Minneapolis Institute of Art’s neoclassical facade just got a colorful makeover. Nearly 2,400 blue, orange and red life jackets cover the six Greco-Roman stone columns. Viewed from afar, they look like a smattering of confetti against the white snow.
This is artist Ai Weiwei’s installation “Safe Passage,” using life vests worn by Syrian refugees who made the perilous journey from Turkey to the Aegean islands. During the height of the Syrian Civil War, nearly 1 million people landed on the island of Lesbos. Its mayor gave the discarded jackets to Ai, the renowned Chinese dissident who is a refugee himself.
This confrontational yet poetic piece, originally installed at the Berlin Konzerthaus in 2016 as a critique of Europe’s response to the refugee crisis, sets the tone for Sunday’s opening of “When Home Won’t Let You Stay: Art and Migration.”
The touring show, featuring the work of 21 international artists and artist groups, originated last fall at the Institute of Contemporary Art/Boston. Bringing it to Mia now made sense, given the political tensions around immigration, said Gabriel Ritter, head of the museum’s Department of Contemporary Art.
“My hope is that people come to this exhibition with an open mind and recognition that there is a commonality among us, and at the same time that many of us are implicated in these very same decisions,” said Ritter, who augmented the show with several key works, including “Safe Passage,” which is making its U.S. debut.
“We vote for people, and the decisions that are made in our name have very real ramifications. Even if you don’t think of yourself as an immigrant, unless you are of Native or Indigenous background, [these are all things] we need to come to terms with.”
A perilous journey
Tackling issues of migration, immigration, statelessness and the plight of refugees, the exhibition itself is a journey that, much like a migrant’s, is full of uncertainty and may even provoke feelings of fear, abandonment, not knowing where to turn or when it will end. (But since this is an art show, you can be sure you’ll survive.)
No one leaves home
unless home is the mouth of a shark.
You only run for the border
when you see the whole city
running as well.
You may see some familiar faces here, though — three Somali women, gathered at a community garden in Minneapolis, painted by Mexico City-born artist Aliza Nisenbaum during a 2017 residency at the museum.
Elsewhere, Do Ho Suh used polyester fabric and stainless steel to recreate the entrance and the breakfast corner from his childhood home in South Korea. As you walk through these spaces, you may experience a ghostly sense of wandering through someone else’s memory.
Camilo Ontiveros evokes the first DACA deportee under the Trump Administration in “Temporary Storage: The Belongings of Juan Manuel Montes” — a precarious stack of personal effects (mattress, boxing gloves, a mirror, a karate outfit, several belts) made into a sort of satchel that one could conceivably carry on their back.
New York-based Colombian artist Carlos Motta’s 11-channel installation “The Crossing” shows spoken testimonials of 11 LGBTQI individuals from Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Morocco, Syria and Pakistan who were seeking asylum in the Netherlands.
And while migrants may be a heated issue, what about the Indigenous people who preceded them? The original exhibition in Boston overlooked that issue, so Ritter commissioned the Indigenous interdisciplinary arts collective Postcommodity to create a work called “Let Us Pray for the Water Between Us.”
The group repurposed a 2,200-gallon Hazmat chemical storage containerand turned it into a drum. Suspended above the museum’s rotunda, it plays an honor song for the Dakota people, bringing into focus water rights and water stewardship.
The Greco-Roman antiquities normally exhibited in this space, including the ever-popular Doryphoros, have been removed.
“They’re taking the Western colonial core of the museum and displacing it with an Indigenous sculpture,” said Ritter, thereby “decolonizing the museum.”
A place to rest
After this mentally and emotionally challenging exhibition, visitors can rest in a calming gallery filled with pillows.
“Living Room,” an installation that includes audio interviews from 11 immigrants and projected excerpts of their stories, was created by the Minneapolis-based collective CarryOn Homes, made up of five artists from China, Malaysia, Japan, Italy and the United States.
Ironically, only four could be here to install the work. Peng Wu was trapped in China because of the coronavirus. And a visa issue forced Zoe Cinel to return to Italy, but the artist was able to make it back in time.
“Over the last five months, we developed this project across two oceans and three time zones,” said Cinel. “We had meetings at 2 a.m. in Italy, 11 p.m. in China and 5 p.m. here. ... We think it matches the idea of the show because Peng couldn’t come back. I almost wasn’t allowed to stay.”