Naperville museum exhibits reflect Chinese, Indian residents' journeys

The accomplishments and life journeys of residents representing Naperville's Chinese and Indian communities are now on display in two new exhibits at Naper Settlement.

Among them are dancers, artists, engineers, advocates, grocers, clothiers, doughnut shop owners, coaches, parents, grandparents and kids. Among them are some who volunteer, others who hold appointed offices, some who interact with people in power, and others whose involvement stays on a smaller scale.

The lesson is that these people are among the everyday residents of Naperville - people who live and work here now, although they originally came from various corners of Asia, says Lance Tawzer, director of innovation and experience for Naper Settlement.

The impetus for the new exhibits, called "ME=WE" and "Come As You Are," actually arose about a decade ago, said Tawzer and Donna Sack, vice president of community engagement and audience. Around that time, the settlement made the decision not only to project scenes and stories from Naperville's founding days in the 1830s but also to reflect the true character of the city up to the present.

"Here's a museum deciding, 'We really need to be more reflective of our community,'" Tawzer said.

  Lance Tawzer, director of innovation and experience at Naper Settlement, says the museum's two new exhibits, "ME=WE" and "Come As You Are," both focus on Chinese and Indian residents as a way to modernize the city's story. Mark Black/

So when grants became available from the National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities, the Settlement went after them to tell of the Asian residents, who make up an estimated 17.8 percent of the city's population, according to 2016 figures from the U.S. Census Bureau.

"The stories of these exhibits are these people's lives," Tawzer said.

Exhibit creators started their work by assembling committees of Chinese and Indian residents to help find representatives of their regions.

People like Geeta Rao, an artist, mother and anti-human trafficking advocate born in Dehli, India, came forward. So did Bill Liu, an engineer from Taiwan who chairs Naperville's Chinese Community Outreach group; Richard Lo, an artist born in Canton, China; and Saily Joshi, chairwoman of the Parent Diversity Advisory Council in Indian Prairie Unit District 204, who came to Naperville by way of India and Pittsburgh.

  One of the new exhibits at the Naper Settlement, "Come As You Are," displays artifacts from the life journeys of Naperville residents of Chinese and Indian descent. Many of the residents featured are immigrants or children of immigrants who forged interesting paths to get to Naperville, museum leaders say. Mark Black/

These and other participants were open with their time, their homes and their documents, as they recorded oral histories, posed for photos and allowed the settlement to digitize items such as naturalization papers or travel records, Tawzer said. Many participants also donated artifacts on display in the exhibits - such as cultural clothing, purses, books, decorations, even an auto rickshaw from India - to become the museum's to keep and preserve.

  A real auto rickshaw from India, donated by the Patel Brother grocery chain, is part of the Naper Settlement's new "Come As You Are," which focuses on the experiences of Asian residents living in the city. Mark Black/

Artist Wing Young Huie came to town in November to work on his part of the exhibits: portrait photos displayed in "ME=WE." Huie, whose work focuses on cultural identity, shot photos of the same Napervillians whose stories are told in "Come As You Are." He gave them the choice of location and captured their images with objects or activities of cultural significance.

Sutikshana Veeravalli, for example, he photographed dancing, because despite missing one hand and one foot, she dances competitively in India.

Raj Patel posed for his photo with his Hindu prayer beads inside one of the 55 Dunkin' Donuts shops his family owns.

"He has stories of falling asleep in the backroom on top of flour sacks," Tawzer said.

  The "ME=WE" photo exhibit at Naper Settlement features portraits of Asian Naperville residents taken by artist Wing Young Huie. Mark Black/

These stories are just an example of others the Settlement plans to tell as it further modernizes its stories of Naperville's past.

"We're committed to interpreting the entirety of our community's history," Tawzer said.

"ME=WE" and "Come As You Are" are set to be on display at 523 S. Webster St. until Oct. 31 during regular museum hours. Admission is free for Naperville residents and children younger than 4. For others, it costs $12 for adults, $10 for seniors 62 and older and $8 for kids 4 to 12.

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