Skip Navigation

Artists Take On Global Migration: ‘It’s Hard To Watch And It’s Hard Not To Watch’ 13

Men wait to board a non-existent plane in Adrian Paci’s 2007 video, Centro di permanenza temporanea (Temporary Detention Center).
Courtesy of the artist and Kaufmann Repetto

A 10-minute drive from the White House — where immigration has a top spot on the President’s “to-do” list — a museum has filled three of its floors with artists’ reactions to displacement, relocation and flight.

“The Warmth of Other Suns – Stories of Global Displacement” at The Phillips Collection features some 75 paintings, photographs, videos and installations exploring the global refugee crisis. The works were chosen by curators from the New Museum in New York and many of the artists are immigrants themselves.

Every day brings stories about immigration — on radio, TV, social media. What can art say that’s different? “Art has a language of its own,” says Dorothy Kosinski, director of The Phillips Collection. “It’s very direct.”

Artists don’t necessarily look at suffering in a different way, “but they know how to express it,” says Dani Levinas, chairman of the Phillips board.

Albanian artist Adrian Paci explores hope, impatience and frustration in his video Centro di permanenza temporanea (Temporary Detention Center). “What you see in this video is a stairway — the kind that you would use to board an airplane on an empty tarmac,” says New Museum curator Natalie Bell. “What’s absent in this film is the airplane, so you see a number of men attempting to board, climbing up the stairs, and waiting.”

For what? They’re on a stairway to nowhere. The plane may never come.

Kader Attia strews second-hand clothing on the floor for the installation La Mer Morte (The Dead Sea).
Lee Stalsworth/The Phillips Collection

French Algerian artist Kader Attia has strewn a gallery’s wooden floor with faded blue clothing — T-shirts, jeans, sweatshirts, shoes for the installation La Mer Morte (The Dead Sea).

“It at once evokes an image of clothing that’s been washed up on the shore — but also serves as a kind of memorial of the people who have been lost at sea,” says Bell.

Sometimes I turn the page on such sights of tragedy — maybe you do, too. Some 71 million souls have been “forcibly displaced” from their homes, according to the U.N. — it’s hard to wrap your head around it. But this exhibition, in its persistent, gentle enormity, forces attention.

Many of the objects in the exhibition are specific — everyday items that in this context have a powerful effect.

“Objects can evoke memories or reflections …” Bell says. “We spend a lot of our time encountering these stories through the news and when we slow down and spend a moment with these objects individually — when we encounter them physically — it can be very different and it can be very powerful.”

Children holding toy sailboats disappear into the water in Francis Alÿs’ 2008 video Don’t Cross the Bridge Before You Get to the River (Strait of Gibraltar, Morocco-Spain).
Courtesy of the artist and David Zwirner

Children appear in several of the works. In Francis Alÿs’ video, Don’t Cross the Bridge Before You Get to the River, they stand on opposite sides of the Strait of Gibraltar. Holding toy sailboats made with old flip-flops, they start moving toward one another. Alÿs — Belgian born Mexico-based — imagined the children serving as a bridge across the waters. Instead, buffeted by waves, tossed, and thrown — they disappear.

Of the works on display in this immigration show, Erkan Özgen’s video Wonderland is one of the most stirring. It depicts a 13-year-old Syrian boy, describing the bombing of his town — the horror of seeing neighbors killed, and going without food and water.

A boy describes the bombing of his village in Erkan Özgen’s 2016 video Wonderland.
Courtesy of the artist

“He’s not speaking a word – he’s deaf and mute,” Bell explains. “So he’s using hand language to tell the story. And somehow, taking the words out of this story made it all the more powerful. … It’s hard to watch and it’s hard not to watch. It’s hard to turn away.”

Turning away is what we do now — from the terrible realities of this global displacement we’re living through. Far from our shores and right on our borders, art like this, on display until September 22, can turn us back.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit