Taking its title from the seminal quote by the late author Richard Wright (“Native Son”) and sharing the name with the Pulitzer Prize-winning author Isabel Wilkerson’s celebrated historical account of African American migration, “The Warmth of Other Suns: Stories of Global Displacement,” on view at The Phillips Collection through Sept. 22, takes the tales of global citizens and makes them into an aesthetic narrative of the discomforts of uprooting from the familiar, whether forced or intentional.
This expansive exhibition, which includes works by 75 artists from all over the world, is in itself a feat comparable to moving away from one’s home to a wholly new environment. A collaborative undertaking by The Phillips Collection and the New Museum in New York, the three-floor exhibition brings together works from all five continents to make the themes of migration and immigration tangible, often in difficult and heartbreaking displays.
At the center of the exhibit is, of course, The Phillips Collection’s own masterpiece by Jacob Lawrence, “The Migration Series,” of which the museum owns half of the panels. The series, 60 panels in all, depicts the migration of African Americans to northern and western cities from the South after the failure of Reconstruction.
Produced between 1940 and 1941, the series was the subject of a solo show at the Downtown Gallery in Manhattan in 1941. Lawrence became one of the first black artists to be represented by a New York gallery and interest in the series became competitive. Ultimately, The Phillips Collection and New York’s Museum of Modern Art agreed to divide it, with the Phillips buying the odd-numbered paintings.
Glenn Ligon’s “Double America,” an installation of neon signs reading “America” right side up, and mirrored in a darker version upside down, brings the duality of allegiance, separation and disorientation into a simple but powerful form to drive home the internal coding that often develops among displaced people.
Andrea Bowers’ series of pencil drawings, “Study from May Day March, Los Angeles 2010 (‘We Are All Americans’),” depicting a woman holding a sign reading “We Are All Americans,” and her “Stop Separating Families (May Day March 2015, Los Angeles, California,” literally puts things in black and white.
Through installations, paintings, photographs, sculptures, film and mixed media works, the messages become clear. This is a life-changing activity which often has very harsh and negative outcomes.
One common mode of artistic messaging is the use of tiny houses and toy-like structures, such as in Iranian artist Siah Arnajani’s 2017 work, “Seven Rooms of Hospitality,” which comes off as playful and innocent, but on closer inspection includes a truck where immigrants smuggled in died, a prison holding cell and a “Room for Deportees.”
Beverly Buchanan created a series of shacks, often the only home that new migrants can occupy, including one called “No Door, No Window” and another titled “House from Scraps.”
Italian artist Alighiero Boetti’s series of tapestry maps, “Mappa, 1979,” “Mappa, 1989” and “Mappa, 1972,” are colorful, beautifully embroidered works which incorporate international flag patterns. They feel innocent enough, until one looks closely at the placement of the flags.
Ghanaian artist El Anatsui’s “Dzesi,” an abstract assemblage of found aluminum and copper wire, draws attention to the African people who collect scrap metal and parts from cellphones to resell. Unfortunately, the consequences are often dire and detrimental to their long-term health. The word, in the Ghanaian Ewe language, means “sign” or “to recognize.”
While some works take some figuring out, Arshile Gorky’s portrait “The Artist and His Mother,” from circa 1926-1946, is a realistic rendering of the two. His mother died of starvation while waiting to migrate to America from Europe during World War II.
Other simple works, such as Zoe Leonard’s “Liberty, NY,” from 2001, make one draw in the breath deeply, as the four suitcases sitting side-by-side stand isolated, next to nothing.
Archival photos by Augustus Sherman, Dorothea Lange, Lewis Wickes Hine and Jack Delano’s series from 1940 depicting African American migrants traveling from Florida to Cranberry, New Jersey, to pick potatoes make the experience real, as do photos from Ellis Island, in the collection of a nameless private collector.
Benny Andrew’s painting “Trail of Tears” captures the emotions and sentiments of the Cherokee people forced to relocate from their historical homeland in the American South to Oklahoma.
Andrews was born Nov. 13, 1930, in Plainview, Georgia, a farming community, to George and Viola Andrews. As one of 10 children. Benny followed in the footsteps of his father, George, a sharecropper and self-taught artist. Andrews began working in the fields as a young child, attending Plainview Elementary School, a one-and-a-half room log cabin built by Plainview’s African American community.
As the first in his family to attend high school and later go on to higher education, Andrews later recalled that his arrival at the Art Institute of Chicago was “revelatory” because it was both his first time in an art museum, and his first time in a city or cultural facility without segregation.
“Everyone has to be aware of the issue and to help immigrants to gain their dignity and get back on their feet,” said Léonce Byimana of Torture Abolition and Survivors Support Coalition (TASSC), an advocacy group for so many who flee torture in their homelands, only to find a hostile, unwelcoming country on the other side of escape.
“If you look around this exhibition, most of the art was done by immigrants,” Byimana said. “I don’t know how if you remove all the art done by immigrants, you would enjoy this exhibition. That is not only for this exhibition. If you go almost any place, good jobs are being done by immigrants, building this country. We can do better as Americans to help these people, because we are all part of humanity.”
“The Warmth of Other Suns: Stories of Global Displacement,” is on view at The Phillips Collection (1600 21st Street NW) through Sept. 22. On Sept. 13 and 20, the museum will stay open until 8 p.m., with tours of the exhibit held on Sundays at 1 p.m. and Tuesday through Friday at 11 a.m. The museum is closed on Mondays. Go to phillipscollection.org/events for information on additional complementary programs.