In the late 1800s to early 1950s, Ellis Island was the “Island of Hope,” the final gateway before immigrants could enter the new world. For others, it was the “Island of Tears,” for after so many braved the harsh and excruciating journey, they were turned back (some of them being forever separated from their loved ones), their dreams dashed right at the gates.
Inside the island’s abandoned South Side hospitals, you’ll find an art exhibition hosted by world renowned street artist JR and Save Ellis Island. While 10-20% of the 12 million immigrants to pass through Ellis Island were temporarily detained for health-related reasons, only the 1% with incurable contagious diseases was sent home. The success of the medical facility was due to cutting edge building design, top-level medical staff, and significant government support—and now, we’ll be taking you back inside on our upcoming hard hat tour, guided by a Save Ellis Island docent.
Today, 60 years after the final individual was processed, in what was once the busiest immigration inspection facility in the U.S, the historic landmark has become a strong topic of interest in the arts, with James Gray’s feature film The Immigrant with Marion Cotillard, Joaquin Phoenix, and Jeremy Renner. Over the past year artist JR has gone from transforming the NYC Ballet Theater, to bringing the likeness of people from across the globe to the Paris Pantheon. With his latest project Unframed — Ellis Island, the French street artist has pasted “life sized historic photographs of Ellis Island immigrants” in 16 different locations inside the buildings.
The idea behind the exhibit is to take those lucky to get tickets to a guided tour of the facility, a sense of being there. JR’s goal is to give descendants of Ellis Island’s immigrants a sense of what their ancestors went through when they arrived to America.
For those whose family history does not coincide with Ellis Island, it is still an opportunity to walk through the same halls where American history was made. It makes sense that JR, an artist of French ethnicity, was chosen for this project instead of an American artist. NYC prides itself as being a place where people from around the world mesh together and share one another’s traditions and history. It is only fitting that one of the world’s most accomplished artists is doing what many around the world have done in decades past–bring their talent to America’s shores.