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‘Migrations and Meaning(s) in Art’ Centers Hope, Humor, and Ritual

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BmoreArt’s Picks: March 3-9

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“The danger of sympathizing with the stranger is the possibility of becoming a stranger. To lose one’s racialized rank is to lose one’s own valued and enshrined difference,” writes Toni Morrison in The Origin of Others. She writes that she has used narrative fiction as a tool to become “the Other. The stranger. With sympathy, clarity, and the risk of self-examination.” 

Just as race, gender, and sexuality are used to create and perpetuate “the Other,” the imagined rank and valuation of nationhood and nationality is similarly violent. The way that mainstream media and political pundits, including the president, have demonized and distorted migrant populations as criminal hordes and drug-trafficking mules intent to steal American jobs, rape American women, and impede American freedoms is rhetoric as old as this nation. It is a foul vestige of colonization that reifies the most devastating tenets of white supremacy: This land was never made for you and me, indigenous populations, descendants of migrants or enslaved Africans; it is only for those who descend from “white” nations. 

Migrations and Meaning(s) in Art, a group exhibition curated by the scholar, historian, and photographer Dr. Deborah Willis now on view in the MICA Fox Building’s Meyerhoff Gallery through March 15, bucks against harmful, false valuations of difference, prompting important questions about who those considerations have served, and who has been erased by the absurd constraints of those assessments. The exhibition grapples with both the affects and effects of migration. Photography, installation, and time-based works by 35 artists (including Carrie Mae Weems, Tsedaye Makonnen, Hank Willis Thomas, Leslie King-Hammond, Ana Teresa Fernández, Deyane Moses, and Adama Delphine Fawundu) pose compelling considerations about migration through the personal experiences and perspectives of those who have been impacted by it.

Deyane Moses, "Rapture" (still)

Over the last three decades Willis, the inaugural Stuart B Cooper Chair for MICA’s undergraduate photography program (which will change each year), has conducted research, facilitated colloquia, and curated exhibitions about the historical and contemporary ways that photography has been used to explore the intersections of gender, race, and nationality. Last year, in collaboration with Ellyn Toscano and Kalia Brooks Nelson, Willis edited the publication Women and Migration: Responses in Art and History, a collection of scholarly essays (available for free download) from artists, historians, curators, and writers about migration.  

In one particularly resonant essay entitled “The Ones Who Leave… the Ones Who Are Left: Guyanese Migration Story,” author Grace Aneiza Ali refers to migration as “the defining movement of our time – for both the ones who leave and the ones who are left.” As an exhibition, Migrations pushes this notion further by asserting that migration is not a static, one-directional trajectory that is experienced singularly by those who are displaced; rather, migration has significant implications for us all. 

It may be difficult for some to relate to the experiences of the Other, those who are faced with the unimaginably difficult decision to leave everything they have ever known, their nation, comforts, and kindred in search of solace, safety, and the possibility of a better life elsewhere. 

The beauty and intrigue of Migrations is that it does not rely on overt depictions of the horrors of migration as an empathetic bridge. Rather, the exhibition centers hope, humor, and ritual as humanizing strategies to investigate and negotiate the impacts of migration. “I want people to understand that all of these stories are created out of a desire for a new life and a new life that has hope for the future,” Willis said. 

The tradition of sucking teeth is present across the African diaspora: the gesture of sucking teeth is a complete sentence, a performative response used to accentuate or exaggerate a mood, a feeling or energy that is best expressed without words.

Michèle Pearson Clarke’s “Suck Teeth,” a three-channel video and sound installation, considers the transnational traditions that persist across borders. Described by Clarke as “collective memory work,” “Suck Teeth” documents what its title suggests: the myriad gestures and sounds of various people sucking their teeth. The tradition of sucking teeth is present across the African diaspora: the gesture of sucking teeth is a complete sentence, a performative response used to accentuate or exaggerate a mood, a feeling or energy that is best expressed without words. The humor, relatability, and nuance of Clarke’s piece expands notions about the practices that stay with us everywhere we go, the cultural nuances that assimilation cannot kill. 

In contrast, Ana Teresa Fernández’s “Of Bodies and Borders/Borrando la Frontera,” archival photo prints that document a performative intervention in which the artist paints a border wall the same color as the sky, offers a more literal take on erasing borders. The work is polarizing: as a symbolic gesture, the strategy to imagine an erased wall offers a hopeful response to a violent structure and dehumanizing system. As a lasting intervention, the work does little to eradicate the wall, or to confront the privilege of accessing and painting the wall without arrest. The strength of the work is that it does not attempt to easily resolve these issues. Instead, Fernández offers an accessible way to elicit questions about the principal function of the border and the possibilities that arise when we are encouraged to imagine a world without borders. 

Ivan Forde, "Reflection"

Ivan Forde’s “Reflection,” a digital print, revises the ancient poem The Epic of Gilgamesh, about the adventures of Sumerian king Gilgamesh and his counterpart Enkidu. In the image, Forde presents himself as both characters and portrays the tension of staring into a reflection at the image of a man who is and is not himself. It should be noted that in The Epic of Gilgamesh, Enkidu is described as being a parallel figure to Gilgamesh, but imbued with supernatural gifts. Forde conjures these characters to invoke interesting correlations about the tension between one’s past and present; the self that stayed in their country of origin, and the self that opted to leave. By engaging mythology, Forde cleverly unpacks the unsettling meta-consciousness that migration triggers: meta, because the schism experienced is more pronounced than being split doubly as Du Bois notes, and possibly more involved than being split triply as Fanon recounts. Processing the mental, physical, and emotional experience of losing one’s national identity to assume and assimilate into a new nation is astutely resolved through the fantastical logic of ancient folklore. 

Colette Veasey-Cullors, "Her Dining Room"

In “Her Dining Room,” an archival print of a photograph by Colette Veasey-Cullors, MICA’s associate dean of design and media, the artist documents the decay of an abandoned home. A weathered armchair sits at the center of a blighted room. A spindly chandelier hangs limply above it. Strips of faded wallpaper hang in fragmented swatches along the walls. The ceiling and floor are speckled with mold stains. The image that Veasey-Cullors’ captures is a familiar sight in many cities that have suffered from disinvestment and criminal housing policies. The work, disturbing in its familiarity, particularly in Baltimore, sheds light on the impacts of local displacement on memory, intergenerational inheritance, and community. 

Abbigail Hong’s photographic series documents Korean women who own businesses in Baltimore. “These women are working neck-breaking hours to provide for their families and to achieve the American dream,” Hong says in an artist statement. You cannot see the burden of this labor on the faces of the women she documents: They smile at the camera from their places of work, harsh gleaming smiles that seem to hide the exhaustion they must feel, but do not have the luxury to express. The struggles of migrating populations to achieve the so-called American Dream are evident in this series.

Migrations is an earnest response to false declarations that homogenize and scapegoat migrating populations as catch-all villains; the work facilitates important dialogues about the limiting perceptions that shroud migrant communities. As a collection, the exhibition offers a refreshing perspective about migrant populations that feels humanizing, but not incredibly urgent—a major strength and apprehension of the work. Art cannot do the heavy lifting that is required to create long standing systemic change, that is the work of the people. But art can be used as an empathetic tool to present a clear perspective that centers the subtle and intimate experiences of communities that have been impacted by migration. In this way, the collective work that Dr. Willis presents is an important step towards shifting the visual language that has been used to dehumanize migrant communities. We have all been impacted by migration, and these artists show, in overt and subtle ways, that this movement is inherently tied to many of the origin stories that found America. 

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There will be a panel discussion in conjunction with this exhibition on March 9 from 6–8 p.m. at MICA’s Lazarus Center (131 W. North Ave.)

 

Header Image: TsedayeMakonnen, photo by Joey Kennedy

Images courtesy of MICA

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