El Grupo Intellectual: Some Thoughts about the Personal Archives Project

On a Thursday in late April, I took the #7 train to Elmhurst Hospital Center. I was going to observe artist, Jaime Permuth, as he worked with a group of eleven senior citizens on a project commissioned by Queens Theatre in the Park for the 2003 Latino Cultural Festival. He had been working with them for the three weeks previous to my visit, and now, in the final week of their work together, I was going to see some of the results of their collaboration.

The project they were engaged in, titled Personal Archives uses private photographs of special significance: images that one would never willingly part with, as the point of departure for an exploration of memory and life experience. As Jaime put it in his description of the project, "These photographs were treated as a personal archive of individual experience, a repository of knowledge to be intensively mined for meaning. During the sessions we harnessed elements of creative writing, film and literature into a group dynamic that facilitated individual inquiry." The group met twice a week for a month, with the goal of creating a set of narratives that dealt with a significant episode or period in each of the participants’ lives. The result is a series of narratives combining text and image that are currently on view in the main gallery for the duration of the Festival. Titles of each of the narratives were hand made by the authors following their work with Jaime. These titles and a group portrait are on display in the studio (lower) lobby.

As I approached the hospital that day, I reviewed what I knew about the project: all eleven participants were women, they came from five different counties (Colombia, Ecuador, Guatemala, Honduras and Peru), and both Jaime and the staff at Elmhurst were very pleased with the results of the collaboration. When I entered the hospital, I found a small group of people waiting, Jaime among them, in the main lobby. They had an easy, familiar way about them that comes from a shared intimacy. As they joked and caught up on the day’s news, Jaime introduced me and I was warmly welcomed into the group. Since I know very little Spanish, I said, "Buenos dias." and was left to observe the proceedings.


Once the whole group arrived, they moved to the room where they did their work. The session began with a vigorous Tai Ch’i warm up, then they settled around two tables bringing out papers and photographs to discuss. Jaime read a quote from Luis Buñuel and the group exchanged comments. They broke up into small groups of two or three to discuss their own work, which consisted of written narratives based on the photographs of their choosing. The social nature of the group disappeared as they began their work there were no more jokes, no more passing food around. They were serious and the discussion was intense. Jaime moved off to allow the women to discuss the texts without interruption.

While he was clearly leading the session, Jaime’s presence was not overbearing. Prior to beginning the project, Jaime confessed that his goal was an ambitious one considering he would have no control over who might participate. He knew he was asking a great deal from a group that may or may not be used to delving so deeply into visual imagery or reflecting on their personal lives. And he did, indeed, ask a lot of his collaborators. This group, however, rose to the occasion with aplomb. They were serious about what they were doing, yet supportive and sensitive to the intimate nature of the work. I was very moved to see how intensely they worked and by how much trust they gave to Jaime in allowing him to share in their lives. I felt I was witness to a real moment of transformation. This was further confirmed as I was asked to take a group portrait and one participant exclaimed, "el grupo intelectual." As much as this was greeted with laughs and more jokes, the sentiment was, in fact, true.

Personal Archives is as a continuation of Jaime Permuth’s work in which he closely collaborates with immigrant communities to explore how they adjust and react to the seismic shift of immigration to the United States. In all his work, Jaime uses his genuine interest in his collaborators and his gentle manner to gain the trust of the group. His other recent projects include a series of portraits of Mexican immigrants done for an exhibition for the Queens Museum of Art, or a series of photographs of Orthodox Jewish men engaged in Mincha, a time when they interrupt their day to pray. Jaime was able to break down barriers and gain entrance to these very closely guarded communities a task that took many months in both cases. For Personal Archives, I get the sense that this group was waiting for the right person to come along and ask the right questions. Jaime is that person and I am very grateful to him and his collaborators for sharing the results of their work at the 2003 Latino Cultural Festival.

Robyn Love,
Latino Cultural Festival
Queens Theater in the Park