Today more than 68.5 million people are either refugees, asylum seekers, or internally displaced within their country of birth, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. The U.N. also reports that one out of every seven people living in the world today can be classified as a migrant. In October, eight women and thirty-one men, all Vietnamese nationals, were found suffocated in a truck in England after having been smuggled across the Channel from Belgium. In November, the ACLU reported that since July 2017, 5,400 children—all fleeing violence and poverty in Central America—have been separated from their parents at the U.S.-Mexico border.
These are words and numbers. We glide over them quickly. Visual art, by contrast, grabs our attention, keeping us from racing by and forcing us to confront what we see. A new exhibit at the Institute for Contemporary Art in Boston, When Home Won’t Let You Stay: Migration through Contemporary Art (its title comes from a poem by the Somali-British poet Warsan Shire), asks us to look beyond statistics to seek “a trace of the human.” Though the migration crisis is one of the world’s most pressing and intractable problems, curators Ruth Erickson and Eva Respini make clear that the exhibit is not meant to be read as a “political manifesto.” Rather, the gathered works and their various mediums—video, photography, sculpture, installation—tackle the reality of migration and displacement in order to expose “the slippery and increasingly inadequate nature of our common language” around the experiences of migrants and refugees.
Many of the works do so by incorporating everyday items left behind during perilous journeys. One of the most arresting is a twenty-eight-foot-long collage of forty-eight color photographs, titled Artifacts found from California to Texas between 2013 and 2015, by Richard Misrach and Guillermo Galindo. The two artists walked the borderlands taking pictures of the discarded objects the title so blandly references: a tube of toothpaste, an aqua-green pair of children’s shoes, a pocket-sized New Testament. The owners of these disparate items were nowhere to be seen, but the images hinted at their presence—and spurred questions. How were the shoes lost? Why would someone leave behind a copy of the New Testament? Were these discarded intentionally or by accident? In haste, or in despair?