The harrowing stories of migration told in new exhibition at The Phillips Collection

We visit The Phillips Collection’s new show, in which artists seek to remind us of the frustration, fear and hope of those in search of a better life

‘Refugees 4’ by Liu Xiaodong (2015). Courtesy of the artist and Massimo De Carlo
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The Warmth of Other Suns: Stories of Global Displacement, a sprawling exhibition that recently opened at The Phillips Collection in Washington, DC, draws its title from Isabel Wilkerson's award-winning book about the migration of six million African-Americans from the segregated south to the economic and social promise of the north.

It is a title that itself was taken from a line in African-American poet Richard Wright's seminal autobiography Black Boy (1942), describing the moment he left everything he had ever known for a better life away from Jim Crow segregation laws. But to readers of literature from the Arab world, it evokes Ghassan Kanafani's poignant novella Men in the Sun (1962), which follows Palestinian refugees travelling from Iraq to Kuwait in the hope of finding work – only to perish while being smuggled across the border in an empty water tank.

It is incredibly fitting that this exhibition, which at its core is about the shared experiences of displaced people around the globe, would arouse such a far-flung association.

Co-curated by New Museum's Edlis Neeson artistic director Massimiliano Gioni, and its associate curator, Natalie Bell, the exhibition was developed through a close collaboration between The Phillips Collection and The New Museum, New York, and was inspired by the exhibition The Restless Earth, which was shown at the Milan Triennale in 2017.

The 75 featured artists and collectives are from or have migrated to Africa, Europe, South America, Asia and the Middle East, including Algeria, Egypt, Iraq, Iran, Lebanon, Morocco, Palestine, Syria, Turkey and the UAE.

The featured works are arranged across three floors and explore divergent threads of migration, forced displacement, trafficking, exile, emigration and immigration. Their subjects are alternatively fraught and hopeful, both fleeing violence or economic oppression and running towards opportunity.

The show is emotionally positioned between Jacob Lawrence's Migration Series (1940-1941), which portrays the Great Migration of African-Americans headed north in a sequence of flatly painted vignettes on board, and John Akomfrah's three-channel video Vertigo Sea (2015), a panoramic and visceral epic probing themes from slavery to the exploitation of the natural world.

AKOM150001,John Akomfrah,Vertigo Sea, 2015,Three channel HD colour video installation, 7.1 sound,48 minutes 30 seconds

The Phillips Collection has often showcased Lawrence's work, but to see it embedded within a global context on the current refugee crisis feels transformative. Akomfrah's video – which was installed at Sharjah Art Foundation in 2018 and the Venice Biennial in 2015 – poetically plumbs the depths of human and natural suffering across layers of history and metaphor. The Warmth of Other Suns maintains a duality between the insular US context and the global conversation, but the show largely operates in a transnational space.

As Dorothy Kosinski, Vradenburg director and chief executive of The Phillips Collection, said at the show's opening, "the exhibition forefronts a multiplicity of voices from around the globe; rather than a sense of cacophony that multiplicity raises up a sense of shared humanity". Overall, this feeling of shared experience was effective, albeit at times tightly orchestrated, as in the case of Kader Attia's ominous sea of discarded blue clothing, La Mer Morte (The Dead Sea) (2015), staged between Wolfgang Tillmans's large-scale inkjet prints of the ocean and the wreckage left by those who risked their lives to cross it.

The Warmth of Other Suns Exhibition at 
The Phillips Collection.  Washington DC

The show works best with the portrayal of its intimate moments. In her series I strongly believe in our right to be frivolous (2012-present), Mounira Al Solh conducts personal interviews with political refugees, collecting their stories and drawing lively portraits on lined legal paper. These "time documents", as she calls them, seek to convey the humanity of her subjects. A similar humanising affect is evident in Yasmine Kabir's video My Migrant Soul (2001).

Here, we are introduced to Shahjahan Babu, a Bangladeshi migrant worker in Malaysia, whose letters and audio tapes home bear witness to the hope and disillusionment of being caught in a labour-trafficking scheme. Babu never made it home – he would eventually die in an internment camp. Frustration, fear and hope are likewise painfully palpable in Khaled Jarrar's Infiltrators (2012), which documents desperate attempts to cross the 700-kilometre wall confining the occupied Palestinian territories.

Some works within the show are anonymous yet powerful as with Queen Mary II, La mere (The Mother) (2007), Adel Abdessemed's four-metre-long tin model of the luxury cruise liner, which the curators surround with black and white photos of unknown immigrants through Ellis Island. Abdessemed, who fled Algeria for France as a young man, is evoking nostalgia for loss of home and the risk posed by the perilous sea voyage.  

'Untitled' by Paulo Nazareth. Courtesy of Paulo Nazareth, Galleria Franco Noero, Turin and Mendes Wood DM

It is both about the process of the journey as well as the spaces permanently shaped by the movement of people. Iraqi artist Hiwa K traces the path that he once took as a vulnerable refugee fleeing Turkey for Greece to Italy in Pre-Image (Blind as the Mother Tongue) (2017). Paulo Nazareth's durational performance of walking from Belo Horizonte in Brazil to New York City is physically experienced by the viewer in a pair of used sandals and a simple tunic.

The exhibition forefronts a multiplicity of voices from around the globe; rather than a sense of cacophony that multiplicity raises up a sense of shared humanity.

Marwan Rechmaoui worked with Palestinian refugees in UN Relief and Works Agency camps to describe their makeshift communities in maps that were enlarged and memorialised in the materials of the camp in concrete, burlap and metal. Over 70 years, these camps, once presumed temporary, have become permanent. Lydia Ourahmane grounds the reality of memories lost through displacement within the body itself. The two gold teeth in her mixed media work (one of which she now carries implanted within her jaw) were created from a chain purchased by the artist from a young Algerian man for the price of a seat on a migrant boat headed to Spain.

A careful positioning of historic and contemporary artworks allows us to see pieces from The Phillips Collection's permanent display in new ways, as with Arshile Gorky's painting of his mother and his young self as survivors of the Armenian genocide. The work is installed facing Dorothea Lange's images of families displaced by the Great Depression and Mona Hatoum's domestic staging of objects evoking the hazards of migration and loss of home.

'The Artist and His Mother' by Arshile Gorky, c. 1926–42, National Gallery of Art, Washington, Ailsa Mellon Bruce Fund

When the art museum's founder, Duncan Phillips, first arranged painter Mark Rothko's luminous abstract colour field paintings from the 1950s to create the "chapel-like" gallery of contemplation, one can hardly suppose he imagined it as the setting for found objects and audio interviews by the Undocumented Migration Project.

The exhibition also allows for spaces of uncomfortable ambiguity. In Phil Collins's video how to make a refugee (1999), the artist captures the moment western journalists edit an interview with a family that narrowly escaped the civil war in Kosovo to construct the specific narrative that they seek – a young boy revealing a traumatic scar.

'Wonderland' by Erkan Ozgen (2016). Courtesy of the artist

In Erkan Ozgen's video Wonderland (2016), we see a 13-year-old deaf and mute boy attempting to convey the horrors of an ISIS attack on his home town in Syria through mimed gestures and pained sounds. The result is devastating. The juxtaposition of the two videos reveals a tension between the impossibility of documentation and the impossibility of communication, challenging both a passive consumption of constructed media reports around the refugee issue and privileged assumptions of who is allowed to own – and tell – their own story.

Today, as thousands continue to perish in makeshift boats, detention blocks and asylum units attempting to reach Europe, and as a new wave of immigration raids take place in US cities and as harrowing reports uncover the conditions of migrant children at the US-Mexican border, it is impossible to view this show with emotional detachment. The vital capacity of art to challenge the status quo and how we perceive ourselves and our surroundings has never felt more potent.

The Warmth of Other Suns: Stories of Global Displacement is at The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC, until September 22