Displaying Displacement: Juneteenth in Washington, DC

Last fall, I agreed to loan a sculpture, Beverly Buchanan’s Hastings House (1989) to the Phillips Collection in Washington, DC for an exhibit, The Warmth of Other Suns: Stories of Global Displacement. A wooden shack with a crudely hammered tin roof, the 19-inch-high piece came with a legend written by Buchanan, an African American artist who died in 2015:

“Brunson Earthly Hastings lived by the rules of hard work, no liquor, and one woman. His 10 sons were smart, hardworking farm boys but Anna, the only girl, was his heart. He was blind when she graduated but smiled proudly when he heard them call out DR. HASTINGS, to her.”

To Buchanan, who earned degrees in medical technology, parasitology, and public health and worked as a medical technologist and health educator before enrolling in The Art Students League and becoming a full-time artist, the narrative echoed her own aborted pre-medical career. It was, she told me when I visited her in Athens George in 1994, a shack and a legend that resonated with her personally.

The exhibit opened on June 18th, the day before this year’s Juneteenth celebration, commemorating the ending of slavery in the United States on June 19, 1865. Washington, DC was crowded with tourists and there was a long line outside the National Museum of African American History and Culture, which opened to the public in 2016, as the newest museum of the Smithsonian Institution. With its bold design, modeled on the headpiece of a Yoruba sculpture, the aluminum, grille-covered building stands proudly on the National Mall. You can see the Washington Monument when you look out its west windows.

National Museum of African American History and Culture, Washington, D.C.

There are galleries above and below ground and docents direct the crowds to begin on the Lower Concourse Levels, which trace the chronological experience of African Americans beginning in the year 1400 and ending in 2008. A series of ramps lead visitors from Slavery and Freedom to The Era of Segregation, to A Changing America: 1968 and Beyond. There’s a Family History Center on the second floor, community galleries on the third floor (including Sports: Leveling the Playing Field) and Culture Galleries (art, music and theatre) on the fourth floor.

Getting up close to many of the slave artifacts was a challenge, not just because of the crowds but also because the exhibition designers integrated the historic artifacts into the panoramic displays: neck and ankle shackles for slaves are displayed against a backdrop of a photo montage of slaves trudging behind their master. It is clearly an effort to avoid isolating objects in Plexiglass boxes but at times it is hard to distinguish the objects from their surroundings.

Slaves and Shackles

Still, the wall text is beautifully written and the overwhelming effect of the exhibit –with maps and population numbers and documents — is powerful. We feel the oppressive weight of slavery and we experience the remarkable resilience and renaissance of former slaves despite their facing too many obstacles in American society.

By the time one reaches the fourth level, the cultural flowering of African Americans is apparent: there’s a literary journal from 1926 with a magnificent Art Deco cover; there are quotes from activists, and artists. Investigative journalist Ida B. Wells tells us: “The way to right wrongs is to turn the light of the truth upon them.” Opera singer Paul Robeson speaks of the role of the artist: “Artists are the gatekeepers of truth. We are civilization’s radical voice.”

Journal of Negro Life: 1926
Playwright August Wilson

There’s a full-size photographic blow-up of playwright August Wilson, dapper in his black hat, standing proud next to his words: “The message of America is, “Leave your Africanness outside the door.” My message is “Claim what is yours.” There’s quote from President Barack Obama: “Change will not come if we wait for some other person or …some other time. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. We are the change that we seek.”

Change, alas, in 2019 often means suffering as news venues everywhere focus on displacement and surviving displacement; whether it is Venezuelans fleeing to Colombia, Mexicans sneaking across the border to the United States or Africans stowing away illegally on ships to Italy. Political trials, economic suffering, and religious persecution — the theme of a new exhibit: The Warmth of Other Suns: Stories of Global Displacement. A partnership between The Phillips Collection and the New Museum in New York City, the show presents both historical and contemporary work by 75 artists from around the world whose art raises questions about migration and the global refugee crisis. Last year, according to figures released by the United Nations refugee agency, 70.8 million people were displaced worldwide, up from 43 million a decade ago.

Co-curator Massimiliano Gioni, artistic director of the New Museum said that he hoped that the exhibit, “which shows so much pain and loss and is depressing, also celebrates the power of art to keep dear ones close to us.”

Gioni curated an earlier version of the exhibit, entitled “The Restless Earth” at the Milan Triennale in 2017. When curators from the Phillips Collection saw the Milan exhibit, they asked Gioni to curate a version for The Phillips. “The challenge,” Gioni said, “was how to bring the topic of migration and displacement to the Phillips, by weaving a narrative between new works and the permanent collection. The Phillips Collection owns half of the panels of Jacob Lawrence’s “The Migration Series” with MoMA owning the other half. It has always struck me as odd that the series is split this way (odd and even numbered); a far better artistic decision would be to have each institution show the full series for six months each year.

Still, half was better than none and I was thrilled to see six of Beverly Buchanan’s shacks (including “Hastings House”) installed in a third floor gallery, together with Lawrence’s “The Migration Series” and a wall-size painting, “Breathing Panel: Oriented Right” by Nari Ward, an artist whose “Flower Prayer” shoelace sculpture I had recently seen and admired in the Material Insanity exhibit at the Museum of African Contemporary Art Al Maaden in Marrakesh, Morocco.

On the table: Shacks by Beverly Buchanan. Center: “Hastings House” (1989). On the wall: odd-numbered “The Migration Series” panels by Jacob Lawrence
“Breathing Panel: Oriented Right” by Nari Ward

The exhibit included many classics: stunning black and white photographs by Dorothea Lange, Jack Delano, and Lewis Hine whose “Climbing Into America, Ellis Island,” (1905) I had admired for decades.

Beyond the familiar classics, there were many other treasures that spoke poignantly to the suffering and sacrifice caused by migration and displacement. Many of these contemporary works incorporated found objects, such as “Listo (Ready to Go),” a mixed-media piece from 2015 by Guillermo Galindo, where the artist used bicycle parts and a chair found at the US-Mexico border, to create a kinetic sculpture. It was a bicycle that one could never ride.

“Listo (Ready to Go)” by Guillermo Galindo (2015)

In a third-floor gallery, there’s a powerful piece by Kader Attia, “La Mer Morte (The Dead Sea),” 2015, an installation of second-hand clothing strewn on the floor, reflecting the colors of the ocean. The work is clearly a commentary on the fragility of flight and on the remnants that immigrants leave behind them. Attia reminds us all of the tragedies of death at sea and bodies unrecovered.

“La Mer Morte (The Dead Sea), by Kader Attia (2015)

On the second floor, we find Rumanian-born artist Andra Ursuta’s sculpture, “Commerce Exterieur Mondial Sentimental” (2012), which was based on a newspaper image that Ursuta saw of two Roma women who were being deported from France. In Ursuta’s work, the figure seems lifeless, her jacket adorned with coins from various countries. Remarkably, though, the sculptor has created a proud Roma woman who is resilient despite being trapped in poverty.

“Commerce Exterieur Mondial Sentimental” by Andra Ursuta (2012)

Adel Abdessemed’s piece, Queen Mary II, La mere (The Mother), 2007, 67 x 173 x32 in., occupies almost an entire gallery. It is a model of the luxury liner, ironically fashioned out of battered tin. The title of the work plays on the French words for mother (mere) and for sea (mer) and the piece evokes both nostalgia for and loss of one’s homeland. The wall text tell us that Abdessemed regards his artworks as “acts,” and that he emphasized “their potential to reflect political urgencies.”

Queen Mary II, La Mere (The Mother), by Adel Abdessemed (2007)

Elsewhere in the exhibit, I am reminded of my country home in the Catskills when I see “Liberty, N.Y.” (2001), three vintage suitcases and one vintage typewriter case, by photographer and installation artist Zoe Leonard, who Highbrow Magazine described as “an anthropologist at heart.” Leonard was born in Liberty, home to bungalow colonies filled with immigrants and the children of immigrants who fled New York City for fresh air in the summer.

“Liberty, N.Y.” by Zoe Leonard (2001)

The suitcases look familiar. I am sure that I owned at least two just like them. The typewriter case also reminds me of one that I used when typing term papers, inserting black carbon between the stippled white sheets. Leonard is a keen observer and an astute collector who understands the accumulated weight and historical significance of objects.

The suitcases are a far cry from the ragged knapsacks being dragged across our porous border with Mexico today but they remind us of the human journey, sometimes peaceful, sometimes painful, from country to country, from farm to city, across oceans, north, south, east, and west; home to homeless, location to dislocation.

All photos by Shael Shapiro

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