Immigrant artists find their spark in Memphis

While they may not be born-and-bred Memphians, immigrant artists enrich the city. That was the topic of conversation at January 28 panel hosted by Ballet Memphis. 

The third in a series of community conversations called Spark, the event brought together Memphians from across the globe to Ballet Memphis' new Midtown headquarters. 

Panelists at the Diverse Faces of Memphis lecture included Ballet Memphis dancer, Eileen Frazier, who is originally from Panama; Kong Wee Pang, a visual artist from Malaysia; and Niko Lyras, owner of Cotton Row Recording, who is from Athens, Greece. The panel was moderated by Latino Memphis executive director, Mauricio Calvo, who hails originally from Mexico City.

Each person told their story about why they chose Memphis in particular, what resources they found to help them become part of the community, and how they were able to mix their own culture into their current life in the United States.


Friday’s conversation about immigrant artists in Memphis is particularly apt for Ballet Memphis. They are recognized nationally as one of the more diverse ballet companies with CEO and founding artistic director Dorothy Gunther Pugh (a fourth-generation Memphian) at the helm. Pugh’s commitment to making Ballet Memphis as diverse as Memphis itself has been well-documented in both the dance and nonprofit arts communities. Moderator Calvo went so far as to call her the “Statue of Liberty” of the ballet world.
Kong Wee Pang (left) and Eileen Frazier (right) serve on the Diverse Faces of Memphis panel at Ballet Memphis' Spark event. (Renee Davis Brame)

Across the board, the panelists recognized that when they first came to Memphis, their greatest resource was the community itself. They each found that the people they met when they arrived were what made them feel the most comfortable and at home. The feeling of family provided by local artists and the Memphis community itself made them want to stay in Memphis beyond their initial reasons for choosing the city in the first place.

The highlight of the evening came when panelists discussed the duality of having a “home culture” as well as their adopted Memphis perspective. While dancer Eileen Frazier shared that “being in a new space gives you the chance to find yourself and define yourself”, visual artist Kong Wee Pang added that “when you drink the water, remember the well”, which is advice from her father reminding her never to forget her Malaysian roots.

Pang also talked about using art as her voice when English fails her. This is a practice the panelists agreed is useful to plug in when they feel disconnected from their Memphis home. For these panelists, the experience of being a Memphis artist is just as much about their community and family of friends as it is the practice of art itself.

When the discussion turned to any challenges the panelists have faced since immigrating to Memphis, some cited recent fears about deportation in light of increased political discussions regarding the future of American immigration restrictions within the last year. Despite this fear, they expressed a passion for staying in Memphis for as long as possible. Artist Pang actually turned it into drive. Currently an art director at Archer Malmo in addition to her visual art career, she uses that fear to motivate her success. She wants to accomplish as much as possible now in case she ever faces deportation, she said.

The Spark community conversation series has been a staple at Ballet Memphis for the last five years. It provides a panel discussion that is free and open to the public with topics that relate the arts to issues that affect the Mid-South community at large. "Ballet Memphis is a company that stands up for social justice. We also strive to remain a vital part of the community,” said Carolyn McCormick, director of development and communications for Ballet Memphis.

As for future Spark panels, you can keep up with the schedule here. Pat Mitchell Worley, Spark facilitator, said that “No matter what we program, the topic ends up aligning with the national conversation.” So, you can expect more relevant themes such as Diverse Face of Memphis. According to Worley, “Art is a record of what is happening at the time. We want to open up conversations about our world through art.” In doing this, Ballet Memphis continues to challenge the Memphis community by encouraging open dialog about issues that affect everyone (even those of us that don’t don pointe shoes on a daily basis).


Read more articles by Renee Davis Brame.


Renee Davis Brame is a writer, actor and loyal Memphian.  She has a Bachelor of Fine Arts from The University of Memphis.  Her work for the blog, Pop Depravity, earned an award from the National Society for Newspaper Columnist’s 2016 Column Contest. She is also the founder of theatre901, a virtual community for MidSouth artists of all genres.  

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