A Powerful Exhibit on Migration Is Not Just ‘Politics’

"It’s kind of an illusion if a cultural institution thinks they’re neutral," goes the quote. And yet.

Families separated by immigration laws gather at both sides of the border wall at Friendship Park in Griselda San Martin's "The Wall" (2015–16). Photo: Philipps Collection, via artist permission.

Early last month, the Washington Post ran an op-ed entitled “When artists cry out about human tragedy, it’s not politics”. It was written by Dani Levinas, chairman of the historic and much-respected Phillips Collection, a privately funded museum in the Dupont Circle area of DC known for its impressive collection of impressionist and modernist paintings. Levinas penned the op-ed in response to the refusal of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority — the DC Metro — to run the museum’s advertising campaign for an upcoming exhibit on migration called “The Warmth of Other Sons: Stories of Global Displacement.” The Metro cited a rule prohibiting advertisements “intended to influence public policy” or to “influence the public on an issue where there are varying opinions.”

Levinas wrote, in part,

I am an immigrant. I left a comfortable life in my native Argentina not fleeing poverty but seeking liberty, as it became clearer to me I was living in a lawless state where the constitution was increasingly meaningless. Bringing my family to America made me identify with my father, who left rising anti-Semitism and narrowing opportunity in Lithuania for South America. My family shared something fundamental to all displaced peoples: We did not want to leave. Fleeing your home, your culture, your friends and wider family, your language and all that is familiar is not done lightly, nor with joy. As this exhibition reminds us, the refugee story often ends in tragedy.

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“The Warmth of Other Sons: Stories of Global Displacement” borrows its title from Richard Wright’s acclaimed memoir Black Boy, and from Isabel Wilkerson’s award-winning account of the Great Migration, in which six million Black Americans traveled north to escape the brutality of the rural South. The three-floor exhibit presents the work of 75 artists tracing their personal and collective experiences of migration — from the plight of the internally displaced and victims of human trafficking, to those who cross national and international borders in search of economic opportunity, to asylum seekers fleeing war and violence in their home countries. The exhibit is made more impactful and authentic by the fact that many of the artists are themselves migrants and refugees.

The works touch on nearly every region of the world. (“Which region of the world has not experienced migration in some form?,” one is tempted to ask.) The works pose questions around migration in historical and contemporary contexts. The works chronicle significant movements of groups of people across history –- the enslavement of millions of Africans, the Trail of Tears, the arrival of millions at Ellis Island — and those migration stories that grip the headlines today, from the mass exodus of Syrians escaping civil war to Northern Africans escaping conflict to the citizens of the Northern Triangle escaping violence and poverty.

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I experienced “The Warmth of Other Sons” last week. It’s overwhelming, devastating, moving, beautiful and, given the times in which we live, indeed political. But not in the way WMATA professed it to be. No narrative is pushed. No one side advances a worldview in the hope of moving a spectator closer to that of another side. There are no arguments for the inherent goodness or malevolence of migration. The works presented, varying in mediums and geographic focus, are all personal in nature, global in their commentary. They speak to the viewer’s soul.

Still image from “Don’t Cross the Bridge Before You Get to the River” by Francis Alÿs. Photo: Philipps Collection, via the artist and David Zwirner.

One gallery stood out as especially riveting. I don’t know that it has an official name, but I am calling it the Wave Gallery. One wall displays “The State We’re In,” Wolfgang Tillmans’ up-close photograph of the Atlantic Ocean. The simple image speaks to the expansiveness of this body of water and, in turn, to the extraordinary journey embarked upon the water by millions of people. On an adjacent wall is “Superunknown (Alive in the)” a grid of photos by Xaviera Simmons. Hers images of overcrowded migrant boats humanizes the statistics, the refugees crammed into shoddy boats, sailing dangerous waters.

Next to Simmons’ grid collage is another Tillmans photograph, “Lampedusa,” showing wrecked and mangled migrant boats off Italy’s coast. It contributes to an air of mystery and devastation when one inevitably connects Tillmans’ image with Simmons’ collage and we wonder who, if anyone, made it out alive.

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The centerpiece is “La Mer Morte (The Dead Sea),” by French-Algerian artist Kader Attia. It’s an installation consisting of clothing strewn on the floor in the center of the room. There are pants, t-shirts, sweaters, socks and shoes. All of the clothing is blue and represents the sea — the Mediterranean, to be exact, on which tens of thousands of people try to reach Europe. It’s a memorial to lives lost. I immediately wondered who wore those blue jeans, those sweaters and those shirts, and which ones belonged to children? What story did their wearers have to tell? The gallery was filled with people. We were nearly silent.

On my way out, I glimpsed a series of photographs by documentary photographer and photojournalist Griselda San Martin. Called “The Wall,” they feature a beautifully painted steel wall at the juncture of San Diego and Tijuana with the words “Somos America (We are America)” painted at the top. This is Friendship Park, a stretch of the US-Mexico border where families meet on both sides and share personal moments with loved ones. San Martin hopes to draw attention to these gatherings as a counter to a harsh and impersonal border-security debate that grows more alarming and dehumanizing by the day.

I am returning to the Phillips Collection next week: an exhibition of this scale deserves several visits. In all, more than 100 works are on display, including filmmaker John Akomfrah’s Vertigo Sea, a three-channel video installation of archival nature video and  startling depictions of the transatlantic slave trade, and nearly 30 panels of Jacob Lawrence’s “The Migration Series” which speaks to the Black experience during the Great Depression and Harlem Renaissance.

But again, “The Warmth of Other Sons” is not an overtly political show. It is a collection of personal stories depicting arduous journeys, places called home, and destinations whose societies are varied in their support, acceptance and/or condemnation of migrants.

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As reported on Aug. 7 by DCist.com, last week the DC Metro reversed its decision

…but offered no explanation to the museum as to why. ‘We are unable to comment on deliberative process matters,’ Metro spokesman Ian Jannetta wrote in an email.

Dorothy Kosinski, director of the Phillips Collection, welcomed the policy reversal and provided DCist with this quote:

“There’s nothing in the world that isn’t political. and it’s kind of an illusion if a cultural institution thinks they’re neutral.”

No crisis happens in a vacuum. Each of us contributes to a collective experience of which we are all a part. Each of us cannot remain idle as a crisis reaches our doorstep. Just as photos of caged children should shake us, so too should the abhorrent living conditions in refugee camps in Turkey. The United Nations High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR) estimates a shocking 70.8 million forcibly displaced persons worldwide. One person is forcibly displaced every two seconds.

The exhibit runs through Sept. 22.