Harvard Art Museums look at the long, dark road of migration

A new exhibition examines ideas of displacement and belonging apart from our current moment.

Richard Misrach’s “Wall, East of Nogales, Arizona”
Richard Misrach’s “Wall, East of Nogales, Arizona”© Image courtesy of the artist and Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco

Is it overstating to say that migration is the trauma of our times? Maybe, but not by much. Climate change ranks, though it’s what happens in the aftermath of its now-frequent furies that extracts the most immediate human costs. In the first half of 2019, extreme weather forced more than 7 million people out of their homes, according to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Center. That puts us well on pace for the highest-ever climate-change refugee tally of all time.

Bundle that with the hundreds of millions forced to flee their homes because of racial, ethnic or political persecution, war, disease, famine, and whatever else — 258 million in 2017 alone, according to the United Nations, crossed an international border seeking refuge — and we have a population larger than all of Brazil on the move, year to year. Those are just the ones who change nations. Millions more pinball around their own countries, looking for a safe place to call home. Sheer numbers suggest how elusive a dream that is, and with borders tightening for those seeking asylum all the time — notably, our own — the dream becomes more distant by the day.


Into this bleak landscape steps “Crossing Lines, Constructing Home: Displacement and Belonging in Contemporary Art,” at Harvard Art Museums. It’s meant as a counterweight to the daily crises and fresh horrors the news cycle brings — incarcerated children, Muslim bans, ICE’s ongoing, zealous deportations. If migration is the wound, then “Crossing Lines” concerns itself with the scar: The lasting mark left behind when the trauma heals over.

I wouldn’t call it hopeful, but it brings perspective to the panic. Adal Maldonado’s “The Passport,” from his series “The Spirit Republic of Puerto Rico,” is from 1995 and conjures the perpetual limbo of the 51st state-in-waiting; Andrea Modica’s “Real Indian” series of photographs twigs the selective American memory, reminding us we are as much the invader as the invaded. Bill McDowell’s “Almost Canada” photographs bind past to present: a picture of an open trapdoor in a dusty cellar that leads to the Underground Railroad and freedom from bondage almost two centuries ago; an image of clothes left abandoned in the woods by leery immigrants who slipped across the northern border after Trump’s election in 2016. As we are fled to, we are also fled from. That’s worth remembering.


What “Crossing Lines” curators Mary Schneider Enriquez and Makeda Best have elided, to their credit, is hysteria. Its organizing rubrics speak not to a flashpoint, but an arc. The show steers us deftly from the rough decoupling that provokes migration through the journey and, critically, the reconstruction of identity where all is foreign.

The show can’t avoid some chilling moments: Richard Misrach’s eerie picture, of a dark thunderhead looming over the rusty pilings that barricade the border between Mexico and the United States, seethes with apocalyptic dread. Another, of a nearby target range — human silhouettes at a distance, mountains of expended shotgun cartridges in the foreground — is blunt and outrageous (why do border agents need target practice?).

Nearby, Bosco Sodi’s “Muro,” with its ochre clay bricks stacked in tidy tower, might be a Minimalist sculpture, a la Carl Andre. They’re actually taken from his 2017 public project in New York’s Madison Square Park. In the early throes of President Trump’s wall-building frenzy, Sodi took thousands of bricks and built his own wall in the park. Then, he invited the public to take it down, brick by brick, and take the bricks home with them (he saved a few, and donated a couple dozen to Harvard).


It was a poetic response to a furious directive, quelling rancor with humanity. “Crossing Lines” is full of such moments. It considers the flashpoint, but pivots to its long-lasting echoes — resistance, self-possession, and reconstruction.

Do Ho Suh, a South Korean artist based in the United States for decades, has made a career of building brick-and-mortar memories out of fabric, sheer, and slight. His work is about ephemerality, both of memory and of the places we call home; even that much makes him fit right in here. But his “Hub, Ground Floor, Union Wharf, 23 Wenlock Road, London, N1 75B,” a tunnel of pale mustard fabric, serves another purpose. It’s a passageway, from one life to the next — one Suh, as an immigrant, knows well.

What waits nearby, is the uneasy transition. “Crossing Lines” takes the long view. Candida Hofer’s “Turks in Germany,” from 1979, is a color slide-projector show — Turkish immigrants, their bakeries and butcher shops, markets and mosques — of an established community seeded in 1955, when Germany, desperate to rebuild its labor force devastated by the war, opened its border to Turkish workers.

The smiling faces belie the struggle Turks faced, despite their open invitation. Brought in as guest workers, integration was subtly discouraged by German authorities for years. Racism and discrimination followed; and they persist, decades later, for a resident Turkish-German population that numbers 3 million.


Home is what you make of it, but belonging is something else. That’s the sense one gets from the powerful, poetic work of Zarina. She calls the piece “Home Is a Foreign Place.” It’s a literal description. Zarina was born in 1937 in what was then India; postpartition, it became Pakistan. The piece is a grid of 36 woodcuts in inky blacks and grays on warm, yellowy paper; they would be abstract, but for Zarina assigning each of them a role. A sheet bisected vertically, pale on the left, black on the right, is called “Evening”; a black background with a pale “X” is called “Border.” Sharp vertical hashmarks are “Rain”; horizontal swipes are “Dawn.” You can almost see Zarina rebuilding in her mind a place she never again can call home, just as you can see it slipping away from her grasp.

To finish off, Harvard does a very un-Harvard thing and brings it all home. Along one small stretch of wall is a collection of photographs by Dylan Vitone in 2001 of South Boston: A couple of teen boys in a garbage-filled alleyway, three young girls shouldered up to a rough chain-link fence. In 1994, US News and World Report said that South Boston, a traditional landing pad for Irish immigrants first fleeing famine in the 19th century and then the Troubles in the 20th, had the highest incident of white poverty in all of America.


It would look like a foreign land now, given the degree of mass-condoization the neighborhood has undergone, and adds dimension to the idea of displacement from the global to the local. But Harvard bringing local history to bear in a show about displacement and belonging is no small thing. Vitone was drawn to South Boston for the world apart it had become over generations, mostly as the product of scorn and neglect by the city’s elite. Including Vitone’s work here alongside, say, Hofer’s, with its divisive class implications, seems damning indeed.

A true-blue city on the vanguard of an equitable future with ghosts to exorcize? That should come as no surprise. Constructing home for one often means destroying it for another. This is a have and have-not game we’ve played for centuries of mass migration, from colonialism on forward. “Crossing Lines” takes a long view, past to present. Do better, it seems to say. We’ve already done worse.


Through Jan. 5. Harvard Art Museums, 32 Quincy St., Cambridge. www.harvardartmuseums.org.

Murray Whyte can be reached at murray.whyte@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @TheMurrayWhyte.