Artist Interviews 2023
By Johnny Otto
I take it for granted that I live here, I work here, I pay my taxes,
I’m a good person, therefore I am a citizen of the United States.
But for approximately 200,000 men, women and children,
this is not the case. What does it mean then, to be a citizen
of a country, how long have you been Stateless and what exactly
does it mean to be Stateless?
What does it mean to be a citizen of a country? Well, your question
still remains a big question to at least 12 million people all over the
world who are stateless. As you mentioned, I myself also live,
work and do my taxes in the United States, yet it doesn’t make me a citizen.
Officially I became a stateless individual in 2011, only the reality
is that it happened way before. I was born during the Soviet Union
era in Estonia to a Russian family. In 1991 (when I was 11
years old) Estonia became an independent country. At age 16, I was
given an Alien’s Passport, which allows a person legally to live
and work in Estonia for 5 years. This document is issued to those
of undefined citizenship residing in Estonia. As of today Estonia
with the population of 1.3 million has over 80,000 stateless people,
mostly those who were born on Estonian land.
Statelessness has a lot of shapes. Some people were luckier than
others, and were able to obtain a working authorization, which helps
to maintain life a bit easier. And there are those who
have no identity, as if they don’t exist at all. To better answer
your question, I am going to share with you the text from one of
my recent projects - I wrote it as part of a mural, which I was
creating on two pieces of the Berlin Wall.
“LIFE INSIDE THE GLITCH”, 2022
No citizenship. No vote. No healthcare. No travel.
No home. No education. No employment.
No rights. No security. No state.
I FEEL YOU,
the people from all over the world who have lost their basic human rights
due to the neglect of our governments. I am one of you.
I too am STATELESS.
Today, there are over 12 million people worldwide called STATELESS
and nearly a half of them are children.
STATELESS individuals are not considered citizens of any country.
These people DO NOT live in but are BEING HELD
in countries where they do not have fundamental human rights.
For many decades, the legislation has not been adapted for those
who fled their country because of war or political upheaval,
and for those who were born into immigrant families
or born in countries that no longer exist.
There are countless human beings who never made it to their destination,
those who were found dead and those who disappeared
without a trace on the road to FREEDOM.
There are STATELESS people who have never crossed an international border
and those who have been restricted from returning to their homeland for decades.
There are so many grandchildren who have never been held in the arms of their grandparents.
Daughters and sons who did not get a chance to kiss their parents a last goodbye.
People are dying. Families are being destroyed.
Large parts of OUR LIVES are completely missed.
We feel trapped. We feel injustice. We feel unfree.
WE NEED CHANGE
Advocate for the
Svetlana painting a section of the Berlin Wall
You spent time in I.C.E custody. What was that experience like?
First of all I must say that I have committed a crime - I overstayed my visa.
Also, I must say that when I did that (in 2003), I was 23 years old, hungry
for life and experiences, bold and wild. Yet, not knowing who I was and where
I was going, I found myself in a big land of excitement and opportunities,
searching for the famous American Dream.
Shortly after, my Alien Passport from Estonia expired, and when I tried
to renew it here in the US at the Estonian embassy, my application was
denied due to the fact that I am Russian, and was never a citizen of
Estonia (the land where I was born). Also, I was told that in order
for me to return to Estonia I will have to obtain a visa. So, at
that point I realized that I am a person without a country.
In 2010 I was traveling by car from Los Angeles to Dallas, the GPS
took me through the CheckPoint, where I was stopped and moved to
El Paso Immigration Prison, for the crime that I have mentioned above.
During that time the US Immigration Authority contacted Estonia
and Russia, both countries denied my rights to return.
I spent four months in Immigration Prison, and was released under
the bond in Feb 2011. This is when I officially became a stateless
individual. The experience during those four months was different
from anything I have ever lived through, and it was also very
transformative. The diversity of people and new-build relations
between strangers - locked in a big space with four walls, bunk beds,
tables, wall-less bathrooms and showers - shocked me greatly at the
very beginning. Yet, human nature is extremely adaptive, we can
always find the ways to cope with our new reality. So did I.
During this time, I was fortunate to meet some incredible people. I had
an opportunity to observe and contemplate how a single identical
predicament (forcibly, but nonetheless) united people with drastically
different backgrounds, beliefs, and interests. I then knew that
life tends to teach us lessons by placing us in absolutely unexpected
situations. While mirroring each other, we shall go through this, and
we shall grow through this, inevitably.
Elements of Anticipation, Regina Hall Collection, 60" x 120", 2022
What was your first reaction or thought or feeling when you
found out that you were Stateless?
It wasn’t a single moment. It was the gradually growing number
of lawyers who would not take my case, simply because there was
no law that could adjust the status of someone in my situation.
Most of the 20 years that I lived in the U.S., I believed that I
was the only one who got so “lucky”. Only recently I found out about
a national organization called UNITED STATELESS.
This organization was founded in 2017 by a stateless individual and an amazing
person, Karina Ambartsoumian-Clough.
Led by stateless people and those who believe in standing for
human rights, UNITED STATELESS have been raising the awareness
for statelessness in the U.S., trying to achieve acknowledgment
from the U.S. government for this national issue, and create
a path to U.S. Citizenship for all stateless people.
Untitled I, 2022
What should be done immediately to help Stateless People that
will not jeopardize U.S. Security and will relieve a lot of the
agony that Stateless People feel?
As simple as giving a faster and less complex path to citizenship!
If a person lived in the U.S. for decades, made a home out of this
place, established lifelong friends, became a big part of
this community and (in some cases) gave birth, raised their children
here and hasn't jeopardized the U.S. Security in the past, I don’t
see how giving these people a citizenship can make them
want to act differently. If anything we are going to be grateful.
Stateless people want to be free. We want to be able to legally work,
drive, and study. We want to have a normal life without being scared
to get detained for not having documents. We want to be able to get
passports to travel and see our family overseas. These people are not
a threat to U.S. security.
Reflecting (Her), 2023
How does being Stateless affect your art and the messages
you hope to bring to the world?
Undoubtedly, everything that I am living through, affects my
art one way or the other. I am a strong believer in a law of attraction.
I try to thoughtfully select my present moment, and the feeling around it.
Therefore, I choose not to paint about statelessness
- wrapping myself in this rather negative emotion, throughout months
of painting a single artwork, doesn’t sound appealing to me.
When I wake up in the morning, I know that it is only up to me if I
feel free or chained. It is up to me to choose a better-feeling thought.
Focusing on that which gives me joy, and then making the most out
of each day happens to be the most incredible way of living.
Through my art, I desire to bring to this world beauty, happiness and
all possible positive emotions. So, for now, my work will remain
untouched by the subject of statelessness. Nevertheless, I have created
an entire exhibit in regards to this issue. It is stored in my
memory, until (or if) there will come the time for it to be implemented in reality.
Reflecting (Him), 2023
When you were given the offer to appear on the cover, you chose
to be naked, covered in paint. Why? What message are you trying to convey?
Covering myself in paint seemed the only way to remain naked and
to make sure that the readers won’t confuse Art Squat Magazine with PlayBoy ;)
We all are born naked, free and equal in dignity and rights.
When I was given the topic of a conversation for this interview, I realized
that speaking openly about my experience made me feel as if I would be
completely undressed in front of the public. Stateless people go through
a lot of feelings attached to the situation, and one of them is shame.
It is hard to explain why, but it is so for most of us. It takes time
to realize that it’s not our fault. It takes time to revalue yourself
and begin to believe again that you are worthy of all the basic human rights.
My nakedness represents my act of stepping out of that feeling and embracing
myself wholly as I am, with my flaws and mistakes. I am not perfect, yet
I am worthy, I do enough, I am enough.
Untitled IV, 2022
More ARTWORK by Svetlana Talabolina
CARDIN, RASKIN INTRODUCE BILL TO PROTECT VULNERABLE
INDIVIDUALS LEFT WITHOUT A COUNTRY
WASHINGTON – U.S. Senator Ben Cardin (D-Md.), a senior member
of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and Congressman
Jamie Raskin (D-Md.-8), a member of the House Judiciary Committee,
have introduced the “Stateless Protection Act,” bicameral legislation
establishing a new protected status, permanent residency
and a pathway to citizenship for stateless individuals residing
in the United States. These vulnerable individuals do not have
nationality or citizenship in any country of the world, a
situation which often results in significant financial hardship,
separation from relatives, and lengthy or sometimes even
indefinite immigration detention.
DOWNLOAD the STATELESS PROTECTION ACT
What is Statelessness?
The international legal definition of a stateless person is set out in Article 1
of the 1954 Convention relating to the Status of Stateless Persons, which defines
a stateless person as "a person who is not considered as a national by any State
under the operation of its law". It means that a stateless person does not have
nationality or citizenship in any country of the world.
Here, nationality refers to the legal bond between a person and a state. This bond
can best be seen as a form of official membership which confers upon the national
certain rights (like the right to live in the country or participate in elections)
as well as duties (like the duty of military service, where this is still in place).
A person who is stateless lacks this membership and will be seen and treated as a
foreigner by every country in the world.
DONATE to the STATELESS RELIEF FUND