When Home Won’t Let You Stay: Expanded Voices
Mia staff talked with artists, non-profit leaders, scholars, and immigrants in the Twin Cities to share their personal and professional insights into artworks from the exhibition. You can learn more about the people we interviewed here.
Reena Saini Kallat, Woven Chronicle
Mona Hatoum, Exodus ll
Lana Barkawi on Hatoum
I’m Lana Barkawi. I’m the executive and artistic director of Mizna.
Exodus II, by Mona Hatoum: I feel really connected to it as someone who’s also Palestinian, and who also- whose family has also lived that experience of exile that’s permanent. It seems, unfortunately … It seems that the Palestinian situation is to be in a state of exile whether being kind of a state of exile within a homeland because of the occupation and the way that there is very little freedom or being exiled and truly not able to return. And that experience of having lived out of suitcases and moved from place to place as a child, it feels very familiar. So that piece really spoke to me.
Having physical human hair in the piece is a bit off-putting, but also intriguing and compelling and brings something so human and tangible to this conceptual piece. That idea of the human beings that you leave behind in each move that you are sort of forced to make once you are forced to leave. The connection with human hair maybe hearkens to the idea that you’re connected to real people, real ancestors, people that you will never know and then not only are you separated in time from them, but you’re also separated from the context of knowing them in the place where they were- and where you came from, and that whole context of everything that is home. It maybe also represents that sort of cutting off of relationships and … And the- the thing that makes it so painful, of course, is that it wasn’t a choice.
One of the situations of being in exile is the fear of losing connection and of losing memories and of not knowing where you came from and the fear that older generations have for younger generations who never have experienced the place that you had to leave. And then, of course, the suitcases themselves are such strong symbols of exile. They’re tangible symbols of exile, and my family experience is one of having moved so often as a child, not only because of being displaced subsequently after having to leave Palestine, but for my nuclear family, my parents, seemed to always be seeking … For some number of years of my childhood, seemed to always be seeking a place that felt like home. And that there was this idea that there was a place that would make them feel that sense of community and seeking a rootedness that was just missing.
Ifrah Mansour on Hatoum
I’m Ifrah, Ifrah Mansour. I am considered a multimedia performance artist. My family didn’t have time to fill up a luggage, nor did we think we were leaving forever. We thought we were going to go to the nearest safe city. In fact, we were going to visit our relative. We were like, “This war thing, it’s going to die down in 24 hours. Let us just leave the capital.” My family left all their passports, all of our family photos, because we literally thought we were going to come back the next day. It was going to die down.
The hair coming out of it, it just made me think about all the people that have been lost in the journey. Oftentimes, with refugees, what you see is what they brought, and what they didn’t bring. And I think there’s this materialistic approach of exploring refugees, but a lot of refugees don’t have that privilege. What you brought is, if you were lucky, your loved ones. Internally, you brought your wounds, and that’s what I would like to explore within my work. We all brought our wounds. If we don’t intentionally deal with it at some point, when we finally think that we’re safe enough, let’s, let’s unpack those wounds. Let’s name them, so we don’t continue on the unchecked, and unrecognized generational trauma.
Essma Imady on Hatoum
Mona Hatoum is one of my art heroes. I’m very inspired by her. The thematics that I was reading in the piece also very much spoke to me.
I am Essma Imady, installation artist here in the Twin Cities. I grew up in Damascus, Syria, and was dislocated here in 2011. I’m a child of two cultures. My mother’s American. My father’s Syrian. But I grew up in Damascus, and I didn’t come here until I was 24.
I had many privileges in that I could speak the language, but speaking the language is not the same as speaking the culture, and I was very excited to see Mona Hatoum. A lot of the material she uses in Exodus II are materials that I’m very interested in. Hair and travel material and objects that are both, helping us, the viewer, find ourselves in our body and that embody us. Also, taking objects outside of what we expect in order to look at them with new eyes.
I found myself really thinking about the title of the show. I was thinking a lot about home and that word and what it means, especially artists of Arab heritage who work with objects that reference the body, I always think of home. Because I feel, for me, my experience with home has been finding it within myself.
I have found myself often grappling with foreignness. So when I was in Syria, my mother is American, so I was the foreigner. And then 24 years later, I came here, and I was a Syrian. So the question of home and where it, to find in order to locate it, has always for me come back to the body.
And her use of hair as the direct reference to the body there, and almost ethereal connection between these two suitcases coming together with this just slight entanglement that’s like signaling the connection also very deeply spoke to me.
I’m also very interested in the medium of hair. For a lot of viewers, there’s something extremely like grotesque. Or it’s a, a part of us that’s very connected to desire and also very stereotyped bodily part for a woman of Arab heritage. Thinking of it as this, in this new context of being this ethereal thing, this last about-to-break connection between perhaps two people set off on a path of migration.
Camilo Ontiveros, Temporary Storage: The Belongings of Juan Manuel Montes
Anonymous – Immigrant to Minnesota on Ontiveros
When I saw this artwork it struck me at first because it’s kind of my story. (laughs) Like, at some point in my life I was packing my things, like, everything was, like, coming from something like that. Because I didn’t have where to go and where to stay. The things are just sitting here but the person may have gone through a lot, which is not said here. It’s just, I can’t see it, maybe someone else has a different eye on the thing but I can’t see how the emotional part of it is depicted here.
Also, the mother of the person gathered together to be piled up to make this artwork. The thing that she felt when she saw these things up there and the person is already deported to their country. So, it hurts, it’s a lot of trouble, like when you’re sitting and you don’t know where you’re gonna be tomorrow, and they just come and fish you out like suddenly and send you back to where you don’t want to be. You really love the place but you don’t want to be there because a lot of things are going on, and you think it’s better here. It hurts, it hurts.
Usually you’re running away from maybe war, or crisis, or poverty, and everything, it could be anything you’re running away from. So when you fly to a new country it’s to a better lands, to have a better life. And but then, in reality when you really land here it’s not usually the same. Especially for us that our countries are in crisis. It’s not good back home but it doesn’t mean that it’s very good here. It’s no place that’s better than home. Being here doesn’t mean that you, you are in heaven.
It’s a safe haven, but it’s not heaven. So, it’s safe in the sense that there’s no gun behind you. There’s no one pointing a gun at your neck, but there’s also the invisible gun on us. Like, being Black in this country for example, and plus an immigrant, is a real problem. You need to be Black and an immigrant to know it. It’s not like people will just uh, tell you, but you feel it when you’re sitting even in a bus. Uh, just stopping someone and say, “Hey please can you show me the direction?” The way they just look at you, it’s like you are just such a useless thing. Not everyone go through what they gone because it was their fault. But the best choice we do is to come to the United States. Being here is…I feel so emotional (crying). It’s not home. Yeah, we just want to not be reminded all the time that we’re not home, we know already, and we miss home.
Adrian Piper, everything #4
Anonymous – Immigrant to Minnesota on Piper
I’m from Cameroon. I am currently an asylum seeker in United States. Where I come from it’s all about the authority and not about the people. To loss a loved one who was fighting for a cause, a cause to be free. They took him away from me and they also wanted me, just like they had him. I needed to go. Here I am.
Everything will be taken away. Everything has been taken away. My joy was taken away. My pride was taken away. My love was taken away. My husband is gone. My kids are back home. I am in a strange land to start all over. To begin all over. I lost everything. To lose loved ones, properties, is a hard thing. Looking in the mirror and asking yourself, what do I have? Or, what am I going to have? I feel empty.
Richard Mosse, Incoming
Lana Barkawi on Mosse
What I understand Richard Mosse is doing is taking surveillance technology that’s military technology where the effect is aesthetically very beautiful, taking it and I think trying to make a comment about it. But I wonder what that comment really is because doing the same thing as the military. He’s miles away from people, they don’t know they’re being recorded and they’re black and brown refugees who have their stories of why they’re on this path but they’re presented as a mob. And so, I’m not sure what viewers are meant to make of it, and it’s not clear to me how this is playing with the form or the technology except to make something aesthetically imposing and that makes you stop and really draw a breath and be surprised.
That piece is deeply problematic and it, maybe is quite dangerous in that way. It seems to actually just be reproducing the way that it’s used in a military context but just bringing that into an art museum. It’s a racist impulse. To do a work like this is a racist impulse. What if you use this idea on people who are as privileged as you? What does it mean to be surveilled, to be at the other end of a camera and the other end of a military machine? As museum goers are a majority white and middle class and better, to have the camera pointed on that audience would be so powerful if they were also taped in that way without consent.
It wouldn’t work because the privilege that they have would…there would be an outcry. You just wouldn’t be able to do that. So, I think that’s a very interesting thing to think about is the fact that the subjects of his work have no agency and he’s benefiting from that. It’s really a problem.
For me, this piece sparks questions about how the art world works. This exhibition traveled to Mia from the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston, where it was initially curated. What sort of agency does the receiving institution have in accepting the show? Were there opportunities to push back on or to refuse particular pieces? We can also think about what the conversations have been within the institution and also if a community advisory group functions to shield the institution from critique.
Alfreda Daniels on Mosse
I am Alfreda Daniels, Co-founder of Black Immigrant Collective, an organization that was founded by mostly women, black immigrant women. And our mission is to elevate and amplify the voices of black immigrants. We’ve been around about three, four years now.
I picked this because it gave me a lot of mixed emotions. Being an immigrant myself who migrated here, looking at it is like, it looked very familiar in many different ways. It reminded me of slavery. Um, so forced migration. And then, it reminded me of how actually some people migrated here.
It doesn’t look like there’s a lot of consent from the folks who pictures were taken in this. So that’s what I mean by like a lot of mixed emotions, because it looks like people are not at their highest spot in life, but their lowest, and their pictures are taken without any consent.
Artist is taking the picture from a distance, and I’m actually seeing that he’s capturing a lot of like the heat waves, more than like faces. Maybe consent would mean like actually having the full picture and people are okay with that and explaining to them the reason why these pictures are taken.
And being an immigrant myself, I would look back at some of my pictures in the refugee camp and actually appreciate that. But the fact that it was taken, knowing that I’m taking this to look back on, that picture gave me a lot of pride. Then if I would have Google myself someday and seen a picture of myself on the refugee camp in, you know, without knowing that that picture was taken, it would bring a lot of shame, I think, to me. And even though their faces are not shown here, I still can’t ignore the fact that these are people that are actually now about to be displayed for folks to watch.
And for me, it just show this image that most people just migrate here when they are at this lowest place. Some people migrate here, they actually buy their own plane ticket, and they’re in suits when they come here. But they are immigrants. It’s not always like this.
Think consent in most cases is, it can be given, like asking people and actually explaining to them the reason for this. Yeah, I don’t know how that’s sat with me when I saw this. But besides that, it does remind me of a lot of moments in the history of immigration and slavery that just provided this mixed emotions.
In a lot of my work, I work, you can imagine, with a lot of different people. There are some stories sometimes that we have to share that people may feel empathy and sympathy for someone. And other people may see that, and, and be connected to it so many ways and say, “I have been there before.” And other people may say, “This is the reason why I want to fight.”
Usually when we show maybe something similar or share a story with people who are mostly Caucasian, white, we first try to make them understand that the people are human and that this is not the full story. This is just a single story of that area. Other people may have a different experience to it. Or the person whose story we are telling may hope that you have a different reaction to it.
Being clear about why we’re showing it in the first place, I think it’s usually helpful. I’m like, “I’m sharing this story with you, because I want you to understand this is the struggle that some people go through.” Or, “I’m sharing this with you, so you can understand that even though we went through the struggle, like we are we are here, and this is home.” That usually help people connect to it differently.
Kader Attia, La Mer Morte (the Dead Sea)
Erika Lee on Attia
My name is Erika Lee. I’m a Regents Professor of History and Asian American Studies at the University of Minnesota. I’m the author of many books on immigration, most recently “America for Americans: A History of Xenophobia in the United States.” And I’m also Director of the Immigration History Research Center.
Kader Attia’s La Mer Morte, or The Dead Sea, is one of these pieces in this exhibit that speaks to me on so many different levels. The title is clearly a play on words, referring to both an actual place, as well as the high rates of mortality amongst migrants fleeing their homelands in the Middle East and Africa, and seeking refuge in Europe.
There’s something extremely powerful in seeing the dozens of pieces of clothing scattered across the gallery, representing the dead who’ve been washed ashore, often unknown. But remembered here, in what is both a powerful and sobering anonymity. The artist is known for challenging xenophobic representations of migrant communities. They seek to humanize them and also to correct false representations about migration.
This is a common theme in my own work. I try to show how powerful xenophobia has been in American society, in shaping not only our policies and our treatment of immigrants and refugees, but also our understanding of ourselves. I’ve found that the more that we see others as others, and the wider that that circle of strangers becomes, the less we can find commonality amongst ourselves and amongst our differences.
It says in the program notes that the artist created this work in 2015 when the UN reported that over a million migrants fled to Europe. In 2020, the most recent statistics by the UN shows that there are now 70.8 million people who are forcibly displaced worldwide. This is unprecedented. This means that one person is forcibly displaced every two seconds as a result of conflict or persecution.
As our world becomes more challenged by climate change, and as migration will continue to increase, we cannot afford to make strangers of those who we may depend on in the future. This work, like so many others in this exhibit, asks us to imagine a different future.
Rinike Dijkstra, Almerisa
Ifrah Mansour on Dijkstra
I’m Ifrah, Ifrah Mansour. I am considered a multimedia performance artist. That’s just a fancy way of saying I like to tell stories often on stage, in as many art forms as possible. I’m specifically focused on the black Muslim experience, which is my experience. I just love that this photographer chose to do a longevity project about one particular refugee and her growth. Just because of my personal interest in exploring the refugee migration from a kid’s vantage point.
When we finally came to America, I was 10. Like our process took two years, but I left Somalia when I was six.
As much as the photos are not so much revealing about her context and her complexity, I feel drawn to the photo. Like I, I wanna, I wanna know what her favorite toy is when she is young and she’s at the refugee camp. I wanna know if she chose this haircut. I’m just really curious about what she’s thinking. How much does she understand the world that she’s handed? Like I tell people that I didn’t choose to leave Somalia. My parents made that choice for me because as a kid you don’t understand the world you’re in and how unsafe it is.
I’m curious if this girl had a moment of like wanting to go back home. Like my pull to Somalia was my grandmother lived there and I constantly kept saying, let’s go back to grandma. She has my chicken pets. Like let’s, let’s just go back to grandma. So I’m just really curious about the everyday annoyance that this girl felt in the refugee camp or what was her journey like.
My family were blessed to live in this, in South Somalia. And unfortunately that was sort of the battleground of Somalia’s civil war. A civil war would have as unsafe zone and the rest of the country is experiencing some level of peace much like Syria. Because the refugee camp was really close to where my family lived my family went back to our home twice. Unfortunately, the last straw, my grandmother lost her farm and we were just like, “Okay, now we just have to like follow through within like hope that we get resettled elsewhere.”
That endless limbo waiting and which I think adult refugees could attest a bit more. The idea of just knowing that you’re in a limbo. You’re not part of anyone’s state. You are somewhat in a very nice looking cage. These are concepts that I’m exploring as an adult, but as a young kid, you’re like, “I don’t have to go to school today. The teacher’s not even there.” Having so much free time as a child ’cause the adults are really busy with these heavy emotional “what ifs.” That you are really left alone and I just remember just playing all these games, just being free from adults.
Sarah Brenes on Dijkstra
My name is Sarah Brenes. I am the program director of the Refugee and Immigrant Program at The Advocates for Human Rights.
Rineke Dijkstra. That one I thought was really powerful… just to see over time and the- how she changed and the surroundings changed, and I think there was a photo with her and her baby. And working at an organization – we’ve been around for almost 40 years, and now continue to connect with clients who received asylum decades ago, and to see how they have woven themselves into the fabric of our community that really underlines the fact that process of seeking protection is just one chapter of a very long book of their lives. And so, I think that one resonated in terms of it’s not just this moment, it’s a longer-term process.
So, our organization provides free legal services to asylum seekers who are, essentially, refugees who have not yet been legally recognized as such. And so, we work with individuals who … Most of whom have arrived in the United States within a year. And they’re starting the legal process to see if what’s happened to them and what they fear, or the reasons they fear going back to their country, fit within our laws to provide them with asylum protection. People who have come in at the border, they may have come in as students, they may have come in as visitors, and something in their life that already exists, maybe they were fleeing some sort of harm or there’s been some change in their country that makes it unsafe for them for them to go back.
And so, our organization helps people through this process of telling their story in a way that, hopefully, fit within the legal framework that’s been established here in the U.S. (based on both international law and our domestic laws) to determine whether or not we’ll offer that protection to them.
Hayv Kahraman, Bab el Sheikh
Essma Imady on Kahraman
I am Essma Imady, installation artist here in the Twin Cities, and I grew up in Damascus, Syria, and was dislocated here in 2011.
I was very interested in Hayv Kahraman’s piece. You can’t help but connect more to pieces that the artist has certain common experiences with you, and to almost feel like you have a special “in” to the piece. For example, you speak the language. And the title is in that language. It’s called Bab el Sheikh. So Sheikh can be either older man or religious leader. And I looked up that area in, uh, Iraq and it is, seemed to have been named after this religious leader, Zhilani.
And it’s this beautiful, ethereal piece of this floor plan, and then these like almost ghostly women touching this floor plan. And in thinking about a lot of the gender politics from where I come from in Syria, some of the similarities between there and Iraq, and thinking of this beautiful piece shown in the context of this exhibition that almost frames the reason home won’t let you stay as being weighted by issues of gender.
And thinking of naming a painting area of this male known leader, and yet having it be a painting of woman and having these women be ethereal, and so that their presence feels not fully there. And having this floor plan that’s very solid and of our very material world. You can’t get more literal when you’re talking about home than a house plan, right? And then having it combined with this, with the ghosts almost of these women.
I am very interested in artwork that mobilizes a few symbols that are unaccessible to everyone who comes to the piece. And what this art piece is saying to who. I thought that that simple gesture of naming this room plan after a very masculine figure and having it, again, named after a geographical space that was named after a man, and yet having it be not about that was very powerful. And that small fact isn’t accessible perhaps to everyone who just comes to the piece also felt relevant and part of the conversation she was having about perhaps questions about why home won’t let us stay sometimes.
Yinka Shonibare, The American Library
Blaise- Immigrant to Minnesota on Shonibare
Well, my name is Blaise. I’m currently a resident in Minnesota. So, I came here as an asylum seeker from Democratic Republic of Congo but my trajectory, it wasn’t from Congo straight to United States.
As a teenager we went to South Africa because of the situations of the war, we didn’t have opportunity to study. When I arrive in South Africa, the situation wasn’t even easy. Even if your skin were pretty much the same like the majority of people who live in South Africa. We were discriminated, the fact that we are coming from another country.
My goal was to study but my study permit was refused. So, I found myself admission to an International university which was a British university. And my first degree was in marketing. After that, I was able now to start my career as a consultant.
After a year when I had a bit of money I was able to get married, start life in South Africa. If you are refugee in South Africa, you don’t have benefit. You don’t have health insurance. If you go to the bank, they will not even allow to open a bank account. I had to stay 15 years in South Africa in order to be granted a status of refugee.
And then we become an activist in South Africa. We fighted so that immigrant can be able to have at least an insurance or even at least a bank account and that was granted.
In 2010, I had an opportunity to become a business manager for Central Africa. I was working with a multi-national in the Congo and in Central Africa. This project involved a lot of money. It wasn’t successful because I found injustice in the government in Congo and I become a wanted person, so to speak. Because I reveal a lot of information about corruptions. I wasn’t safe anymore even in South Africa which I’ve spent, like, 16 or 17 years.
So you were talking to someone who had a home, who had a career, who have made impact in society but you find yourself now in Minneapolis in 2012 with nothing. Losing everything, and I left my wife, 2 kids, a 3 years old and a 1 year old.
So, we were separated for 4 years. So that was tough. Well, my wife, she was a registered nurse in South Africa but when she came here that education is not accepted. That’s the challenge of being immigrant. Meaning that, uh, you start over. Immigrant are human being who can make a positive impact in the society. When someone is a refugee or is immigrant, it’s not by choices. It’s because of circumstances. We have to cultivate a culture of peace, of love.
Guillermo Galindo and Richard Misrach Partnership, Zapatello from the series Border Cantos
Xavier Tavera on Misrach and Galindo
Well, my name is Xavier Tavera. I am mostly a photographer. Sometimes I am a filmmaker, but mostly a photographer. Yeah. It’s a very nice compliment, the two works. One which are Richard Misrach plays with this time-based media, that is photography. He’s giving us probably a fraction of a second, and Guillermo is also having that same notion of time. He is grabbing discarded objects collected from, from the border, collected from possibly migrants. And he has a notion of the past use of that item, but also the possibilities of a future use for that item. So he arranges these objects to give him life through sound with strings or whatnot. So the time aspect in both is prevalent – time and light with Richard Misrach, and time and sound with Guillermo Galindo. I think in both works of the two artists, it has that prevalence of absence. And this discourse of absence is important because also it gives the viewer agency to imagine who cross a border, who owned these artifacts, what previous life these artifacts used to have.
In my work, I actually do the quite opposite, right? When you go on and talk to people, they have first and last names, and they have a unique personality and they have very unique reason why are they coming here and why are there crossing the border. Why are they risking their lives, the lives of their family and whatnot? And for me, going through portraiture is putting a first and last name on people that we might have a more direct relationship with.
If have the notion of migrants in general, it’s this abstract. If we have the notion of Pedro Juan De Dios Perez from Michoacán, Mexico, then, right, that is completely different. We can relate, we have seen these people, we have seen and we have talked to them or they have talked to us. We can relate and we can change the discourse to something that is more human. What I like about the work of Misrach and Galindo is that there’s that absence and we can wonder in a positive way: Who were these people? What was the struggle? What did they went through? Where are they now? What, what happens in these landscapes? What happens in the land? What happens to these people and to their stories?
Richard Misrach, Wall, East of Nogales, Arizona
Anonymous – Immigrant to Minnesota on Misrach (en español)
Pues, es, la verdad, una imagen fuerte y dolorosa porque es un camino que a muchos nos toca caminar por la inestabilidad o el apoyo de las autoridades en los países de uno. No solamente, pues, dejando atrás el pasado doloroso que uno sufrió en el país de uno, si no que sufriendo también el constante abuso en esos caminos. Y fui abandonada por el coyote que me traía.
Entonces, es algo fuerte y doloroso. Todos los que deciden agarrar ese camino es como una esperanza o una solución que uno le va a encontrar a su vida. Porque yo puedo decir que cruzando la frontera de Guatemala y la frontera de México y llegando a Estados Unidos, mi vida cambió totalmente porque sufrí en mi país mucho abuso desde pequeña. Sufrí, pues, en la frontera. Y, pues, gracias a Dios, aquí en este país que, prácticamente, no era mi país, pude encontrar el apoyo, la ayuda que yo necesitaba.
Fueron 21 días de camino, pues, doloroso. Aguantando hambre, aguantando sed, sufriendo desprecios, pero le doy gracias a Dios porque pude pasar ese camino y ahora estoy en un mejor país. Es muy difícil empezar una nueva vida, donde uno piensa que si en el país de uno no encontró apoyo, no encontró ayuda, en este país también va a ser algo difícil de encontrar.
Pero que somos personas que venimos con la necesidad de salir adelante, no de hacerle daño a nadie, si no que somos personas que estamos buscando una solución para nuestra vida en nuestro país, donde yo muchas veces estuve a punto de que mi esposo me matara. Y si yo no hubiera llegado a este país o yo no hubiera tomado la dura decisión de venirme a este país, dejando a mis hijos con dolor en mi corazón, a lo mejor yo ya hubiera muerto y hubieran muerto mis hijos.
Que somos personas que tenemos sentimientos. Estamos dispuestas a ayudar cuando alguien necesite de nuestra ayuda y que también necesitamos que nos ayuden para poder hacer una vida en este país. Yo puedo decir, gracias, porque gracias a esta ayuda, yo ahora puedo estar legal en este país y gracias a Dios ya mis hijos van a venir. Después de siete años yo me voy a reunir con mis hijos. Y yo les agradezco y sigan adelante, apoyando esta organización o estas organizaciones porque es algo que vale la pena.
Todavía estamos en el proceso para que ellos vengan. El asilo me lo aprobaron ahorita, el 19 de noviembre, entonces ahorita estamos en el proceso para que ellos puedan venirse para acá. Sí, pero ya, gracias a Dios, ya este tormento, este proceso, este desierto tan doloroso al fin va a llegar a su final.
Ai WeiWei, Safe Passage
Lana Barkawi on Ai WeiWei
Ai Weiwei’s Safe Passage, which is an accumulation of many life jackets that were actually worn by Syrian refugees as they cross the Mediterranean from North Africa to Europe seeking safety – this last very dangerous portion of their journey, where many people don’t survive that crossing. And these are the actual lifejackets from people.
And that piece, and, and a lot of Ai Wei Wei’s work leaves me with so many questions. He seems to really have wanted to address the global refugee crisis. But I feel that it’s not clear what audiences are sort of to make of the overwhelming collection of the life jackets. So the impulse of the artist seems to be to wake audiences up to the humanitarian cost of the ongoing war in Syria and the incredible number of refugees it has produced.
I wonder what does the witnessing of these life jackets mean for the viewer. The number of them is staggering, but what are we to take from seeing them in this sanitized display? What Hamid Dabashi calls, “an aesthetic disconnect”, removed from a connection to the people affected, people’s actual lived experience, whether they survived or not, all they had lost in their forced migration, all they face in the uncertain journey ahead. Is any of that reflected in seeing the spectacle of the life jackets?
It seems to sort of trivialize the situation of the people who have gone through and are going through this journey. And because they’re the actual life jackets of refugees, it feels so weighty. I worry that it gives the audiences a sense that they’ve done something profound by witnessing it, when these are the real lives of people who don’t know that their life jackets are here on display. And there’s something problematic about that.
I think that maybe Ai Wei Wei’s impulse is a frustration with the very social media culture that sees things for a second, and then they slip by, and they slip off of our radar. And so, it seems like there’s an impulse to wake us up from that constant scrolling through headlines and stories and images. You know, he’s really making a lot of these refugee and other humanitarian crises that aren’t always his story, and he doesn’t seem to include people whose stories they are in the framing of them. And so it, there’s a feeling of co-opting. It leaves me with a question of to what end is he making this work really?