According to the United Nations’ International Migration Report, 258 million people crossed borders for good in 2017. Let that sink in: The equivalent of three-quarters of the population of the United States moved to another country, all at once. The garage sales alone bend the mind.
Of course, those moving typically have little of which to divest themselves. Migration, while sometimes by choice, is most often by cruel necessity, whether fleeing persecution, war, crime, or the brutalities of a ruling regime (Sudan, Nicaragua, we’re looking at you).
This isn’t new, but the numbers have been ballooning. That figure for 2017 (the most current available) is 50 percent higher than the 173 million who moved in 2000. It’s not hard to see why. Europe has been crippled by a migrant crisis for almost a decade, touched off by Syrian president Bashar al-Assad’s vicious, intractable civil war. Perhaps the dominant news story of the era is the thousands who arrive at the US-Mexico border every week, the vast majority from the poverty- and crime-ravaged countries of Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador.
Whatever the numbers, the reality of such mass movement is unfathomable, so intensely abstract as to lose meaning. This is an urgent moment; migration, along with climate change, are the crises of our times. That’s where art comes in. An artist’s job, or one of them, is to bring meaning to the unimaginable, to humanize an experience that overwhelms in real scope.
This fall, two of the city’s most prominent museums drill down to explore the human cost and generalized trauma of migration. Harvard Art Museums opened “Crossing Lines, Constructing Home: Displacement and Belonging in Contemporary Art” on Sept. 6. The ICA will bring us “When Home Won’t Let You Stay: Migration Through Contemporary Art” in October.
The two titles, almost echoes of each other, speak to a burgeoning collective anxiety in this era of radical nativism and hateful high-office rhetoric (there’s no need to cite the litany of strictures pushed recently by the White House to limit immigration and asylum cases; they’re constant and pervasive, like the air we breathe).
The two shows differ in approach. Harvard means to explore “how culture can persist and be embraced despite displacement,” while the ICA show “highlights diverse artistic responses to migration.” Together, they seem to be two sides of the same coin: “When Home Won’t Let You Stay” diving deep into inexorable movement, Harvard wondering what happens at journey’s end.
Works in both exhibitions range from somber and intimate to outright chilling. At the ICA, Richard Misrach’s “Effigy #7, near Jacumba, California/Efigie No 7, cerca de Jacumba, California” features scarecrow figures strung up like tanned hides amid a bleached desert landscape; Aliza Nisebaum’s “La Talaverita, Sunday NY Times,” is a painting of a couple lolling in bed in golden sunlight under an effigy of the Virgin Mary, pinned to a wall of colorful Mexican tile. The Harvard exhibition is more pensive, filled with photo portraiture and documentary photography; it seems less to posit than observe, with a scope beyond the contemporary moment (Bill McDowell’s photograph of a trapdoor in a dirt floor leading to a tunnel in the Underground Railroad, brings the forced migration home, as an ugly feature of American life from the inside).
It shouldn’t surprise that at least a few artists appear in both shows — Misrach and Do Ho Suh, to name two. The tragic indignity of human migration, most often against one’s will, is a disaster from which it’s hard to look away, or drop and move on. Nor should we.
CROSSING LINES, CONSTRUCTING HOME: DISPLACEMENT AND BELONGING IN CONTEMPORARY ART Sept. 6-Jan. 5, Harvard Art Museums, 32 Quincy St., Cambridge. 617-495-9400, www.harvardartmuseums.org
WHEN HOME WON’T LET YOU STAY: MIGRATION THROUGH CONTEMPORARY ART Oct 23 -Jan 26 , Institute of Contemporary Art. 617-478-3100, www.icaboston.org .