Exhibit conveys suffering of immigrants
What does the past, present and future of immigration look like? The Warmth of Other Suns: Stories of Global Displacement, an exhibit on view at The Phillips Collection through September 22, seeks to answer this question through the work of 75 contemporary and historical artists.
The show was guest curated by Massimiliano Gioni and Natalie Bell, both of the New Museum in New York, and was brought to The Phillips Collection to center around and expand upon its panels from Jacob Lawrence’s The Migration Series.
The new exhibition features nearly 280 works. They include a wide range of media from photography to painting to installation pieces to video art, all of which explore immigration, migration and displacement.
When planning the exhibition, curators sought to include works that would guide audiences to a deeper understanding about the current state of immigration.
“Art can be a vehicle for promoting a richer understanding and empathy,” Bell said. “What does it mean to assimilate to a new place? How does that work?”
The exhibition dynamically sprawls across three floors — almost the entirety of The Phillips Collection’s new building — as various melodies from audio recordings drift from level to level.
The visitor is encouraged to start on the second floor, proceed to the third floor and finish on the first floor.
19th-century boat people
The exhibition starts with a familiar narrative of immigration: the steam liners that brought more than 20 million European immigrants to America during the 19th and early 20th centuries.
Early 20th-century photographs by Lewis Wickes Hines feature the haunted eyes of mothers, fathers, children and grandparents. Their weathered faces are full of hope but also convey fear and loss.
These images hang on the walls, encircling Adel Abdessemed’s scrap-metal reproduction of a luxury liner titled Queen Mary II, La Mère (The Mother).
Turning to more recent experiences, Erkan Özgen’s video Wonderland features a 13-year-old deaf and mute Syrian boy, Muhammed, describing through powerful movements the violence that he witnessed in his hometown of Kobanî, which was overtaken by the Islamic State. Without using words, he tells a story of war and displacement, separation and death.
In the museum’s famed Rothko Room, a pair of shoes and an embroidered doily that were found near the Arizona-Mexico border sit atop a wooden shelf. Audio recordings of interviews with migrants by the Undocumented Migration Project play in the background.
Simply and profoundly, the Room — which evokes the Rothko Chapel in Texas — is transformed into a somber memorial for those who have died while trying to cross hazardous borders into this country.
But perhaps the most arresting and sobering piece of the exhibition appears on the third floor. Kader Attia’s La Mer Morte (The Dead Sea) is composed of dozens of secondhand children’s clothing and shoes, all in shades of blue, spread across the floor.
Like silent tombstones, the clothing presents a physical reminder of children who lost their lives at sea while trying to flee to safety in other lands. This recalls the Vietnamese boat people and more recent immigrants fleeing North Africa for European shores across the Mediterranean.
In the next room, visitors hear sounds of children playing in the ocean. Francis Alÿs’s Don’t Cross the Bridge Before You Get to the River (Strait of Gibraltar, Morocco- Spain) broadcasts sounds of laughter and joy, but also shrieking and the deafening crash of waves. The effect is one of horror and grief at the unknowable numbers of children lost in transit trying to cross the Strait of Gibraltar.
If anything, the exhibition feels like it is attempting to say more than it could. The visitor is thrown into a melee of multimedia sensory overload, as if the constant hum of the 24-hour news cycle were made tangible.
Perhaps this is exactly the point. As Gioni stated, “It is better to leave the audience wanting less than more.” If the exhibition feels overwhelming, that is because the story of migration, played out across the world, is infinitely complex.
“I hope it’s a show that brings people closer to issues through the eyes of artists, and allows them to have a more nuanced understanding,” Bell said.
A reminder of this ethos sits in plain sight near the entrance to the museum. A quote from Duncan Phillips, the founder of the collection, adorns the wall: “Art is a universal language…that is part of the social purpose of the world.”
Immigration is a central part of all of our stories, past and present. The Warmth of Other Suns brings this message close to home, right onto our doorsteps.
The Phillips Collection is located at 1600 21st St. NW, Washington, D.C. Admission to the ticketed exhibit is $12 for adults; $10 for students as well as visitors 62 and over; free for visitors 18 and under