Making Migration Visible
Words By Debra Spark
An exhibition at the Institute of Contemporary Art at Maine College of Art grapples with issues of migration and border crossing by internationally-recognized talent
You know how sometimes an entire college campus or town will read the same book? When they do, sometimes ancillary programming addresses the issue (often there is an issue) emerging from the pages. It’s rarely “just” a literary conversation.
What if you did the same thing, but for an entire state, and replaced the book with an art exhibit, and fore-fronted the issue and made the ancillary programming extensive? What if the art exhibit included internationally-recognized talent and the issues were migration and border crossing? Not One City, One Book, but One State, One Conversation. What if the chosen state was not the most likely state for such a discussion—a southwestern state, as of the moment—but the most unlikely? What if you proposed Maine, the whitest state in the nation bordered by the second and third whitest. What would that be like?
From October 5 to December 14, 2018, Maine will find out, as those are the dates for Making Migration Visible: Traces, Tracks, and Pathways, a major exhibition at the Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA) at Maine College of Art (MECA) in Portland. More than seventy community partners across the state will be sponsoring companion exhibits, guest lectures, community dinners, panel discussions, films, and open houses, all with the goal of getting people talking.
The Making Migration Visible exhibit has a quirky requirement for its participants. Their art cannot include people. Anthropologist and Colby professor Catherine Besteman, (co-curator and organizer with artist and MECA professor Julie Poitras Santos), says she wanted “to explore the concept of displacement or mobility without any human representations, to get away from the idea of the abject refugee with the sad photo, and the other ways refugees are typically presented in the media.”
Many of the participating artists already steer away from human representation. 2017 MacArthur Fellow and anthropologist Jason De León works with items abandoned in the desert by undocumented migrants. One of his pieces consists of a wall of children’s backpacks, piled one atop the other. Syrian artist Mohamad Hafez, an architect in New Haven who designs skyscrapers by day, uses off-work hours to make macabre dioramas from found objects—often hyper-realistic models of blown-apart Syrian homes, one side sheared away to show the ruin.
Other artists are tweaking their work to fit the exhibition requirements, including Daniel Quintanilla, Hilowle Aden, and Shuab Ahmed Mahat, the participating artists who are also immigrants living in Maine.
Born in Mexico City of a Mexican father and American mother, Quintanilla is a video editor and filmmaker, whose recent work has been inspired by the invisibility his father felt when the family moved to St. Louis, when Quintanilla was 11. An experience with virtual reality (VR) led Quintanilla to partner with Hilowle Aden and Shuab Ahmed Mahat, two immigrants from Somalia living in Lewiston, to make A Shared Space, a project about Somali life in Maine in the wake of the 2016 presidential election. The intimacy of VR—the way it places you right inside a space and then allows you to look around—gave Quintanilla an idea. “There are all these spaces we either don’t get to go in or are never invited into,” he says. “What would it be like to be in Shuab and Hilowle’s homes, to hang out at breakfast with them, or visit their mosque? I don’t know anyone who gets to be in that space.”
For the purposes of the ICA exhibit, though, A Shared Space had a significant problem—it has people in it—Aden teaching his children Arabic, Mahat feeding his daughter, others celebrating at a wedding. So, Quintanilla, Aden, and Mahat decided to include the “other” Maine immigration story in their work for the ICA exhibit—that of seasonal migrants.
Even long-time Mainers often do not know that Mexicans, Haitians, and Central Americans rake our blueberries and form our Christmas wreaths; Jamaicans pick our apples; Haitians cut our broccoli; Central Americans and Puerto Ricans work in the sea urchin and fish processing industries; and Canadians and Central Americans lumber in the North Woods. People from the Caribbean, Eastern Europe, and South America provide the help for the summer hospitality industry which drives the economy.
Of the new project, initially planned for the blueberry barrens in the isolated easternmost parts of the state but expanded to include Somali community farms in Lewiston, Quintanilla describes his idea: “I want there to be a reveal in each space. So, when you first put the headset on, your vision is partially blocked, though you hear people working in the space. Almost like a shower curtain you can sort of see through.” To make this work, a fourth collaborator, VR user experience designer and CEO of Yarn Corporation Sam Mateosian, will create a program that geolocates, so that the viewer might see something in the periphery of a scene and turn to it, only to find something has disappeared.
Because not everyone attends art exhibitions, Quintanilla and his partners bring their work to public spaces. Last May, when the four men took A Shared Space to Portland’s Congress Square Park, passersby may have only stopped for the novelty of the VR experience. Nonetheless, they found themselves exposed to a world they knew little about. One teen took off his headset to wonder what it would be like to watch a horror movie in VR. Despite his focus, he saw aspects of the Somali community, even if only as a side product of his interest in the VR experience. While Quintanilla’s and his partners’ work will be in the ICA exhibition, Besteman and Poitras Santos want programming to reach across the state. That way, everyone, even if they cannot visit the Portland exhibition, can find a nearby film, library discussion, or public event that will serve as a metaphorical headset, allowing them to see migrants and migration anew.