Redrawing the Refugee
The past decade has seen no shortage of images depicting the plight of the refugee. Perhaps the most famous of these is the upsettingly iconic photograph from 2015 of a drowned Syrian boy face-down in the surf. It’s no surprise that this photo was so widely distributed. It is singularly harrowing and blunt—a harsh reminder of desperate voyages and the culpability of those who refuse to help displaced peoples. And perhaps the greatest tragedy of this photo is that it is no longer an outlier; depictions of the refugee in anguish are a constant in the news-cycle, with no end to similar snapshots of suffering.
The problem with this flood of traumatic images is that it limits our mental picture of what the label of “refugee” entails. We see the refugee through a lens of voyeuristic pity, even as we use “refugee” as a shorthand for a certain type of person—someone whose ethnicity or religion we presume to know in advance.
This presumption is what The Warmth of Other Suns, a recent art exhibition at the Philips Collection in Washington D.C, seeks to challenge. Opened to the public on June 20 (World Refugee Day) and running through this weekend (September 22), the multi-floor collection features paintings, sculptures, video exhibitions, and various other art objects that aim to provide a historically and geographically holistic depiction of refugee experience as it is experienced by displaced people themselves. Pieces vary from the abstract—a “sea” full of rumpled blue clothes representing the precarious nature of a life lived in stops and starts—to the viscerally direct: a video of a mute Syrian boy trying to explain the violence he has escaped through heartbreaking pantomime and whimpers. The hardships of displacement are shown in traces, footprints, and afterimages. The exhibition asks us to reflect on liminal spaces—temporary homes and waiting rooms—and the ravages of ecological, political, and cultural instability.
Despite these common themes, what is instantly remarkable about the collection is its diversity of time and place. In one room we find a collection of nineteenth-century newsprints commemorating the perils of Italian migrants who crossed the Atlantic. In another is a series of painted vignettes depicting common scenes from the Great Northward Migration of African Americans in the mid-1900s. In yet another room, a contemporary photo series depicts families regrouping at the Mexican-American border to take bittersweet portraits through tiny slits in a rusted fence. The Warmth of Other Suns is an exhibition deliberately curated to be mindful of historical and global precedent.
The collection shows rather nakedly that displaced populations have always existed and, unfortunately, have always been met with hostility. One particular series of portraits taken in Ellis Island at the turn of the twentieth century highlights the similarity between the then-traditional head-coverings worn by Italian women and the veils that serve as almost metonymic symbols of Islam today. The accompanying placard points out that this photo series, which originally sought to highlight the diverse aesthetics of immigrant folk tradition, was later coopted for use in anti-immigrant propaganda, depicting Italian newcomers as dirty, uncivilized, and crime-prone. The historical through line hardly needs to be drawn.
In this way, The Warmth of Other Suns treats the label of “refugee” as an identity forged and fortified in resistance to bigotry, not unlike race or sexual orientation. In fact, the role of the museum in unifying these geographically disparate experiences recalls the role of international Socialist publications and the Negritude movement of the 1930s, which both sought to supplant national identity with alternative forms of solidarity across geographic borders. Similarly, the pan-national “refugee” identity that the exhibition seeks to create suggests the possibility of political agency and a unified voice for its constituents. In one corner of the exhibition, a floor-to-ceiling copy of the Immigrant Movement International’s 2011 document “Migrant Manifesto,” lays out a series of enumerated tenets that resemble a Bill of Rights (the full text can be read here). Right next to the manifesto is a ballot box where visitors can sign an ongoing petition imploring the Vatican to offer the Holy See as an international haven for displaced peoples (you can even tick a box to apply for citizenship yourself).
But political organizing isn’t the sole factor unifying the migrant identity. Among its myriad depictions of voyages, the exhibition carves out a sense of “home on the road,” assembling a common vista for a people with no nation. The motifs that make up this landscape are those signifying the trials of the natural world, the vastness of the space between spaces, and the inalienable accessibility of sea and sky. Though John Akomfrah’s Vertigo Sea (a jarring, multiscreen display of churning waves and mutilated whales) speaks to a far more literal fear of the ocean than Kader Attia’s La Mer Morte (the aforementioned “sea” of crumpled clothes), both evoke a similar violence unique to the instability of migrant life. The forms may be different but the bigger picture remains the same.
So what is there to make of this scrapbook identity? The exhibition intends to broaden the associations we assign to the figure of the refugee. But in establishing an identity built upon the shared struggles of displacement and voyage, does The Warmth of Other Suns threaten to impose its own label? Perhaps it is counterproductive, or even perverse, to group peoples together based on no more than a common denominator of suffering. How are these portraits of pain any different from the political sensationalism flooding our social media feeds, with ceaseless images of the wounded and dying?
I contend that what gives the exhibit’s argument for a shared refugee identity the potential to empower rather than to exploit is the degree to which its artistic expressions are derived from firsthand experiences. The collection lets refugees speak for themselves and convey their hardships as they live them. Though not all of the artwork curated in The Warmth of Other Suns speaks from this first-person perspective, everything displayed highlights the subjectivity of the men, women, and children who are forced from their homes to undergo treacherous travel in hopes of a better life. We do not see a “refugee crisis”, but a crisis experienced by refugees, and that subtle shift in perspective makes all the difference.
“Refugee” of course remains a loaded term, but the Warmth of Other Suns urges us to see that this semantic baggage is not an invitation to dehumanize or diminish. Rather, the exhibition pushes us to look across history and culture to see the underlying problems causing displacement. The refugee doesn’t have one face, but many; neither do they have one religion, ethnicity, or era. What they share is a struggle. But in organizing under a heritage of distances traveled and sacrifices made, they share a resilience too.
Photos 2 and 3 taken by the author, Aug. 17, 2019. Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C.