Bearing Witness: Stories of Migration through Art
Humans rely on art to express thoughts and emotions about some of the most difficult parts of life, and have done so for thousands of years. Artistic creation can help people process trauma, protect collective memory and culture, document family milestones, and make demands for political power. It would thus be remiss to exclude the arts from our discussions of important and traumatic features of the 21st century such as forced migration, family separation, and COVID-19.
In December 2020, the Selective Bibliography of Forced Migration hosted a virtual community conversation centered around art and migration — from textile cloths to theater performances — with a focus on what it means to bear witness to such moments in individual stories of migration. The discussion engaged students from Vassar College, Spackenkill High School, and the larger Poughkeepsie community, as well as featured keynote speaker, Dr. Brittany Murray. This section of the The Selective Bibliography of Forced Migration serves as a compilation of the sources viewed at the event, additional contextual resources, and discussion questions from the event’s student facilitators.
1. Various artists, “Miracles on the Border: Retablos of Mexican Migrants to the United States,” displayed at the Vassar College Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center (2020)
- See the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center’s tour of the exhibit and a Vassar faculty panel
- Discussion questions (by Naima Nader)
- Consider aspects of the retablos that are indicative of a democratisation of art: the (cheap) price of tin, the size and intention of the art, and the fact that the pieces aren’t signed by the artist. What do you think this does to the work, and does it change the way we view it?
- The retablos were originally not created to be displayed in museums, but rather to serve a specific religious function. What happens when we put them in a museum?
- The retablos were largely made during the 1960s. How does it feel looking at them now? What aspects of the retablos do you think are still relevant today, and what parts are not?
2. Jim Lommasson, “What We Carried,” Lommasson Pictures INC (photography exhibition)
- Discussion questions (by Lee Ann Bael)
- What is the relationship between material objects and memory? And home? And identity? Consider how objects take on memory (so that a dinner plate can represent a complete life) and collapse the distance between a refugee and their home, i.e. transform “home” from stationary to mobile.
- This exhibit’s emotional power comes from its simplicity, however the objects have clearly been posed by the photographer. What do you think about his stylistic choices? Do any stand out? In “Studying for a future that will never come,” how does the photographer’s choice to add an ash handprint change/affect the narrative of the photograph? Does this add or take away from Zaid’s ability to tell his own story?
- Why do you think these objects in particular were chosen and have lasted throughout these refugees’ journeys? If you were forced to leave everything behind, what object would you take with you?
3. Shakespeare in Zaatari (2018), Nun Kreativa Studio (video)
- See also this New York Times article and “Finding Voice Through Theater: Forced Migration and Self-Expression”, another section of the Bibliography.
- Discussion questions (by Samantha Cavagnolo and Kaiya John)
- King Lear is a Shakespearean tragedy known for its nuanced discussions of betrayal, death, and human suffering. Sometimes it is referred to as the most tragic of all of Shakespeare’s tragedies. What does the choice to perform King Lear with residents of Zaatari refugee camp say about the goals of the performance? How might King Lear speak to refugee and migrant experiences?
- Actress Bushra al-Homeyid (13) says: “‘I like that I can change my personality and be someone else,’” (Hubbard, “Behind Barbed Wire”). How is theater both a form of escapism and a form of engagement? How does theater affect those acting and those watching differently?
- How does the accessibility of theater compare to that of other art forms? Further, how does the choice of a Shakespeare play itself (initially created to be widely available to the common public) affect the accessibility of the project? In other words, is the fact that the play is Shakespeare render it more accessible, or reinforce the cultural domination of Shakespeare and Western theater?
4. Various artists, Uncaged Art: children’s art from Tornillo
- Discussion questions (by Ava McElhone Yates and Julia Gill)
- This exhibition highlights many different types of art (drawings, dresses, sculptures) that represent “home” and/or happiness. What do you think of when you think of home? What are your “home symbols?” How would it look different from what the kids created?
- Is there an imperative to understand why the kids are making this art in the first place? (Learn more about the now-closed Tornillo Detention Center for children.)
- Do you feel a sense of responsibility after viewing this art, and understanding its context? What is that responsibility and what can our next steps as a viewer be?
5. Various artists, “The Fabric of Healing: Story Cloths by Survivors of Trauma, War and Gender-Based Violence,” curated by the Common Threads Project
- Discussion questions (by Matthew Brill-Carlat)
- What can a quilt communicate that a painting — or a song, or a play — cannot? Does an online exhibition of quilts communicate those things successfully?
- Cloth #11: Bridge Over Una (Bosnia, 2016) is about events that happened more than two decades ago, yet we can see that the trauma is still very potent. Even after starting a new life in a new place, does one ever stop being a refugee? How can art exist as an outlet — perhaps means of catharsis — in negotiating this reality?
- Reflect on your own/your families’ experiences with storytelling, migration, and art (especially textile art). Even art that does not depict a journey can still be a memorial to a journey.
Compiled by Kaiya John (Winter 2021)