Distrust can create dangerously destructive barriers. After collecting and listening to the stories of immigrants and listening to the stories of abuse survivors at UNIDOS Against Domestic Violence, it occurred to artist Jenie Gao that our problem today isn’t as much a lack of security, as a lack of direction. We have broken healthy cycles and driven inequalities that have led us into violence and militancy, she says.

“A lot of why I choose this work and to focus on the environmental element, too, is because these are the environments of our home. We’re in an abusive relationship with our natural environment, too,” Gao tells Madison365. “We’re so ingrained in the back and forth [of politics] and trying to decide which side is right, that a lot of that noise actually gets in the way of us actually seeing it for what it is … and getting to where we heal.”

Gao is getting ready to host an art reception for “Las Pioneras/The Pioneers” this Saturday, Dec. 10, 6-9 p.m. at Cafe Zoma on Madison’s near east side. “Las Pioneras/The Pioneers” contends that we live in a world in flux and in conflict and we physically move more frequently between cities, states, and countries as we mentally and emotionally encounter more drastic points of view. The purpose of this work is to recognize that we are experiencing the struggles of modern-day pioneers. The pioneer story is one of conservation, of protecting our values and communities, coupled with an embrace of change and versatility.

Gao’s work for this show began in a series of interviews she conducted with survivors of domestic violence. The stories were all unique, heart-wrenching accounts of what it means to be isolated and forcefully controlled, and to fight for freedom and to break cycles of violence.

“One of the story lines follows a collection of interviews I did with clients at UNIDOS Against Domestic Violence who have survived sexual abuse and domestic violence,” Gao says.

 Las Migrantes (The Migrants)
Las Migrantes (The Migrants)

UNIDOS is a Madison-area non-profit that exists to empower the community to break the cycle of domestic violence, end sexual assault and promote healthy family systems. The stories also shared some common threads of people not making a change when abuse seemed normal and of making a change for the futures of their children and loved ones.

“They shared their stories with me when they crossed the border and why that they chose to come here,” Gao says. “Basically, a lot of the work I’ve done in the past year has followed those same kind of questions as to what drives people to move and the role that migration has in our society. In collecting these stories, and in following a lot of the other work that I’ve done, I started looking for patterns.”

One of the things that Gao saw was that people stay in the situations that they are in when they don’t feel like they have any other options. “They get out of it when they believe that something else has to be possible or they want to create new cycles and new possibilities for the people they love, their children,” she says.

“The core of this is that migration is not new. Our problems today are not because of migration, but how we treat it and stigmatize it,” she adds. “It’s not anything new – all species migrate. It’s a part of how our ecosystems change and renew themselves. A healthy ecosystem is when everything is supportive and there is positivity.”

What we see instead, Gao says, is that we’re creating more security, more barricades, more skepticism and more fear.

“We’re toppling into that tribalism,” she says. “So with this imagery in my body of work, I very frequently parallel what is happening with our human relationships and how we relate to nature. I’m very much a believer that the health of our society will reflect our environment.”

In “The Pioneers” series, all of the pieces are of migratory birds, specifically birds that migrate from Mexico to the United States and Canada. “Including the bald eagle,” smiles Gao. “The bald eagle is an immigrant. We can have some tolerance.”

"Between Heaven and Hell"
“Between Heaven and Hell”

Each of the birds in this series is protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918, a treaty that symbolizes not only the protection of animals but also the partnership of people. It is a sign of mutual respect.

“Anybody who ventures forward in life is setting a new pattern and creating that map for others to follow,” Gao says. “Even though these are migrant stories, if you remove the labels and we look at how each of these stories play out, it’s no different a story than pioneers.”

Gao is a contemporary, conceptual artist and also a journalist. She notes that both are similar in that they have taken her to so many interesting places and helped her meet so many interesting people.

“That practice of creativity and in-depth analytical thinking is so important. It’s one thing to have free speech, which is why our free press is important,” she says. “And it’s another thing to actually regularly practice it and to know how and why we also express our voices. It leads us to interesting places. It’s a process that connects us to other people, too.”

What can people expect on Saturday at the Art Reception for “Las Pioneras/The Pioneers”?

“Well, I’ll be there,” Gao laughs. “But it will be a chance for people to ask any questions that they have about the work and the details on the imagery. I do plan on giving an artist talk and will share a few stories related to the pieces.”

Gao will share 10 pieces of her artwork. Café Zoma, she says, is a cool place for a showing. “Artwrite Collective does a really good job. They are the ones who put on all of the shows at that space,” Gao says.

Gao notes that she also has three more pieces from the “Las Pioneras/The Pioneers” in Gallery Marzen across the street from Cafe Zoma, as part of the Mothers of Our Nations show.

"Between Heaven and Hell"
“Between Heaven and Hell”

“I’m hoping that the exhibit helps people reflect on their own situation and why it is that they may feel torn. I hope that it helps people both to look at and understand the details but to also back up and look at the bigger-picture things,” Gao says.

Gao adds that she hopes that it encourages self-reflection on what each of us can do to access a different opinion and to talk with somebody who may disagree with us. “I hope it encourages empathy,” she says.

The Art Reception for Jenie Gao’s “The Pioneers” will take place Saturday, Dec. 10, 6-9 p.m. at Cafe Zoma, 2326 Atwood Ave.