Reading

Between, Through, Across: Exploring Migration at the DC Arts Center

Previous Story
Article Image

BmoreArt’s Picks: June 18-24

Next Story
Article Image

BmoreArt News: Joyce J. Scott, Juneteenth, Baltim [...]

According to the International Organization for Migration, one out of 30 people around the world are migrants. I learned this statistic at the opening reception of Between, Through, Across, a new group show in the main gallery of the DC Arts Center, an affair that was well-attended in bustling Adams Morgan.

Though I’d been to the area before, I had yet to visit the DC Arts Center. Pinched between a tobacco shop on the left, and a 1920s-style retro speakeasy on the right, the gallery door is narrow and unassuming; I walked past it twice. Not until looking up and spotting a banner bearing a coat of arms with the letters DCAC did I locate the object of my journey. I opened the door and climbed a slender staircase to its top to find myself in a handsome, high-ceilinged, well-lit exhibition space. 

Installation view. All photography by Albert Ting, unless otherwise stated
The story of migration is a universal one, spanning millennia and transcending geographical boundaries. From ancient times to the present day, people have embarked on journeys driven by various influences and dynamics, be it willful movement or forced displacement.
Fabiola R. Delgado

Between, Through, Across is framed around the theme of migration. Though a hot-button issue, especially in an election year, wielded to polarize people, the exhibition succeeds at avoiding simplistic dualities. By approaching the subject in their own unique ways, and working in a wide range of media, the ten artists on view in Between, Through, Across reimagine migration—and by extension, the concept of diaspora—as far more complicated than is often allowed.

In her curatorial statement, Fabiola R. Delgado writes, “The story of migration is a universal one, spanning millennia and transcending geographical boundaries. From ancient times to the present day, people have embarked on journeys driven by various influences and dynamics, be it willful movement or forced displacement.”

As a former human rights lawyer and an immigrant herself, R. Delgado is “deeply interested in understanding the complexities and dynamics of navigating unfamiliar territories, forging new beginnings, and building bridges between homelands and hostlands.” Her selection of artwork and attentive curation are a testament to this passion. The ten artists on view in Between, Through, Across represent a diverse, intergenerational, multicultural group of creators with unique backgrounds, styles, and visions—each of whom have their own personal take on the subject of migration.

Paloma Vianey, “De aquí a allá” (2023), oil on canvas diptych.
Paloma Vianey, “De aquí a allá” (2023), oil on canvas diptych.

The centerpiece of the show, featured on the gallery website and cover of the complimentary exhibition guide, is “De aquí a allá” [“From here to there”] (2023), an oil on canvas diptych by Paloma Vianey. The dual scenes appear to be of border towns, but are both obscured by translucent screens. The films hanging over their surface are themselves interrupted here and there as if having been ripped or slashed in places.

Getting closer to the paintings discloses these veils to be a sort of netting, which the painter either rendered over like a stencil and later peeled up to expose raw canvas; or, she painted the netting white and pressed it down onto the dried paint after completing each composition to make an imprint. It’s hard to say. Either way, the effect pulled me in while also pushing me away. I wanted to see the images clearly, but they were obstructed, so I became preoccupied with the broken barriers that prohibit them. “De aquí a allá” allures with its skill but denies an easy reading. 

In “Made in Bogotá” (2024), an acrylic painting by Katty Huertas, we are presented with a giant woman standing high above Colombia’s capital city, her back turned to the viewer. She is not destroying the metropolis though, like Godzilla. She’s just standing there, staring off into the distance over the horizon.

Huertas describes her painting as “a love letter to the city I was born and raised in, written through the lens of memory. Taking inspiration from real places I created a surreal space blending reality with imagination to evoke the essence of Bogotá.” The artist stands tall, high above the city that made her great, a surrealistic literalization as self portrait. 

Javaid Nayyar, “Self Portrait (Adolescence),” 2024, Image courtesy of the artist

After being drawn in by a quirky picture of a young man posing as if for a school portrait, I was greeted by the artist himself: “Hi, I’m Javaid, the artist who painted this picture.” He then went on to explain his work in great detail. In “Self Portrait (Adolescence)” (2024), Pakistani-American artist Javaid Nayyar combines elements from different cultures to create a hybrid picture.

The painting is based on a dated American-style school photo, complete with 1980s-style sweater and computer-nerd glasses, but is also an homage to the music and pastimes of the artist’s youth, mixed with symbols of his Muslim heritage. The artist explained, “I chose to paint a portrait of myself when I was young because it was an impressionable time in my life. The tile border around the portrait contains a multitude of cultural influences both American and Pakistani that I was choosing from while assembling my own identity.”

Patches and stickers of Nayyar’s favorite bands such as Anthrax and Black Flag along with skateboard company logos like Alien Workshop and Powell Peralta are found embedded within geometric Islamic tile patterns around circular mirrors that frame the young boy staring out at the world: a portrait of the artist as a young, multicultural man. 

Installation view, photo by Albert Ting

Moving from landscape to portraits, I then turned around to behold a series of still lifes that caught my attention. The “Cotidianos” series by Yocelin Ramírez is a wall installation of fourteen small, circular acrylic paintings on canvas stretched onto embroidery hoops. Each circular picture presents different everyday items: belts, folded shirts, plants, and statues. These “Cotidianos”—quotidian objects— were rendered with a delicate touch in a muted palette. “I’m influenced by everyday things and experiences, making my work transcend thematic boundaries,” Ramírez writes in the guide. “I explore the relationship between spaces of the past and the future, working with different objects as symbols of opportunities and uncertain destinies.” These particular articles may seem banal, but begin to take on new meanings when collected together and framed in this novel way across the wall. 

Objects play a central role, too, in “Melting Jacket Performance” (2019), a digital video by Inga Adda. “Movement and props serve as narrative tools in my work,” she writes in the guide, “suggesting stories and pointing to truths about our being.” In this short video, a woman in a translucent jacket (the artist herself) stands in front of a brick wall near a portable metal staircase, the industrial kind found in warehouses. Someone climbs the stairs and begins to shower her with water, slowly washing the garment away, until she is fully exposed.

Adda, whose parents are from Peru and Iceland, explained to me that the idea of a melting raincoat kept coming back to her and amused her in its redundancy, like “a cup with holes in it, that we keep using because it’s the only cup we have.” She continued, “looking back on it now, a few years after making it and gaining more perspective on that time in my life, the piece was always about vulnerability and the fear of being vulnerable on a deeply personal level.”

Still from Inga Ada's “Melting Jacket Performance” (2019), courtesy of the artist

With “We build, we transform” (2024), the only sculptural inclusion to the show, Gerardo Camargo fashioned a classical column out of aluminum food trays commonly used in Latin buffets. From afar, the shiny surface of this metallic monolith coupled with its allusion to civilization in the symbolic form of an ancient pillar belie its prosaic materials. It’s only once I was up close to the assemblage that “We build, we transform” revealed its fragile structure. Some of the trays are discolored from heat or marked with quick inscriptions in Sharpie, esoteric symbols for fellow kitchen staff. The message behind “We build, we transform” is that civilization is built on the backs of its workers. 

In an equally affecting piece, the bata—a housedress often worn by working-class Latinas while caretaking or doing housework—is used as a readymade material potent with meaning. For “Floating (and lunging) towards the uncharted” (2024), Rebecca Perez stitched together several batas to create a colorful textile work evoking the labor with which these garments are associated. The fragile patchwork of batas in “Floating (and lunging),” with their various floral patterns is enhanced with quick, gestural marks of bright paint.

The overall effect is reminiscent of Rauschenberg’s combines from the 1950s and ‘60s, but deeper and more profound than anything ever produced by the postwar pop artist. With “Floating (and lunging) towards the uncharted,” Perez updates an established look for a contemporary cause. This piece faces the front window of the gallery, which overlooks the street below: Adams Morgan, still full of people coming and going their different ways. 

Rebecca Perez, “Floating (and lunging) towards the uncharted” (2024). Photo by Albert Ting

On the bus ride back to Union Station, my mind began to wander with thoughts inspired by my engagement with the artwork in the show. We must leave a place before we remember it, before we can properly honor it. The mind has a way of rebuilding things, making connections that weren’t apparent until after an experience. Trace details recalled merge with the larger narrative to produce a hybrid picture, something new but still connected to the past. This is the way of art. This is the way of life. We are all of us in between situations, partway through our journey, and spread out across space and time.

While writing these words, I heard President Biden announce that he will be enacting an aggressive executive action that will refuse migrants seeking asylum who cross the southern border illegally during stretches of high-volume crossings. The order will go into effect anytime a seven-day average of illegal border crossings exceeds 2,500. The average for the past few weeks has been 3,500, which means that this latest series of measures will effectively close the border to most undocumented asylum seekers.

The announcement comes at a time when illegal crossings have actually dropped, due in large part to the current Mexican administration cracking down on their side of the border. Meanwhile, Mexico just made history by electing its first female president, Claudia Sheinbaum, who is also the nation’s first leader of Jewish heritage—perhaps signaling a shift that the country is embracing its identity not only as a place of origin for a diaspora, but one that accepts other diasporic populations as well. 

The title of the show, derived from the etymology of the Ancient Greek word “diaspora” (dia: through, in different directions, between; and also sometimes thoroughly, entirely, throughout; and spora/speiro: to sow, scatter, disperse), offers a series of three words. This trio of prepositions infers various spatial situations migrants might endure while traveling between geographical places, through political turmoil, and across difficult terrain. These terms could further be applied to the artists themselves, both in the literal sense—artists often relocate to attend grad school, complete residencies, or work on projects—but also in the more abstract sense of these terms.

Artists are forever working between epiphanies, through ideas, and across time. With their multifarious approaches, and working in a wide range of media, the ten artists on view in Between, Through, Across at the DC Arts Center succeed at conveying several unique perspectives on the ancient and global phenomenon of migration. 

 

There will be an artist talk for Between, Through, Across on Sunday, June 23rd, at 3pm. The show will be on view through Sunday, June 30th, when there will be a closing reception from 5–7pm.

The DC Arts Center
2438 18th St. NW
Washington, DC 20009

Gallery Hours
Wednesday – Sunday: 
2:00 PM – 7:00 PM

Related Stories
Transformer’s tiny square footage to outsized contemporary art presence is its own genre-defying artistic practice

Transformer hosts about six exhibitions every year, transmogrifying its 14th & P street shoe-box space each time as far as these artists’ imaginations can push it.

Black Woman Genius Features Ten Intergenerational Fiber Artists from the Chesapeake Area

How else could Baltimore properly honor the legacy of Elizabeth Talford Scott, but with radical unconventionality, centering community and accessibility?

2024 Rubys grants provide $270,000 to 16 new projects across 4 disciplines, plus an annual alumni grant and 2 microgrants

The Rubys support artists in Baltimore City and Baltimore County working in performing, media, visual, and literary arts.

Curated by Sky Hopinka, Five Films Reframe the American Narrative

These films comprise conscious attempts to reverse the colonial gaze of settlers, anthropologists and documentarians, and to speak meaningfully of and to Indigenous subjects.