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Tenement Life

Tenement Life by Denise ((bonaimo)) Sarram 15" x 12" x 2" Assemblage, 2020

altered antique pocket watch, plastic game pieces, paper dolls, artisan paper, ancestor photos, metal wings, rusted metal, wooden frame, glass plate

In Manhattan, New York you can visit the Lower East Side Tenement Museum where historians have restored two brick buildings on Orchard Street. Many immigrant families called those apartments, and others like them, home between the 1860s and 1930s, including my maternal Grandfather's family. My Grandfather, Louie, was the youngest of 11 children. He was the only one born in America. Great Grandma Rosalie was 7 months pregnant when she crossed the Atlantic Ocean in steerage on a ship from Sicily, Italy. 

In the small tenement apartment where they all lived together- they would play musical instruments and dance to make live a bit more bearable. These tenements, although ornately decorated, were very cramped, lacked proper ventilation or indoor plumbing. There were outhouses in the alleyway out back. It was a good starting point for many immigrants who left even worse conditions in their homeland.

Many historical photos show numerous clotheslines filled with laundry hanging across the alleyways of the tenements. I used the pocket watch, held by two of my Great Aunts, to make a nod towards that. If you take a close look in the windows, I used actual photos of my ancestors, mixed in with random other photos to give you the sense of all the people that lived inside.

The deep red handmade paper which forms the backdrop of this assemblage is like a theater curtain. I like the way it makes the monochrome palette of the paper dolls and windows stand out.

Imagining my ancestors living in these less- than ideal circumstances highlights how fortunate I am today. We may have our challenges with modern life, but what they have gone through is unfathomable. Resiliency and hope for a better tomorrow fueled them.

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