Refuge: Needing, Seeking, Creating Shelter
The black steel gates of Homeland Security were conceived by Peruvian artist Jota Castro in 2002 as a satirical critique of President George W. Bush’s creation of the Department of Homeland Security. Topped by razor wire and resting on moveable wheels, the artwork symbolizes both the power and futility of Bush’s act: the agency can detain and deport anyone perceived as a threat to the U.S., but cannot guarantee security for American residents or visitors. Castro, who served as a diplomat at the United Nations and the European Union for twenty years before becoming an artist-activist, has long exposed the fallacies and failures of nationalist socio-political systems. Nearly two decades later, his work articulates a potent, prescient vision of our contemporary condition: a world experiencing a massive refugee crisis in which borders are shrunk and shut, and routes to freedom and opportunity have shifted and narrowed into barriers.
As civil strife, economic insecurity, and environmental crises proliferate, artists from across the globe explore the search for refuge—how, why, and where people need, seek, and create shelter. The harsh and haunting realities of contemporary migrant life are vividly rendered in Richard Mosse’s images of refugee camps in Greece and Turkey, captured using heat mapping technology; in Serge Alain Nitegeka’s charcoal figures painted with tea, coffee, and charcoal on shipping crates; and in Mohau Modisakeng’s Passage, a video installation and series of photographs tracking the perilous journey of would-be refugees, alone in dark waters. Employing a wide range of techniques, these and other artists in the exhibition combine realism and fantasy, the mythical and the mundane, in images and objects that are both poignant and portentous.
In 2015, Mosse began following the movement of refugees from the Middle East towards Europe, capturing their plight as heat maps—images he then put together as still photographs and as a film, Incoming. Designed by a weapons manufacturer, Mosse’s camera has no aperture, is too heavy to hold, and cannot be brought into the U.S. The thermal camera captures heat signatures in shades of black, white, and grey, and is typically operated by remote computers, like a drone. “The camera is designed to stand on a sentry pole in the middle of the desert,” explains Mosse, who adapted an Xbox controller and a Steadicam mechanism to use this technology. Human figures, tents, clothing, portable toilets, and other elements of the migrants’ camps can be seen, though they appear surreal, sometimes cartoon-like. Noting that his heat maps both reveal intimate details about the refugees (circulatory patterns of their bodies’ blood and heat flow are discernable) and obscure individual identity (facial features are distorted), Mosse subverts a surveillance technology intended to locate enemy targets by simultaneously exposing and protecting those whom society ignores or rejects. “I am using a military tool and trying to work against it…it is not designed for storytelling or aesthetic purposes,” he explains. And yet the resulting images are highly aesthetic, offering mesmerizing narratives of today’s leading human rights crisis.
Anita Groener’s installation, Citizen, is a tangled web of birch tree branches and twigs that hold single-file lines of miniature refugees, carrying their young children and their possessions on their heads, or backs, or pushing carts and wheelchairs. A few ride donkeys or mules bringing to mind the biblical Flight into Egypt and linking centuries of people who have fled their homes in search of freedom, safety, or a better life. The delicate hand-cut paper silhouettes are traced from images of refugees pulled from mass media. Groener uses each image only once; each silhouette references an actual person, a unique trauma, and a story. The humble materials—paper and twigs—and the sheer numbers of the individual silhouettes intensifies the vulnerability of these people all searching for shelter, emphasizing the fragility of life. Critic and curator Joseph R. Wolin writes, “Citizen conjures the unfamiliar European woods through which migrants passed, but also the metaphorical ones they must navigate. Its scale requires looking up close to consider the myriad of incidents, and produces repeated small revelations as dried leaves and knobby joints turn out to be human figures, a requirement that echoes the work’s proffered obligation to pay attention to the existence of countless individuals who need our aid.” Groener’s accompanying video, Blink, is a compilation of hundreds of photographs of refugees; the sound of a beating heart keeps time as new and more images quickly appear and disappear on the screen. The images show people running from violence, walking in the rain, snow, and intense sun, climbing over and under barbed wire fences. The speed of the video mirrors the constant news cycle: in the blink of an eye, the image, the story is gone, replaced by endless others.
The anonymous portraits Nitegeka creates on shipping crates highlight human vulnerability and the mistreatment to which refugees are often subject. Recalling his own experiences as a refugee from Burundi, Nitegeka’s figures are presented as confined within a shipping crate, sometimes stamped with a barcode, reflecting the transformation of the individual into a commodity that can be bought or sold, like coffee, tea, or charcoal—the materials the artist gathered to create these works. The global shipping trade of goods (and of human beings) is also referenced in Stephanie Syjuco’s Applicant Photos (Migrants). Posed studio-style and captured with a cell phone, this portrait shows a figure swathed in patterned fabrics that hide their face, denying individual identity. The shape-shifting graphics obscure the figure and highlight the designs, which today are associated with “ethnic fashions,” derived from the colonial history of the Americas, Africa, and Asia, now produced in factories and shipped worldwide as part of the massive consumer trade conducted by GAP, Forever 21, Urban Outfitters, Target, and other big-box stores. These passport-style photos recall the common application process for asylum or immigration, an experience during which people may feel as invisible as they do exposed. The artist observes that “the work comments upon the ways in which the ‘foreign’ is constantly thought of as Other—by institutions, nations, and the larger flow of media images that lump migrants into faceless categories.”
Like Nitegeka, Vietnamese artist Dinh Q. Lê left his home as a young refugee; during the Vietnam War, his family fled to California. Lê’s Go Cong Dong Beach photographs pay homage, he says, to those who nurture “a hope and belief that there is a place that is better.” Lê’s visions delineate both the real and the surreal, evoking his own memory of migration and the fantasy of flight shared by those hoping to reach, as he names it, The Imaginary Country. “To seek a better life by crossing the four seas,” the ancient Chinese saying that inspired Go Cong Dong Beach animates works throughout the exhibition in which the sea serves as a potent symbol for both desire and danger. In works by Anthony Goicolea, Ellen Kooi, Antonio Cazorla, Lê, and others, the sea offers escape, while Modisakeng, Jorge Méndez Blake, and Alex Hernández, illustrate or allude to shipwrecks, evoking the threat of disaster that so often attends the traveler’s crossing to safety. The simultaneous allure and risk of a water-borne passage is a recurrent theme in contemporary Cuban art: Kcho’s boat sculptures recall the variety of marine-craft engineered and piloted by Cubans escaping to the Florida shore while Esterio Segura dreams of escape via a hybridized Chrysler limousine, transformed by wings into an airplane.
In Yoan Capote’s Isla (Crudo) [Island (Raw)], the sea surrounding the island nation is depicted by hundreds of dark, sharp fish hooks. Inspired by 19th-century visions of the sublime painted by Caspar David Friedrich, as well works by J.M.W. Turner and Arnold Böcklin, Capote’s Isla series is intended to evoke both beauty and terror. For Capote, the fishhooks embody the simultaneous allure and risk of leaving Cuba by boat: “I consider that the sea itself is a permanent mental reference for people who live on an island, and its horizon is a constant image that could evoke hope, fantasy, isolation, and frustration.” The artist says that the fishhooks can also be understood “as an iron curtain, as a political border, as a trap, as a metal fence, as a wall, as hope, as an exit.” Having witnessed the multitude of lives lost by those who pursued escape from Cuba, Capote offers a reflection on Isla that is globally pertinent: “each fishhook could be counted as one of those people,” he explains. “I wanted this series of work to embody that risk and frustration, the frustration of accepting that geography and politics decide the limits of individual liberty.”
For first-generation Cuban-American artist Anthony Goicolea, politics and geography have profoundly shaped his identity and memory. Desire, nostalgia, connection, and isolation form the poetic infrastructure of Goicolea’s Sea Wall: the translucent cast glass masonry block-base mimics the Malecon, the sea wall that runs the length of the Havana harbor, and which has been a site of both departure and confinement for many Cubans. Clear, hand-blown bottles atop the wall hold portraits drawn on Mylar; softly rendered and sealed inside, their identities are just out of focus, as the artist’s family heritage remains out of reach. Like many children of immigrants, the artist has often felt a sense of cultural dislocation, and a nostalgia for a world he will never know. The message-in-a-bottle images function both as an expression of longing and loss and as an homage to individuality: the forms of the bottles vary slightly, embodying, as family portraits do, concurrent sameness and difference among a group.
While separation from society is a recurring theme of Goicolea’s work, the artist also explores experiences of assimilation and how individuals and groups adapt to changing conditions. Set within a digitally manipulated setting, Goicolea’s Deconstruction suggests a post-disaster urban landscape of bombed buildings. People can be seen resting in hammocks; the image emphasizes humanity’s ability to adapt to ever-changing, threatening conditions. Roberto Diago’s Ciudad en ascenso [Ascending City] illustrates adaptation. Constructed from found materials—sheet metal, charred wood, rubber, and jute coffee bags—the whole structure appears unstable as it rises up the wall. For many, finding, building, and maintaining shelter is a constant activity fueled by the desire to move up and out of poverty.
What does adaptation look like in a world increasingly dominated by disaster and dislocation? For the women walking toward safety in Alfredo Jaar’s Rwanda series; for the Palestinian families displaced from their ruined homes as depicted in Naomi Safran-Hon’s paintings; for Colombians leaving crumbling communities envisioned by Sair García; for nomadic tribes navigating the expansion of cities in the Mongolian steppes drawn by Tuguldur Yondonjamts; and for so many others, what can they bring and what will they find that will ensure survival?
You’ve come of age in the age of migrations.
The board tilts, and the bodies roll west.
Fanaticism’s come back into fashion,
come back with a vengeance.
In this new country, there’s no gravitas,
no grace. The ancient Chevys migrate
west and plunge like maddened buffalo
into a canyon. Where the oil-slick geese go,
no one knows—maybe the Holland Tunnel
because they take it for the monstrous turbine
promised them in prophecy. I brought you
to this world, and I do not regret it.
The sky’s still blue, for now. I want to show you
an island where the trees are older than redwoods
ever since Prospero turned them
into books. You’ll meet him when you’re ready.
For now, though, study this list of endangered
species: it’s incomplete, of course, since all
species are in some danger nowadays.
This is the country I bequeath to you,
the country I bequeath you to. You’ve come
of age, and you’re inheriting the whole house,
busted pipes and splintered deck and all.
This is your people, this, the mythic West
your grandparents wished to reach, and reached.
The oceans surge, but the boat is up on blocks.
There’s no America to sail to anymore.
Amit Majmudar, 2015 Poet Laureate of Ohio
Mohau Modisakeng’s three-channel, projected video installation, Passage, features three figures dressed in formal, historic clothing: a woman with a hawk perched on her arm, a young man in a Trilby hat, and a woman wrapped in a Basotho blanket. One woman holds a whip; the man has an umbrella. None of these possessions offer protection to the traveler in the boat, as water slowly fills the hull and the sparkling, watery horizon remains unchanging and elusive. The umbrella does not stanch ocean water, the whip is useless to combat the threat posed by nature (and time), and the hawk delivers no message summoning aid. The history of the slave trade, to which so many African lives were lost at and in the sea, resonates throughout Modisakeng’s imagery; his multi-media practice consistently investigates the impact of slavery and racial violence on South African identity. Here he offers a meditation on centuries of forced deportation, servitude, and death: life, identity, and memory disappear under waves of water and time. And yet, these fateful migrations may also represent spiritual journeys: in the artist’s Setswana culture, the experience of life is referred to as a passage, and the word for “life,” bothselo, translates as “to cross over.” Human beings are referred to as bafeti—voyagers on a transient journey. Perhaps the possessions that don’t serve them on these passages will help them in the next.
A host of decorative, kitschy possessions surround the small, black figure at the center of Nick Cave’s Untitled sculpture from his series, Made by Whites for Whites. The original purpose of the found central object was racist: it was produced as a lawn ornament or other decorative item designed to denigrate African-American identity. After discovering a spittoon fashioned with the features of blackface, Cave traveled across the U.S. to flea markets and antique stores, gathering dozens of such racist commercial objects, and then returning to his studio to transform these artifacts of hate into multi-valent assemblages that confront past and present. Here, a small male figure’s head is crowned in gold; the stool upon which he sits becomes a throne. As critic Bansie Vasani writes, “these seemingly inconsequential figures are enshrined in elaborate arbors made of birds, flowers, chandeliers, and kitschy decorative items festooned with beaded strings.” The legacy of slavery—of separation, forced migration and labor, violence and discrimination—is a recurring theme in Cave’s work. His found and repurposed objects transform a symbol of oppression into one of reverence: rescued from history, the figure projects the image of a small deity, enveloped by once discarded objects that now offer protection, serving as relics or talismans.
Ornamented like reliquaries, the model boats that comprise Hew Locke’s The Wine Dark Sea evoke global narratives of travel and migration—both sought and forced—from past and present. Covered in burlap bags, doll’s clothes, beads, fake flowers, medallions, and more, Locke’s flotilla includes battleships, schooners, lifeboats, container ships, rowboats, and other historic and contemporary vessels. Hung at eye-height, the procession is both celebratory and mournful, recalling “votive boats,” the miniature models that first appeared in European churches in the 15th century, offered by sea captains and survivors of shipwrecks in thanks or as pleas for protection. Born in Scotland but raised in Guyana (known as “the land of many waters”), Locke investigates the intersections of colonialism, displacement, power, and its historical symbols, conjuring the journeys of explorers, pirates, slaves, missionaries, immigrants, tourists, and refugees. The Wine Dark Sea is how Homer describes the ocean in The Iliad and The Odyssey; these ancient epic tales of travel and tribulation also served as inspiration for Caribbean writer Derek Walcott’s celebrated poem, Omeros. Embodying travel, migration, hope and suffering, prosperity and despair, the vast spectrum of journeys of bodies and souls, Locke’s boats pay homage to the fantasies and realities of centuries of human flow. “It’s not just about something dark,” says the artist. “It’s about people searching for a better life, which is a human right. It’s what we do.”
Contemplating how we will pursue a better life in the mid-21st century, Sterling Crispin combines references to ancient symbols and new technology in his survivalist sculptures, N.A.N.O. , B.I.O. , I.N.F.O. , C.O.G.N.O. The works are named after Nanotechnology, Biotechnology, Information Technology, and Cognitive Science, four industries which the artist says “promise to revolutionize the world as society approaches the technological singularity, a predicted event near the year 2045 in which the rate of technological growth becomes infinite. Each sculpture is meant to be a poetic and evocative embodiment of these four industries as deities or totemic spirits, but also a market embodiment as each sculpture contains a certificate for 100 shares of stock in a real company doing transformative research in these industries. There’s also a use-value vs. market-value conversation in the work with the water filter that can provide clean drinking water for a family of four for two years.” These works were inspired by the artist’s observations of the dichotomies between expanding technological progress and the environmental extremes of frequent fires, droughts, and earthquakes in California. Under these conditions, many people would become environmental refugees; in such a scenario, Crispin’s totems may offer both relief and belief in the possibility of survival.
The technologies of transport have long determined the movement of people and goods, fueling the expansion of empire and capital, the displacement of communities and resources, the shapes of borders. As the global refugee crisis continues, ensuring universal access to human rights in a world where, as poet Amit Majmudar says, “There’s no America to sail to anymore,” will require seismic changes—changes potentially inspired by accumulation of the subtle yet potent shifts in perspective that art can engender. Describing the role of art in shaping change, Richard Mosse says, “I believe that beauty is the sharpest tool in the box; I think that aesthetics can be understood as the opposite of anesthetic; it can be used to awaken the senses rather than to put you to sleep. We have a moral imperative to adequately communicate these difficult narratives so that people can be more aware.”
—Alice Gray Stites, Chief Curator, Museum Director