Porcelain-fired cotton swabs, synthetic gypsum cobblestones, gilded beer boxes, and handsewn polyester on stainless steel pipes are among the unconventional materials used by artists whose works are included in our latest special exhibition.
Through an array of contemporary works, Crossing Lines, Constructing Home: Displacement and Belonging in Contemporary Art addresses the themes of global migration and displacement. Artists represent a broad swath of cultures and nationalities, and their works highlight such topics as the contested borders of the United States and refugee crises in the Mediterranean, Africa, and Asia.
“As a collaborative team, we regularly share and discuss works in our collections; the idea behind this exhibition came from one of those sessions,” said Makeda Best, the Richard L. Menschel Curator of Photography, who co-curated Crossing Lines with Mary Schneider Enriquez, the Houghton Associate Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art. “We noticed themes of movement, displacement, and journeys in works across our collections. We also saw culture being created, and we wondered how artists were exploring cultural exchange as well.”
Global displacement is top of mind for many. In June 2019, the UNHCR (UN Refugee Agency) reported that the number of “people of concern” around the world—asylum seekers, refugees, returnees, the internally displaced, and the stateless—had reached an all-time high of 74.8 million people. At the same time, public discourse about migrants and refugees has become increasingly polarized. In the United States, the current administration has pursued immigration policies and actions that have prompted protests across the country—including at Harvard.
Examining these issues through the lens of contemporary art, Best and Schneider Enriquez organized the exhibition into key themes: movement, hybrid identities, and the reasons for and the results of migration.
Adál Maldonado’s The Passport (1995) is the first work visitors encounter in the exhibition. At first glance, it appears to consist of official passport documents, but closer inspection reveals fictitious words and images. “It’s clear that something else is happening with this object,” Schneider Enriquez said. “It’s not a passport; it’s about unpacking what a passport represents.”
All the objects on view address—and complicate—common topics in the popular media. For instance, scenes from the southern border of the United States, documented by photographers Richard Misrach, Kirsten Luce, and Bill McDowell, depict inhospitable and dangerous terrain, dispelling simplified notions of the migrant journey. And images from McDowell’s series Almost Canada, including his Roxham Road Journal Page 1, Line 1 and Roxham Road Journal Page 5, Line 4, attest to the similarly high-stakes crossings undertaken by asylum seekers along the less-publicized Canadian border.
Besides providing a space to think about today’s world, Crossing Lines presents an opportunity to highlight and add to the museums’ permanent collections. (Only one object, Dahn Vo’s Dos XX, made of 24 Dos Equis XX beer boxes found in Mexico City and gilded by artisans in Thailand, is on loan for the exhibition.) “It has always been a priority of our division to expand our holdings of global contemporary art,” Schneider Enriquez said. “It was exciting to pursue this goal as we developed the exhibition.”
The exhibition features important new acquisitions, such as Do Ho Suh’s Hub, Ground Floor, Union Wharf, 23 Wenlock Road, London N1 7SB (2016). Visitors can walk through its ghostlike fabric and steel and examine it from multiple angles. The sculpture is the South Korea–born artist’s recollection of an address where he once lived in London, rendered with attention to minute details such as door hinges.
Another compelling large-scale installation is Clarissa Tossin’s Spent (2009), acquired in 2018. Consisting of 278 discarded personal care items from Tossin’s bathroom that have been dipped in porcelain and kiln-fired, the work evokes the themes of permanence and the circulation of goods and materials, even at the level of the body.
Acquired this year, Emily Jacir’s La mia Roma (omaggio ai sampietrini) (2016) includes a table filled with gray basalt cobblestones from Roman streets that Jacir cast individually in white synthetic gypsum. The work references a location of personal significance for Jacir (who was born and lives in the Mideast but attended high school in Rome), as well as the journeys of countless generations of migrants and the history of public protest.
Candida Höfer’s Turks in Germany 1979 (1979), also acquired this year, is a vital series of images of Turkish individuals, shown in a slide projection. And a black box (the first created since the museums’ 2014 renovation) showcases Willie Doherty’s REMAINS (2013), a video about the impact of Ireland’s regional division on generations of citizens.
Crossing Lines serves to highlight as well the museums’ historic commitment to works in the American documentary tradition. Examples in the exhibition include Sunil Gupta’s Jama Masjid, Delhi/Boulevard René Lévesque Ouest, Montréal (2001–3), which has been a part of the museums’ South Asian photography collection since 2010 but is being shown in a new context in Crossing Lines. Two works by American photographer Richard Misrach, Border Patrol Target Range, Near Gulf of Mexico, Texas (2013) and Wall, East of Nogales, Arizona (2014, printed 2016), powerfully document portions of the southern U.S. border wall.
Though the works of art and the stories behind them are each undeniably challenging, collectively they convey powerful and constructive takeaways, said Schneider Enriquez. “The exhibition compels you to see and contemplate what forced migration means, both in terms of the journey and in terms of the perspectives of the cultures affected,” she said. In a way, she added, “immigration has produced art that helps us tackle what we’re living through today.”