It is a simple installation of green and red LED wires strung up in a darkened space to suggest a room with four doorways.
Do you want to enter this room? If so, you have a choice -- either enter through the official "doorways," ignoring the tape on the floor which theoretically prohibits your entry, or step over the lines of colored light, right through what would be the “wall.” Your motivation to naughtily cross the lines depends on how badly you want to get in.
The piece is entitled “Trespassers” (in French, the term “tres passer” could also mean “many passes or passages”) and was created by Parisian artist Daniel Assayag, who was born in Morocco and is of Arab and Berber-Jewish heritage. His simple yet powerful work is part of the exhibit “Resistant Currents” opening Saturday, July 28, at the Mills Gallery at The Boston Center for the Arts, exploring the timely and provocative subject of national migration policies, notions of assimilation, citizenship and national identity.
“I want to express hope, sensuality and violence,” says Assayag of “Trespassers” which is lit in the colors of the Moroccan flag.
“All of the sculptures are related to my personal experience,” he says. “Whether it is me hitchhiking and crossing European borders and being harassed by border guards because of my Moroccan passport or having to face French authorities every year for 13 years to renew my right to live in France, or my involvement in Moroccan activism as a young adult. All my works are constructed upon chunks of my composite identity.”
Assayag’s piece is just one of about two dozen works being exhibited by seven artists who have lived through, in very personal ways, themes related to immigration and identity.
Boston artist Yu-Wen Wu’s family immigrated to the U.S. from Taiwan after the enactment of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, otherwise known as the Hart-Celler Act, which abolished national origins formulas previously in place restricting immigration from Asia and Africa. (Unsurprisingly, immigrants coming from Northern and Western Europe were given preference.)
Her “Moon Series,” created between 2014 and 2017, is based on interviews Wu had with a woman she identifies by the letter “M.” The woman, only 14 when she lost her entire family in the Chinese Civil War, traveled by night from China to Taiwan, using the phases of the moon to mark the passage of time during her crossing. It took her 12 full moons to finally reach the island of Taiwan.
“In 2013, I met M, a gentle woman in her mid-80s,” says Wu. “At the time I was working on two areas of migration — the Chinese immigration story and forced migrations due to the environment and its ensuing effects. Natural forces such as the moon and the stars are a universal language of navigation and hope. M’s story is powerful and inspired a series of drawings of the moon that I hope portrays beauty, constancy and persistence in the face of violence and despair.”
The delicate drawings are rendered in pencil and ink on a polyester film. One, entitled “First Moon” is quite large and intricate, hinting at infinite patience and attentive observation of the sort required when emigrating by one’s wits in the middle of the night. The second, “Phases of Navigation” shows a series of smaller moons equally delicate, as they would appear at various times of the month.
“The silvery moons are distant, but their constant arc across the night sky are markers we all know,” says Wu. She says the drawings were “informed by NASA images, countless nights of observation and dozens of colored pencils.”
Joanna Tam, a Hong Kong-born, Boston-based artist and a visiting lecturer at MassArt and Tuft’s School of the Museum of Fine Arts, is showing a 3D installation incorporating photographs of sites where Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents have apprehended people they deem “undocumented.” The photos are superimposed on such homey, everyday objects as vinyl siding, lamp shades and pillow cases. The sites pictured include a courthouse, a children's hospital, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services offices and a church's shelter.
“Due to the aggressive and inhumane immigration enforcement policy under this administration, there have been many reported incidents where immigrants (both documented and undocumented) are arrested at these locations,” says Tam.
The photo on one of the floor pillows shows Rising Hope Mission Church in Alexandria, Virginia, where ICE had arrested at least two men when they were leaving the church's hypothermia shelter in early 2017. Another instance of such a site is the Human Trafficking Intervention Court in Queens, New York, where ICE arrested three people outside the courthouse.
"To me, these objects reference home and comfort yet they are actually eerie and unsafe to many." she says. "This is a project that is very close to me on a personal level,” she reflects. “I am an immigrant myself and I became a naturalized U.S. citizen two years ago. I know I am a fortunate immigrant where I was given a path to citizenship. But I also know that there are countless immigrants, documented and undocumented, who are living in constant fear every single day."
Other artists in “Resistant Currents” hail from regions such as South America and the Middle East.
Artist Anto Astudillo’s signature piece in the show is a short documentary entitled “Santiago Barbershop” exploring a lively community of hardworking Dominican barbers in Somerville. Astudillo was born in Santiago, Chile and is a founding member of the Boston film collective AgX and an assistant professor at MassArt.
Joe Joe Orangias earned his MFA from the Museum School of Fine Arts, and now lives between New York and Geneva, Switzerland. His work, “In Full Flow” in collaboration with Joanna Tam, shows letters he wrote to chancellors, presidents and prime ministers encouraging them to admit more refugees and enact safe and just refugee policies. Replies to his letters are also on display.
Yemeni artist Layle Omeran, who now lives in Boston, forms part of Za'faraan, a “Queer SWANA Immigrant Zine” (SWANA stands for South West Asia and North Africa). Their collective work is shown, along with the drawings of Omeran, who shows large portraits of queer Yemeni migrants, done in Arabic calligraphy accompanied by poems Omeran wrote.
“Migrants, gendered Yemenis (women and folks of feminine expression), queers, and definitely the combination of all three, rarely take up any public, visible space and are often extensively censored across spaces of belonging; our bodies often becoming sites of exile and resistance at the same time,” Omeran says. The artist has cleverly combined traditional calligraphy and Arabic letters to create drawings that function as a form of resistance to “censorship and colonialist attitudes.”
“I want queer, gendered Yemeni migrants to take up space, in our own history and in our new homes, to assert that we exist(ed) and that we thrive,” Omeran says.
“Resistant Currents” was curated by Jeannie Simms, artist and director of Graduate Studies at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts at Tufts University, who has long held an interest in issues of migration and who herself does work revolving around these themes.
Artists like Omeran, Assayag and the others, she says, are “part of a movement of contemporary artists who are helping us re-imagine alternative political futures.”
Simms herself spent part of the summer in a small village in Southern Italy, one of the first points refugees from North Africa reach after crossing the Mediterranean Sea. She worked with both Italian and refugee children to create a series of giant cyanotypes that speak to the migrant experience. Works from a previous project done with migrants in Italy will be on display at Boston City Hall in late August.
“It was very moving to work with children in Italy because they don't really know racism yet,” she says. “So they embrace immigrants and people of color, quickly openly and more readily than some of the adults.”
In “Resistant Currents,” Simms says she wanted to explore what some younger, “emerging” artists of color have to say about “what is likely to be one of the biggest political issues of the 21st century.”
She adds: “It's proving to be already.”
“Resistant Currents" is on view at The Mills Gallery at the Boston Center for the Arts at 551 Tremont St. from July 28 through Sept. 23. Opening reception is Saturday, July 28 from 6 to 9 p.m.
Correction: An earlier version of this post misrepresented the artwork that Kameelah Janan Rasheed would be including in the exhibit. The information was deleted. We regret the error.
This article was originally published on July 27, 2018.