Kalene Nisly began her photographic journey early at age 19, and has been on a consistent path of exploration ever since. Nisly attended school for photography and also earned a bachelor's and master's degree in social work. The dynamics of these studies collide in Nisly’s work, life and art. She has always been dedicated to family, community, creativity and the welfare of others. Her photography reflects these passions. The powerful imagery of what she creates is beautifully wrapped in the exploration of society, gender roles and artful interpretations.
The photography of Kalene Nisly, in the show "From Refugee to Home," will be on display in the McPherson Public Library meeting room, 214 W. Marlin St. in McPherson, from Nov. 4 through Dec. 27, with an artist’s reception at the library from 2-4 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 9, in the meeting room. The public is invited to attend the artist’s reception.
Following stories of refugees in the area and displaying their portraits is at the core of the exhibit.
“A lot of people I talk to don’t know that Wichita has an amazing refugee community. We actually have two awesome resettlement agencies. It’s one thing to read about Syria, Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Somalia in the news. It’s another thing entirely to learn that people who fled violence in those countries are also your neighbors,” Nisly said.
The exhibit shows both photo and experience, following six people along with a map of their journey from their country of birth, to their new home in the Wichita area.
"The most prominent feature is a portrait of each of them now because they are more than just the stories of the war and traumas that they fled, they are beautiful whole people today,” Nisly said.
Refugee stories are similar to our own, in ways of family, filling basic needs and our ties with humanity.
“We want to be safe. We want the people we love to be near us and also safe. We want to belong to a place. We want to have a sense of who we are and where we come from,” Nisly said.
In Nisly’s experience with refugees and those seeking asylum, she feels they are the most inspiring humans. This expression is clear in her beautiful portraits of them, often straight on and primarily their faces. In the photos, there is strength, wisdom and resilience.
“They’re complex, they’re normal, they’re just the people next door, but their spirits challenge me constantly. They show up to Wichita ready to work, go to school, and be engaged community members. They walk in all types of weather to English classes, job interviews, and parent-teacher conferences. They are full of joy despite everything they’ve experienced. And they are incredibly grateful. Kansas is so much richer for having them as our neighbors,” Nisly said.
Author and poet Warsan Shire wrote, “At the end of the day, it isn’t where I came from. Maybe home is somewhere I’m going and never have been before.”
Refugee stories hold loss, but also extraordinary perseverance. Their presence in our communities create connections and a deeper understanding of our collective humanity.
Jennifer Randall, a Hutchinson artist and organizer of Third Thursday, writes an arts and entertainment column for The Hutchinson News. Reach her at email@example.com.