An ambitious multi-media exhibit at the Phillip's Collection in Washington, DC explores the "experiences and perceptions of migration and the current global refugee crisis." The exhibition, called The Warmth of Other Suns: Stories of Global Displacement, presents the work of 75 historical and contemporary artists "from the United States as well as Algeria, Bangladesh, Belgium, Brazil, Egypt, Ghana, Iraq, Lebanon, Mexico, Morocco, Syria, Turkey, UK, Vietnam, and more." Many of the artists are themselves refugees, and this lends power and authenticity to the show.

My office mates and I took a field trip to the Phillip's to check out the exhibit, which consists of "installations, videos, paintings, and documentary images." There's a lot to see, and a lot to read--each artist has a story, and for me at least, learning about that story helped me understand what I was looking at. Most of the art is individually interesting and it would be easy to linger with each piece, but in this case, the sum of the show exceeds its parts. Indeed, the great strength of this exhibit comes from its diversity--diversity in experience, place, and time.

The curators have anchored the show with a display of Jacob Lawrence's Migration Series: 60 or so paintings depicting the Great Migration of African Americans from the American South to the North. Between about 1920 and 1970, more than six million people moved North to escape poverty and racism (or, more accurately, they moved to escape from severe poverty and racism in the South to somewhat less severe poverty and racism in the North). The Migration Series is a part of the museum's regular collection, but placing it in the wider context of The Warmth of Other Suns adds to its emotional impact and gives it a sense of universality that is less obvious when it is viewed individually.

Other powerful exhibits include a video installation showing a conversation with elderly Central American parents whose son left for the United States. We hear their perspective of the son's journey--phone calls from different stops along the road, and then finally nothing. The parents learn later that their son has died on the journey. The devastation of their loss is haunting. The mother can't even speak about it. She talks about the weather and the coffee harvest instead, and somehow, this is harder to watch than a direct accounting of her son's demise.

Another room has a floor covered in clothing. On the wall is a large photo of a rough ocean. The clothes are blue, indicative of the sea, and they represent the unnamed and unseen migrants who were lost while crossing the Mediterranean (thousands of migrants die each year on their journeys, many in the Mediterranean Sea). On the wall of this room are three world maps, but by a different artist. This artist commissioned Afghan seamstresses to sew the maps. Each country is represented by its colors or part of its national flag. The maps--with their distinct borders between countries--contrasts with the scattered clothing, lost in the liminal space between nations.

Another exhibit is a video of a young boy from Syria. He is deaf and mute, and he looks to be about 12 or 13 years old. He fled Syria after the Islamic State attacked his home town. Unable to speak, the boy describes the attack with gestures and facial expressions. The artist writes, "The power of his body language [has] made any other language form insufficient and insignificant." I am not sure about that, but his non-verbal description certainly renders any other language form redundant, as it is all too clear that this boy has witnessed and suffered a trauma that no child (and no adult) should ever have to experience.

A more lighthearted exhibit called Centro de Permanenza Temporanea or Center for Temporary Permanence (pictured above) shows a group of migrants climbing an airport boarding ladder for a plane that never arrives. This exhibit symbolizes the inability of Western countries (here, Italy) to return their "unwanted" migrants, who are left to wait and wait.

For me as an attorney who represents asylum seekers, this exhibit was challenging. Our cases are serious and the stakes are high (indeed, just this week, I heard about a colleague's client who was murdered after having been deported by an Immigration Judge). To do these cases effectively, we need a certain level of detachment (to preserve our sanity) and objectivity (to properly evaluate and prepare our clients' cases). These qualities serve us well in the practice of asylum law, but they are the opposite of what is needed to appreciate an art exhibit about migration. But by lowering my defenses and engaging with this art, I find that it provides inspiration and serves as a reminder of why we do what we do.

For those who are not immersed in the world of migration, I think the great power of this art is that it gives voice to people who are frequently voiceless, and humanity to people who are too often used as political pawns ("invaders!" "rapists!"). The Warmth of Other Suns is a thoughtful and sobering testament to those who have journeyed--willingly and unwillingly--in search of a better life.

The exhibition runs through September 22, 2019. For more information, and to see some of the art, click here.

PS: The title of this blog post was shamelessly stolen from my friend Sheryl Winarick, who drove across Eurasia to document various communities and their experiences with migration. Learn more about her journey here.

PPS: I almost forgot the housekeeping. I will be off-line from about August 16 to 25, 2019. So if you post questions or comments, I will try to answer them after that time.

Originally posted on the Asylumist: