of feeling a strong allegiance to one place, Boboia said, immigrants learn to keep an open mind about all they encounter.

In a sense, you are many individuals," she said. "Witnessing different cultures, you start to see that each one of them has their own truth. So you are more open to the other, because you can see that the other is just like you."

Boboia considers her work to be both art and activism. She referenced the Trump administration's recent decision to revoke special status to Haitian refugees, who came to the U.S. in 2010 after an earthquake left their country devastated, after 18 months.

"These are very serious things, for family, for people, for life."

She pointed out how enchanted Americans are with diverse stories, be they on the page or on the screen. She hopes that "Two Worlds and Nowhere" will encourage that same interest — not for fictional stories, but for the lives of immigrants and refugees.

"We are, in a sense, looking to live alternative lives by accessing stories that are not our own," she said. "And these immigrants, in many cases, they tend our lawns, they work in restaurants. And they have amazing stories, the way they got here. But we never make that connection. We just see the as two-dimensional, in a sense. And it can be an amazing thing, to ask: 'Where did you come from? What was it like?'"

Check it out

"Two Worlds and Nowhere" can be viewed at >

Blair Stenvick
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