The Warmth of Other Suns: Crossing the Sea

Like the mythic landscapes of the American west, the sea represents a vast and indeterminate site of possibility. For the migrants who venture to cross the Mediterranean in their passage to Europe, the sea is a frontier marked by fear and the unknown. Since 2014, over 18,000 refugees have lost their lives attempting to cross the Mediterranean. Many artists featured in The Warmth of Other Suns: Stories of Displacement address the sea in their work. On the third floor of the exhibition, a gallery featuring the work of Kader Attia, Wolfgang Tillmans, and Xaviera Simmons provides a compelling narrative about the unknown.

The Warmth of Other Suns installation view with Kader Attia, La Mer Morte (The Dead Sea), 2015, Floor installation of second-hand clothing, Courtesy of the artist and Lehmann Maupin, New York, Hong Kong, and Seoul and Xaviera Simmons, Superunknown (Alive in the), 2010, C-prints mounted on Sintra, Collection Leslie and Greg Ferrero, Miami, courtesy David Castillo Gallery; Wolfgang Tillmans, Lampedusa, 2008, Inkjet prints on paper and clips, Courtesy of the artist and David Zwirner, Galerie Bucholz, Berlin/Cologne, and Maureen Paley, London. Photo: Lee Stalsworth

The Warmth of Other Suns installation view with Wolfgang Tillmans, The State We’re In, 2015, Inkjet prints on paper and clips, Courtesy of the artist and David Zwirner, Galerie Bucholz, Berlin/Cologne, and Maureen Paley, London. Photo: Lee Stalsworth

The sea appears as a site of bereavement in La Mer Morte (The Dead Sea) by Kader Attia (1970, Dugny, France; lives in Berlin, Germany, and Paris, France), which presents a spectrum of blue sweatshirts, denim, t-shirts, and shoes strewn across the gallery floor, as if the wearers had suddenly vanished. The colors mirror the shades and colors of the ocean, but Attia’s tableau makes visible what is absent: the human bodies that these garments were made to clothe. In this sense, the scattered clothing parallels the Mediterranean as a void where people disappear and calls attention to the migrants whose deaths at sea remain unreported because their bodies are never found. La Mer Morte offers both a poignant reminder of the loss of human life and a visual testimony to everyday tragedies.

Superunknown (Alive in the) by Xaviera Simmons (1974, New York City, USA; lives in New York City, USA), a grid of found photographs of overcrowded migrant boats, uses serial images of the European refugee crisis to study the sea as a site of contemporary migration. In the process of gathering images from magazines and newspapers, Simmons, a descendant of Black American slaves, European American colonizers, and early Indigenous Americans, considers the experiences of those who have left their homes to journey to the unknown—a notion emphasized in the work’s title. In the sea and outside the boundaries of nation states, both their survival and their status as citizens is profoundly beyond their knowledge and control.

In the photographs at opposite ends of the gallery, Wolfgang Tillmans (1968, Remscheid, Germany; lives in London, UK, and Berlin, Germany) offers two striking perspectives on the situation facing many migrants and immigrants. The State We’re In documents a part of the Atlantic Ocean where international time zones and borders intersect, and evokes the plight of migrants who journey by sea, venturing to cross a vast expanse where the borders of nation states disappear (and also leave migrant boats stranded as coast guards face off in their refusals of rescue). Lampedusa testifies in stark terms to the wreckage of migrant boats piled up on the tiny Italian island, whose proximity to North Africa puts it on the geographic frontline of the migrant crisis in the Mediterranean. These two images testify to the grim situation faced by migrants who risk their lives to seek entry to Europe by sea.

Wolfgang Tillmans, The State We’re In, 2015 (left), Lampedusa, 2008 (right)

Wolfgang Tillmans, The State We’re In, 2015 (left), Lampedusa, 2008 (right)

Also in the gallery, is a copy of an open letter from the Mayor of Lampedusa Giusi Nicolini to the European Union from November 8, 2012, which begins: “I am the new mayor of the islands of Lampedusa and Linosa. I was elected in May, and by November 3, the bodies of twenty-one people who had drowned while attempting to reach Lampedusa had been consigned to me. I consider this totally unacceptable. For Lampedusa it is a terrible burden of grief. By way of the Prefecture, we have had to ask the mayors of the province for assistance just so that the last eleven corpses could be given a decent burial, because our municipal cemetery has no more room. We will make more space, but I have a question for all of you: how big does the cemetery on my island need to be?”

The Warmth of Other Suns: Stories of Global Displacement is on view through September 22.

The Warmth of Other Suns: Telling the American Story of Displacement

As any visitor to The Warmth of Other Suns: Stories of Global Displacement will see, the experience of displacement is a global one, rooted throughout history and continuing to present day. As American citizens, it is woven into our shared experience that we, a nation of immigrants, represent all races, ethnicities, and countries. However, we often overlook the internal displacement of peoples within our borders, both forced and willing, throughout our difficult history.

Through the epic Migration Series by Jacob Lawrence (b. 1917, Atlantic City, New Jersey, USA; d. 2000, Seattle, Washington, USA), the Phillips has been telling the story of the Great Migration since the 1940s. Rhythmic, heartfelt, and important—Lawrence’s work illustrates the movement of African Americans from the South to the North in the first half of the 20th century, seeking better opportunities and living conditions for themselves and their families. A cornerstone of the Phillips’s permanent collection, this series offers a gateway to other works on display in the same gallery.

Installation view of The Warmth of Other Suns: Stories of Global Displacement. On the walls left to right: Jacob Lawrence’s Migration Series (1940-41), Nari Ward’s Breathing Panel, Oriented Right (2015), and Benny Andrews, Trail of Tears (2005). In the center: Beverly Buchanan sculptures

Another important movement of African Americans northward—the Underground Railroad—finds representation in Breathing Panel, Oriented Right (2015) by Nari Ward (b. 1963, St. Andrew, Jamaica; lives in New York City, USA). Ward was inspired by the Congolese “cosmograms” inscribed in the floorboards of the First African Baptist Church in Savannah, Georgia, an important stop on the Underground Railroad. The “cosmograms,” ancient prayer symbols that represent the cycle of birth, death, and rebirth, not only informed the church’s enslaved parishioners that this was a gateway to freedom but also provided them an airway as they hid beneath the floorboards during the day until they could safely flee under cover of night. Ward’s copper-paneled piece is all about movement and transformation: the movement of slaves from south to north, the exhalation of breath from below floorboards to above, the rebirth of a slave as a free person at the end of their journey northward, and the transformative performance of the artist, who applied darkening patina to the bottoms of his shoes and stepped on the copper, leaving behind a trace, a memory of the movement.

Nari Ward Breathing Panel: Oriented Right, 2015 Oak wood, copper sheet, copper nails, and darkening patina 96 x 120 x 2 1/4 in. Collection of Allison and Larry Berg, Courtesy of the artist and Lehmann Maupin, New York, Hong Kong, and Seoul

Nari Ward, Breathing Panel: Oriented Right, 2015, Oak wood, copper sheet, copper nails, and darkening patina, 96 x 120 x 2 1/4 in. Collection of Allison and Larry Berg, Courtesy of the artist and Lehmann Maupin, New York, Hong Kong, and Seoul

Detail of Nari Ward’s Breathing Panel: Oriented Right

The center of the gallery is populated by five small, ramshackle structures by Beverly Buchanan (b. 1940, Fuquay, North Carolina, US; d. 2016, Ann Arbor, Michigan, USA). Buchanan was inspired by the vernacular architecture of the rural south, where she lived most of her life. The sculptures echo the homes depicted in Lawrence’s Migration Series that were left behind when migrants moved north, acting as memorials and remembrances that still stubbornly stand in resistance to time and change. Buchanan tells a story through these structures, often titling works after real people and imbuing them with stories about imaginary and real-life inhabitants. Like Ward, Buchanan documents the movement of peoples by the traces they leave behind—symbols and memories of displacement, injustice, racism, and the hope of progress.

Works by Beverly Buchanan left to right: Room Added, 2011, Wood, 20 x 17 3/4 x 17 1/4 in., Courtesy of Andrew Edlin Gallery, New York; Two Chairs, n.d.; Wood, 12 x 20 x 10 in., Collection of Martin and Rebecca Eisenberg; No Door, No Window, 1988, Wood and acrylic, 14 1/2 x 9 x 7 1/2 in., Private collection, Courtesy of Mitchell-Innes & Nash, New York

Benny Andrews (b. 1930, Plainview, Georgia, USA; d. 2006, New York City, USA), who, like Buchanan, also grew up in the south, utilized his own background as a son of sharecropping parents to approach themes of mass displacement in US history. Completed during the time Andrews was traveling to New Orleans and the gulf coast to study the areas devastated by Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Andrews’s Trail of Tears illustrates the long history of marginalization and displacement of minorities that continues to this day. His process is long and painstaking, building his scenes from layer upon layer of painted canvas and fabric, and includes, like Ward, a sort of performance. Andrews would roam his studio seeking out whatever fabric or shape called out to him and would often cut figures or images out of past canvases. This method created a remarkable blend of textures, colors, and shared experience between his work.

Benny Andrews Trail of Tears, 2005 Oil on four canvases with painted fabric and mixed media collage 72 x 144 in. Courtesy of Michael Rosenfeld Gallery, New York

Benny Andrews, Trail of Tears, 2005, Oil on four canvases with painted fabric and mixed media collage, 72 x 144 in. Courtesy of Michael Rosenfeld Gallery, New York

Detail of Benny Andrews, Trail of Tears

The Warmth of Other Suns: Stories of Global Displacement is on view at The Phillips Collection through September 22.

 

-Liza Strelka, Manager of Exhibitions

The Warmth of Other Suns: Ellis Island

It is estimated that more than 100 million Americans—or roughly 40 percent of the US population—are descended from the 12 million immigrants who passed through Ellis Island during the years of its operation, from 1892 to 1954. Through photographs by Lewis Hine and Augustus Sherman, as well as archival photos, the exhibition The Warmth of Other Suns: Stories of Global Displacement shares images from this important period in American history.

Lewis Hine, Photographic documents of social conditions, Photography Collection, The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs, The New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations

Lewis Hine, Slavic Mother and Child at Ellis Island (from Photographic documents of social conditions), 1905, Photography Collection, The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs, The New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations

Lewis Hine, Italian Mother and Child, Ellis Island, 1905

Lewis Hine, Italian Mother and Child, Ellis Island (from Photographic documents of social conditions), 1905, Photography Collection, The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs, The New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations

Lewis Hine (b. 1874, Oshkosh, Wisconsin, USA; d.1940, Dobbs Ferry, New York, USA) was a science teacher at New York’s Ethical Culture School in the early 1900s when he was given a camera and assigned the role of school photographer. Hine first visited Ellis Island on a commission from the school, and he returned regularly between 1904 and 1909, amassing over 200 photographs of families arriving and awaiting processing. Recognizing the power of such images to generate social change, Hine eventually pursued a career as a social photographer, capturing the conditions of Lower East Side tenements and urban factories. Hine’s works on view, as well as the other archival photographs, depict mainly European immigrants, who made up a large part of the mass movement of people entering through Ellis Island between 1892 and 1954. Hine thought of himself foremost as a documentarian, and he carefully captioned each photograph with where it was shot and the subject’s country of origin. Hine died in poverty with little recognition, but many of his photographs were instrumental in reforming labor laws and many others survive as lasting documents of the early-20th century immigrant experience in the United States.

Augustus Sherman, Italian Woman (from Ellis Island Series), n.d. Modern prints, Photography Collection, The New York Public Library

Augustus Sherman, Guadeloupean woman (from Ellis Island Series), 1911, Photography Collection, The New York Public Library

Augustus Sherman, Guadeloupean woman (from Ellis Island Series), 1911, Photography Collection, The New York Public Library

Augustus Sherman, Russian Cossacks (from Ellis Island Series), 1906, Photography Collection, The New York Public Library

Augustus Sherman, Russian Cossacks (from Ellis Island Series), 1906, Photography Collection, The New York Public Library

Augustus Sherman (b. 1865, Lynn Township, Pennsylvania, USA; d. 1925, New York City, USA) worked as a clerk at Ellis Island from 1892 to 1925, witnessing generations of immigrants arriving from Europe, Asia, Africa, and South America, and in 1905, he began photographing individuals and families, encouraging his subjects to wear their traditional folk dress. While Sherman’s aim in making his portraits was to generate sympathy for the US government’s immigration agencies, his photos were sometimes used, unattributed, in anti-immigration publications rallying against so-called “aliens.” Sherman, however, distinguished his sitters as individuals, and his photographs are captioned with details, often including names, origins, and occupations. In the photographs exhibited, he captures two Italian women whose traditional dress is remarkable, in part because veils—which today might be associated with Islam—were a common feature among Italian peasants, and even today maintain an iconographic status among Christians. With their distinctive attire, these women serve as reminders of how cultural or religious otherness is perceived in different places and in various historical moments.

Ellis Island photos, Archival images, Private collection

Ellis Island photos, Archival images, Private collection

Ellis Island photos, Archival images, Private collection

Ellis Island photos, Archival images, Private collection

Ellis Island photos, Archival images, Private collection

Come see these images and many more by Hine and Sherman in The Warmth of Other Suns: Stories of Global Displacement, on view through September 22, 2019.