On ViewThe Phillips Collection
The Warmth of Other Suns: Stories of Global Displacement
June 22 – September 22, 2019
The Warmth of Other Suns: Stories of Global Displacement, a 75-artist exhibition about the history, state, and future of migration thrives through its intricate groupings of artists, juxtaposed to integrate mediums, genres, undertones, and geographies, reasserting the capability of thematic group shows to narrate the evolving yet repetitious fate of human experience. Hung around the museum’s winding staircase is an orchestration of Pascale Marthine Tayou’s intricate mixed media and glass renditions of street hawkers in African cities, Bosco Sodi’s clay timbers from a wall he built in Washington Square Park in 2017 with help from his fellow Mexican artists, and El Anatsui’s aluminum and copper wire woven tapestry of recycled aluminum alcohol bottle caps from West Africa. Normalized invisibility of immigrant labor is embodied with this trio, with materials and processes associated with work utilized for aesthetic. Above the stairs awaits another curatorial delight: Andra Ursuta’s 2012 marble sculpture of an unidentified Roma woman, donning a jacket made with coins of various currencies, captures her aloof expression while being deported from Paris, standing by Dorothea Lange’s iconic black and white photographs of migrant workers during the Great Depression, adjacent to Arshile Gorky’s early 20th century life-size painting of his ghostly mother besides his adult self.
Another notable achievement of this exhibition is the way it treats a massively hot topic as an inherent part of human. Curators Natalie Bell and Massimiliano Gioni have organized an intergenerational roster, which benefits from the museum’s grand collection as well as high profile institutional loans, and renders immigration not a pressing issue of our times but a natural phenomenon with variant impacts throughout history. If history is taught to underline mistakes of former generations, The Warmth of Other Suns reminds us that a history of humanity means a history of immigration, at an institution miles away from the House where the laws that shape the future are written.
The exhibition’s anchor is the Collection’s odd-numbered paintings from Jacob Lawrence’s tour-de-force “Migration” Series (1940–41)—even-numbered panels out of total 60 are in MoMA’s collection—about the Great Migration of six-million Black Americans from the south to flee discrimination following emancipation. In Lawrence’s honest and brutal depictions of mobility and search lie ambiguity, the unknown awaiting on the other side for a new, and hopefully better life. The exhibition delves into various stages of such ambiguity, either the haunting fear of a prevalent uncertainty or the devastating results of failed investments of hope and effort to achieve a better life. Albanian artist Adrian Paci presents a four-and-half-minute video, Centro di permanenza temporanea (2007), which shows a group of immigrants waiting on an airstair that does not connect to a plane. Paci’s work illustrates the entrapment and disappointment waiting for those seeking refuge. In this exhibition, Rothko or Gorky are immigrants who left homes behind, not unlike the deaf and mute Syrian refugee boy, Muhammed, trying to convey the terror he faced within limits of erratic hand gestures in Wonderland (2016), a video by the Turkish artist Erkan Özgen. His devastating struggles to express his fears make viewers ashamed of their ability of senses as much as questioning the necessity of art on the backdrop of such despair on earth. A massive nearby painting, in Refugees 4 (2015), by Chinese artist Liu Xiaodong reestablishes hopes for art despite all ferocity. His captivatingly stark depiction of Syrians on a boat arriving on a Greek shore is rich with psychological depth portrayed through the body language and facial expressions of the refugees. It is a work that reaches beyond language.