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Art and migration: revisioning the borders of community is a collective response to current and historic constructs of migration as disruptive of national heritage. This interplay of academic essays and art professionals’ interviews investigates how the visual arts – especially by or about migrants – create points of encounter between individuals, places, and objects. Migration has increasingly taken centre stage in contemporary art, as artists claim migration as a paradigm of artistic creation. The myriad trajectories of transnational artworks and artists’ careers outlined in the volume are reflected in the density and dynamism of fairs and biennales, itinerant museum exhibitions and shifting art centres. It analyses the vested political interests of migration terminology such as the synonymous use of ‘refugees’ and ‘asylum seekers’ or the politically constructed use of ‘diaspora’. Political and cultural narratives frame globalisation as a recent shift that reverses centuries of cultural homogeneity. Art historians and migration scholars are engaged in revisioning these narratives, with terms and methodologies shared by both fields. Both disciplines are elaborating an histoire croisée of the circulation of art that denounces the structural power of constructed borders and cultural gatekeeping, and this volume reappraises the historic formation of national identities and aesthetics heritage as constructed under transnational visual influences. This resonates with migrant artists’ own demands for self-determination in a display space that too often favours canonicity over hybridity. Centring migration – often silenced by normative archives or by nationalist attribution practices – is part of the workload of revisioning art history and decolonising museums.
Curator at the Neubauer Collegium for Culture and Society at the University of Chicago, Dieter Roelstraete reflects on the notions of bordering and borderlessness. He highlights the ineffectiveness of politically constructed borders, sometimes even set in incongruous places. This is perfectly illustrated by Olaf Holzapfel’s installation Trassen, exhibited at the 2017 Documenta 14 in Kassel, co-curated by Roelstraete. He also reflects on the importance of the medium and materials used in artworks as powerful semantic tools. The question of citizenship and national belonging is evoked and challenged by the ultra-mobility of the art world, a phenomenon which is far from new. Roelstraete thus underlines the natural interplay between art and migration. Finally, the intervention of the artistic world in political debates is mentioned, a prickly issue according to Roelstraete.
Artist David Antonio Cruz addresses the questions of migrants’ visibility, race, and colour in his artworks, especially in the Chocolate Series, his first artivist work. Originally inspired by the story of trans people, he was marked by the abuses – even murder – that they were victims of. His reflection on photography and migrant communities highlights the issues of institutional racial bias as well as the pressures for assimilation and second-generation migrants. His colourful artworks address the question of colour and are homages to migrants of colour. Cruz also reflects on his positionality and how his own experience of migration has shaped his art production. His work is intended to draw attention by shocking, by making visible the invisible.
Inspired by Les Énervés de Jumièges by Évariste-Vital Luminais, Axel Karlsson Rixon exhibited Mobilité Mémorable / Memorable Mobility at the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Rouen (France) in 2018. The exhibition included installations and photographs. In this interview, Axel Karlsson Rixon recalls their experience visiting migration sites in Northern France and the ‘Jungle’ of Calais. They also reflect on the water imagery and ocean theme in their work. Their voyages and discoveries have been sources of inspiration for such projects as Lumières Nordiques. Inspired by the theme of migration, Axel Karlsson Rixon also balances the role of the artist as activist, and the question of the place of artists in political debates is raised. Axel Karlsson Rixon actively engages in voluntary work.
Art curator of the World Bank art collection Marina Galvani describes the back stage of curating artistic exhibitions focusing on political issues. She reflects on the structural and institutional constraints on World Bank art programmes, but also how realpolitik and worldwide political events affect the logistics of international art institutions, with artworks necessitating authorisations to be exhibited and artists sometimes being unable to attend exhibitions for political and administrative reasons. Museums and galleries often depend on the support of national and international authorities and are affected by global conflicts. Galvani also explains how the World Bank supports and protects artists worldwide, with a focus on vulnerable artists. Curating Uprooted: The Resilience of Refugees, Displaced People and Host Communities made her realise that artworks travel much more easily than the artists themselves.
Curator of the Prints and Drawings Department at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery, Robyn Asleson grounds her interview on the exhibition Portraits of the World: Switzerland. She reflects on the very definition of national art and thus shows how politically constructed borders are defied by art and artists, who are mobile beings par excellence. She also challenges the traditional definition of the ‘national’ by explaining that the National Portrait Gallery considers to be American anyone who has lived long enough in the United States to contribute to the society and culture. This cultural definition clearly contradicts nation-centric institutional definitions of community belonging. She also informs us on the logistics and technology to locate the origins and mobility or artworks and artists.
Artistic director of the New Museum, New York, Massimiliano Gioni describes the inspiration behind the Phillips Collection’s The Warmth of Other Suns: Stories of Global Displacement exhibition (2019), which questions the very notion of universalism. He further describes how modernism and abstractionism have effectively been expressions of border transcending in art history. He reflects of the artists’ role and influence on current debates, but also the tricky interaction between the art world and the media. More recently, the emergence of documentary art raises the question of the interplay between the arts and societal issues. According to Gioni, Arshile Gorky’s portrait The Artist and His Mother (1936) – speaking of displacement and exile – is a remarkable representation of the experience of migration.
Associate curator of photographs at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery, Leslie Ureña describes the interdisciplinary manner with which she approaches the theme of migration in the collection. Although the collection focuses on the United States, any resident who has effectively contributed to the history of the Unites States can be represented. She also reflects on the racial discourses that are often represented in photography and warns that the context of production must be informed to understand a photograph. Lewis Hine’s positionality can, for example, be better understood in the context of 1914 migration to the United States. She explains that experiences of migration are singular, individual, personal, and intimate, and that photography only give us access to outside points of view.
The neutrality of the academic position is a fiction that is never more exposed than when dealing with social injustice and experiences of dislocation and othering. To conclude this reflection on art and migration, the academic authors join the interviewees in their disclosure of self and its borders. They partake in a reflexive exercise to consider the intersections of structure and agency in this volume. What social position do they hold, and what meaning, processes, and practices have they deployed? They acknowledge, each in turn, their multi-layered positionality and the embedded social and political issues related to gender, race, and culture. They remind themselves and the readers that the migrant experience varies in degrees of hardship according to the subjects’ position in systemic and oppressive structures. They reclaimed throughout the volume the term ‘migrant’ specifically because they see it as capacious rather than defining. This personal conclusion affirms that the experience of migration remains fragmented and fluid, allowing for a flexible definition of migrant communities.