‘There aren’t many fairytale endings’: behind the bleak immigration exhibition

The work of 75 artists from over 15 countries is being shown at a tough, timely exhibition looking at displacement and migration on a global scale

Last Wednesday, a photo was released of a Salvadoran man and his young daughter face down in the Rio Grande, who drowned while attempting to migrate from Mexico to Texas. This chilling shot brought yet more attention to the ongoing border dangers faced by migrants while attempting to find asylum in the US.

Its a sad day to talk about this, there arent many fairytale endings, said Massimiliano Gioni, the artistic director of New Yorks New Museum, the same day. Together with associate curator Natalie Bell, hes assembled a timely new exhibition focusing on the history of migration in America. The Warmth of Other Suns: Stories of Global Displacement features 75 artists from over 15 countries, many who have experienced displacement firsthand. Its not exactly an uplifting exhibition, it might have to do with the spirit of the times, sadly, he added.

The exhibition, showing until 22 September at the Phillips Collection in Washington DC, features work by American, Mexican, Iraqi, Moroccan and Brazilian artists, among others. It brings together the responses of artists who have shown dramatic aspects of migration, he adds. There was a tradition of how desperate those journeys were, conditions have worsened.

The fact this show is in Washington is particularly interesting, said Gioni. Im a firm believer you should go see an art show in the places they were conceived for. Its a show thats site-specific to this city.

The title of the exhibition is lifted from a poem by the 20th-century American writer Richard Wright who penned the book Native Son in 1940 who wrote the warmth of other suns in a 1945 poem entitled Black Boy. (A title of the book by the same name was released in 2010 by Isabel Wilkerson, tracing the great migration in America.)

Dorothea Lange I Am An American, 1942. Photograph: Library of Congress

According to Bell, the goal was to look at the migration in American history. Its a story under-told in the US, she said. The phrase has a sense of optimism to it, seeking a better life elsewhere. Just as migrants do.

The title has a hopeful tone to it, said Bell. Rather than advertising a struggle which the average viewer might not be able to identify with, its to associate with the desire of having a better life.

The works on view include the African American painterJacob Lawrences Migration Series from the 1940s, which traces the great migration. The series, of which there are 60 paintings in total, features portraits of abolitionists Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass, as well as scenes of crowded migrant trains, labor workers and court scenes.

The American-Armenian painter Arshile Gorkys The Artist and His Mother is also on view. The painting is based on a 1912 photo of Gorky at age 16, alongside his mother. It was years before he escaped genocide in Armenia, fleeing for America, but at the time he painted it in 1926, his mother had passed away. Its how the history of modernism is based on the experience of exile, he said. Its the idea that people from all over the world share a language larger than the borders of the world, the idea of a community beyond borders.

The Depression-era American photographer Dorothea Langes photo, I Am an American, from 1942, shows a grocery store in the Japantown district of Oakland, a day after Pearl Harbor. The owner paid a sign-maker to create a sign that read: I Am an American. The store shortly after closed, as Japanese descendants were forced to evacuate certain areas of the country. The grocery owner was forced into an internment camp.

Liu Xiaodong Refugees 4, 2015. Photograph: Courtesy of the artist and Massimo De Carlo, Milan/London/Hong Kong

It was journalistic work when it was made, but it raises the question, what is the responsibility of the artist in the face of history? asks Gioni. We live in a time when people think artists make things that get sold. Throughout the show, you have a sense of the artist with more pressing functions to perform. One is to record history.

Among the more contemporary works in the exhibition, the Mexico-based Belgian artist Francis Als is showing a video piece with children from Tangier and Tarifa standing in a long lineup trailing into the sea.

The Brazilian artist Paulo Nazareth is showing a photo from his News from the Americas series, one shot in Arizona while bearing a sign that reads: We have right at this landscape. the Chinese artist Liu Xiaodong shows a painting of migrants sharing the same blanket, in what looks like the Greek landscape.

And the Albanian-born artist and film-maker Adrian Paci is showing Moments of Transition, a video where a group of people stand on an airplane stairwell, leading to nowhere.

He came to Italy in the 1990s on a boat from Albania, said Gioni. We wanted to feature artists speaking from a personal thing they know themselves. Its personal.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2019/jul/01/there-arent-many-fairytale-endings-behind-the-bleak-immigration-exhibition

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