In this day and age, while we are willing to share information freely across a borderless “virtual” world, we are simultaneously erecting innumerable physical barriers to prevent “undesirable” people from entering sovereign states. The arc of human history is one of migration, but the idea of borders between regions is relatively recent. In fact, passports were not commonly required until the early decades of the last century. Now, moving from one country to another has become fraught for millions of people seeking physical and economic security. Our current political climate demonizes the poor, particularly those with brown or black skin, who seek to share in a better life away from the harsh perils they may face in their own countries. In response to the escalating cruelty that migrants face in the United States, artists and museums have begun mounting exhibitions that raise questions around cultural identity and the use of borders to control the settlement of populations. Crossing Lines, Constructing Home: Displacement and Belonging in Contemporary Art currently on view at the Harvard Art Museums through January 5, 2020, investigates the nature of political barriers and how differences are shared or opposed when people attempt to relocate into new territories.
Do Ho Suh (South Korean, b. Seoul 1962), Hub, Ground Floor, Union Wharf, 23 Wenlock Road, London N1 7SB, 2016. Polyester fabric on stainless steel pipes.
The exhibition is organized into four thematic parts: Borders, Lines,
Passages; Departures; Constructions; and Causes and Consequences. Entering the exhibit, viewers are greeted with a sculptural installation by South Korean artist Do Ho Suh and are invited to pass through it. This replica of a basement corridor where Suh once lived in London is constructed of sheer yellow fabric and offers a potent claustrophobic sense of the hidden tunnels that have allowed people to move from place to place undetected. As viewers emerge from this small passage, they are confronted with an extraordinary wall of photography by Richard Misrach, Bill McDowell, and Kirsten Luce that explores the physical borders we share with Mexico and Canada. Misrach is known for his large-format color photographs along the U.S. southern border that depict a long fence that seems to have been arbitrarily placed in a vast and remote desert landscape. McDowell and Luce reveal traces of human movement along the Canadian and Mexican borders. McDowell photographed the Underground Railroad found in Plattsburgh, New York, which, ironically, now serves as a gateway for those currently seeking asylum in Canada. Luce’s blue tarps appear as ghostly figures in Stash House, Orange Grove in Texas. Migrants hid under these tarps the first few nights after crossing the border.
It is a timely topic: In June 2019, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, a UN refugee agency, estimated that “people of concern,” those seeking asylum, refugees, returnees, internally displaced, or stateless, has reached an all-time high of 74.5 million. Curators Makeda Best and Mary Schneider Enriquez realized the relevance of their collection to this pressing issue, and the idea for this exhibit was born from a collaboration between disciplines. Sculptural works such as Clarissa Tossin’s Spent, in which the artist collected, then fossilized, discarded personal items such as tissues, Q-tips, or tampons, in porcelain, acknowledges environmental concerns but in this context raises—rather elegantly—an urgent question: How do people tend to their basic physical needs as they traverse a hostile border? In Emily Jacir’s La mia Roma, the Palestinian artist cast gray cobblestones from Roman roads into a white gypsum to emphasize the millions globally who have walked on those ancient roads or have used the cobblestones as weapons in protests. Jacir herself divides her time between different cultures; her work brings the experience of expatriates or voluntary migration into the conversation.
Emily Jacir, La mia Roma (omaggio ai sampietrini), 2016. Synthetic gypsum, 77 pieces.
The crux of this show addresses belonging or displacement of people through a wide range of photography. Andrea Modica’s gelatin silver contact prints of Native Americans alongside Lili Almog’s large-scale color portraits of Muslim women living in China speak to those who have been displaced within their own borders, while Serena Chopra’s sublime pictures of Tibetans living in a “temporary” refugee camp that has become a city unto itself and Candida Höfer’s 1970s-era slideshow surveying Turks living in Germany expose how those who are displaced redefine notions of home and community in foreign lands. Known more for her typologies of unpopulated, large-scale architectural interiors, Höfer’s slideshow reveals a thriving Turkish community whose members lived in Germany after being recruited as guest workers following the Second World War. As a viewer, I found the steady click of the vintage Kodak carousel to be a sharp reminder of a time in my teens when I lived in Switzerland for two years, recalling both the fashions of the day and the hostility I sensed in the Germans toward those from southern Europe. Curators Best and Enriquez described these works as depicting “hybrid communities; we included works that were not just a testimony, but to see how cultures change as they interact with each other.”
Hostility toward new arrivals is nothing new. When the Irish immigrated to the United States in the late-19th and early-20th centuries, fleeing economic and political violence, they were met with suspicion, religious discrimination, and racial tension. Best and Enriquez conclude this provocative exhibition with a nod to the “local” amid this global issue with Dylan Vitone’s black-and-white portraits made in South Boston in 2001, once a center of Irish immigration, and Willie Doherty’s mesmerizing video loop of a burning car in an urban center of Ireland with a voice-over detailing the violence of the “troubles” in Northern Ireland. Ultimately, the Irish diaspora shared and influenced economic, political, and cultural history in 20th-century Boston and the United States; it is a heartening and hopeful rejoinder to the eternal plight of human exodus.
Suzanne Révy is associate editor of What Will You Remember?, an online photography magazine featuring views, reviews, and interviews about the most intriguing imagery around Boston and beyond.