Forced Migration and Art: Reflections on Recent Exhibitions

Inspired by her recent visit to the Phillips Collection in Washington D.C., Izabella Main reflects on the role of art in depicting and narrating experiences of forced migration.

Izabella Main, Adam Mickiewicz University, Poznań


The ‘refugee crisis’ has not been invisible in the art world. At the 2019 Venice Biennale, the Swiss artist, Christoph Büchel, exhibited an actual deathtrap vessel in which hundreds of migrants drowned. He called his artistic expression of the tragedy Barca Nostra. He described the vessel as “a relic of a human tragedy but also a monument to contemporary migration, engaging real and symbolic borders and the (im)possibility of freedom of movement of information and people.” The relic underscores “our mutual responsibility representing the collective policies and politics that create such wrecks,” he added.

While a Fulbright scholar at Georgetown University this academic year, I had the opportunity to see another extraordinary exhibition entitled “The Warmth of Other Suns: Stories of Global Displacement at the Phillips Collection in Washington D.C. Lauded by The New York Times, the event was truly exceptional. It brought together fine art, storytelling, films, and expert discussions. The phrase “the warmth of other suns” was first used by Richard Wright to describe his experience of the mass exodus of African Americans from the South that began during World War I. In this exhibit, the title offers a link between the Great Migration and migration across the globe today. The art pieces are very diverse. Individual stories of migrants depicted in movies, photographs, paintings, and narratives including a plethora of ethnographical details are followed by very abstract yet touching displays, like neon sign “Mare Nostrum” changing into “Mare Mostrum” (“Our Sea” as “Monster Sea”) by Runo Lagomarsino. The presented art spans one hundred years, starting with works by Arshile Gorky, an artist who escaped the Armenian genocide and Mark Rothko, who fled persecution in Russia. There are also displays referring to recent attempts to cross the US-Mexican border or reach safety in Europe: “The Wall”, “Don’t Cross the Bridge Before You Get to the River (Strait of Gibraltar, Morocco-Spain)”, “Centro de permanenza temporanea (Temporary Detention Center).”

The viewers are invited to engage with the art and write, for example, postcards to the Vatican to give citizenship to all in need of safety and shelter. There are also exhibits such as “Beyond the Museum walls”, referring museum goers to civil society organizations supporting immigrant and refugee communities such as the Refugee International or the International Rescue Committee, both with presence in Washington D.C.

Throughout the exhibition various values and stances are referred to both explicitly and implicitly: respect, hospitality, loss, pain, optimism. “Seven Rooms of Hospitality”, a recent series by the Iranian American artist Siah Armajani represents the uncertain spaces occupied by refugees, deportees, and exiles. One, entitled Room for Asylum Seekers (2017), is a miniature 3D-printed plastic model measuring just over a foot long and about five inches tall. It seems toy like, playful, even. Only after reading the text below it — pulled from a newspaper headline — does the reference to the ghastly tragedy experienced by a group of refugees become apparent. On August 27, 2015, seventy-one refugees and migrants from Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan were discovered dead in the back of a refrigerated food truck that had been abandoned on the side of an Austrian motorway. The refugees suffocated in the closed truck. Other miniature models show a prison cell, a room for migrant workers, a room for detainees, a room for deportees. For me the display was about “othering” refugees and migrants.

The story of migrants is also shown through material traces. The Undocumented Migration Project, a long-term anthropological study by Jason De Leon, focuses on clandestine movement between Latin America and the United States. The anthropologist uses ethnography, archaeology, visual anthropology, and forensic science to understand this violent social process. The installation – part of “Hostile Terrain ’94” project – consists of toe tags with information on each of the roughly 3,000 migrants who have died trying to get into the U.S. through the Sonoran Desert over the past 25 years and whose remains were found. It is a comment on the inhumane 1994 U.S. border control policy that resulted in numerous migrant deaths in the region.

In London, The Tate Modern organized Who are we?, a free six-day cross-platform event, spanning the visual arts, film, photography, design, architecture, the spoken and written word, and live art. It reflects on identity, belonging, migration and citizenship through arts and audience participation. In Refugees Welcome, Kosovo-born artist Alketa Xharfa-Mripa speaks about hospitality, solidarity, hope and the welcome of Kosovan refugees in the Great Britain of late 1990s she experienced. She reproduces and represents it with an artistic intervention: a truck containing an English living room, wherein she welcomes anyone to come inside, sit down, have a cup of tea, and talk about the refugee situation with her. Another event, The EY Exhibition: Impressionists in London, French Artists in Exile (1870 – 1904), is the story of the artists who fled to Britain to escape war in France in the late nineteenth century. It maps the connections between French and British artists, patrons, and art dealers during a traumatic period in French history. The exhibition links the story of well-known Impressionist painters to a contemporary context and to discussions considering how notions of refuge, exile, and migration continue to shape the world.

Who Are We? included Alia Syed’s On a Wing and a Prayer, a film inspired by the story of Abdul Rahman Haroun, who walked through the English channel on 17th August 2015. Mr. Haroun was held on remand for five months at Elmley Prison. He has since been released and granted asylum but has a criminal record for illegal entry into the United Kingdom. The film is an imaginative response to Mr. Haroun’s journey achieved through Syed filming her own walk through the surreal subterranean world of the Rotherhithe Tunnel. It is about fear, insecurity, and risk.

Emine Yeter has commented in a 2016 blog that “the success of the visual arts in its ability to encourage empathy by means of story-telling is undeniable. Rather than solidifying the divisive political boundaries between ‘them’ and ‘us’, contemporary art brings the two closer together, acting as a mirror to universalize the migrant experience.” She also proposed that “artistic practice can also help us to imagine impossible possibilities otherwise abandoned in politics and law, which could yet take hold and produce concrete solutions, i.e. new models of citizenship or the complete dissolution of global borders as conceived of by artists.” As an engaged anthropologist I see similarities between researchers’ ideas (and actions) and artistic expressions and interventions.

Dr. Izabella Main is an Associate Professor of Ethnology and Cultural Anthropology at the Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznań, Poland, and currently a Fulbright Senior Scholar at Georgetown University, Washington D.C. She can be contacted at

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