“I was leaving the South to fling myself into the unknown . . . I was taking a part of the South to transplant in alien soil, to see if it could grow differently, if it could drink of new and cool rains, bend in strange winds, respond to the warmth of other suns and, perhaps, to bloom.”
Human displacement and migration today are happening in so many places and for so many reasons it can be hard to keep track: civil war in Syria, gang violence in Central America, ethnic oppression in Myanmar, economic desperation in numerous lands. The news media largely depicts migrants in terms of crowds, caravans, and statistics so that it is often difficult to see them as individual humans with their own lives and stories.
The Phillips Collection attempts to attach a human face and a human cost to mass migration in its current exhibit “The Warms of Other Suns: Stories of Global Displacement.” Through painting, sculpture, films and installations the exhibit, which will run through September 22, looks at the mass movement of humans from a variety of angles.
All of its angles are of the aesthetic rather than the narrative or political variety. The Phillips is, after all, a museum of modern art, better known for its rich collection of 19th- and 20th-century paintings rather than for making political statements. So it is a bold step for the museum to use art to illustrate a contemporary humanitarian crisis, even if it avoids explicitly naming culprits or identifying solutions. (The exhibition guide does list leading organizations supporting migrant and refugee communities.)
The exhibit – which takes its title from the Richard Wright quote in the above epigraph – sprawls across three stories of the museum and includes the work of 75 artists from every corner of the globe. It could easily take the better part of a day to see, especially if one watches all of the compelling films in their entirety.
While most of the art and the images of “The Warmth of Other Suns” are contemporary, enough historic work is represented to make clear that displacement and migration are nothing new. The large-scale movement of African Americans from the Jim Crow South in the early 20th century – of which Wright was a part – is illustrated with 30 panels from Jacob Lawrence’s iconic, 60-panel Migration Series paintings. Seen together, the brightly colored panels tell a dynamic story of one of the great internal migrations in U.S. history.
Even older images of human movement are seen in earlier works, such as Honoré Daumier’s 1848 painting “On a Bridge at Night” in which a woman flees through the dark carrying a large bundle in one hand and gripping a child with the other. Where they are going is unknown but they appear hurried and wishing not to be seen. Covers of the magazine La Domenica del Corriere from the early 20th century depict Italians crossing the ocean in search of a better life, often in crowded and dangerous conditions. One of the covers depicts the sinking of the Titanic, whose victims included many poor migrants and not only the John Jacob Astors of the world. Paintings by Arshile Gorky and Diego Rivera hint at lives in upheaval.
But it is the contemporary images that have the greatest impact. A series of photos by France’s Griselda San Martin depict “Friendship Park” where families separated
by the U.S.-Mexican border exchange “pinky kisses” between steel slats decorated with flags, greenery, blue sky and the words “Somos Americanos” (We Are Americans). French artist Kader Attia’s installation “La Mer Morte” (The Dead Sea) consists of used clothing strewn about a gallery floor, representing migrants whose bodies were lost at sea. (see photo, right) An installation by Francis Alÿs of Belgium includes the toy boats created by children who swam with them into the Strait of Gibraltar, a common crossing point for migrants from Africa, to create a human bridge between two continents.
One of the most arresting works in the exhibit is “Vertigo Sea,” a three-screen, 48-minute video by Ghanaian filmmaker John Akomfrah which blends stunning images of ocean life with humans struggling to navigate the sea and scenes of destruction and loss. Outside the context of the larger exhibit none of this would necessarily lead one to connect it to migration or displacement, but here it suggests that the sea, while hospitable to the creatures evolved to live in it, poses a dangerous and sometimes deadly barrier to humans compelled to cross it.
In fact, many of the images in the exhibit bear only tangential connection to the theme of displacement. Algerian sculptor Abdel Abdessemed’s Queen Mary II, La Mère (The Mother) re-creates the historic ocean liner with found materials such as shipping crates and sardine tins, with no direct reference to the migrant masses who huddled in steerage while the privileged travelers luxuriated in their private cabins. And what is the meaning of the bicycle and chair fused together in Mexican artist Guillermo Galindo’s found-object piece “Listo” (Ready to Go)? One needs to read the card to learn that the materials were found at the U.S.-Mexican border, apparently abandoned by migrants.
Some of the most affecting works emphasize the migrants themselves rather than the act of migration. Lebanese artist Mounira Al Sohl’s portrait drawings of political refugees emphasizes her subjects’ enduring individuality and humanity, not their temporary (one hopes) status as migrants. Gorky’s intense dual portrait of himself and his mother draws you in from the power of the images, and only upon reading the card do you learn the piece was informed by Turkey’s genocide against its Armenian community – which Gorky survived but his mother did not.
“The Warmth of Other Suns” reminds us that displacement and migration have been with us since humans first populated the globe. People moving to improve their lot in life has been a constant and sometimes this movement takes place across the arbitrary lines known as borders. Donald Trump and his fellow nativists who would close the doors against further immigration conveniently forget that their ancestors were once the ones crossing the border or the ocean.
Human displacement, like life itself, requires a variety of viewpoints to fully comprehend. The Phillips exhibition, in selecting art as a key to understanding, illuminates the phenomenon in a fresh and compelling way.