It’s all about the unexpected details found in the textiles in “Stories of Migration” — the sharp barbed wire laid onto fabric, the expressive faces stitched into quilts, the swirls of color painted onto cloth.
The George Washington University Museum and the Textile Museum’s latest show features 44 artists using the textile medium in powerful, inventive ways to explore the nature and narratives of migration. The timely exhibit is anchored by works from six invited artists and also showcases 38 artists who were juried in by competition.
From universal themes and historical events to personal, family tales, “Stories of Migration: Contemporary Artists Interpret Diaspora” surveys the issue co-curator Rebecca Stevens calls “the overarching topic of our time” through a medium that is particularly attuned to the art of the narrative.
“The story of migration is not one story but millions of stories,” Stevens told The Washington Diplomat. “These are just some of the stories that are in the exhibition — some of them are personal stories, of families or people who migrated, some of them are about just the concept of migration. And the other thing is, there’s more than one way to tell a story.”
Visitors can see Stevens’s meaning throughout the beautifully laid out exhibition, which fills two floors of the gallery space with extraordinary mixed media pieces that embody the diverse faces of migration — from African slaves to Mexican migrant workers to Syrian war refugees.
Take, for instance, the story of the African diaspora, told in three different, remarkable ways through textiles in the exhibition. In William Adjété Wilson’s “The Black Ocean,” the French-Togolese artist worked with artisans in Benin to make a series of fabric panels that tell the history of the region and of the transatlantic slave trade over 500 years.
Alice Beasley’s “Blood Line,” meanwhile, uses the metaphor of a train to make a triptych quilt showing the personal story of her ancestors going from freedom to slavery and into the present day.
A third installation, the stunning “Cotton: Triangular Trade” by Susan Lenz, offers another comment on that diaspora. Blackened cotton rains down like a storm from the hanging piece, the delicate pieces reminding viewers that “the humble cotton ball represents this sad part of history,” as Lenz writes. All three pieces explore one historical event, but deliver their own narrative assessments in wildly different styles and contexts through the same textile medium.
Museumgoers should also take a close look at Faith Ringgold’s “Crown Heights History Quilt,” commissioned for New York’s Public School 22. The piece highlights the different ethnic elements of the community and has been displayed in the school for 20 years.
The Textile Museum paid to have the quilt sent to a conservator to be cleaned before it was displayed, “and now we’re able to return the piece in as new, pristine condition to the children of the school — that really makes me feel good,” Stevens said. And it makes for a striking piece for viewers, showing how painted and pieced fabric can make both a literary and artistic statement as it details scenes from folktales of the immigrant groups who made Crown Heights their home.
“Faith did a piece that was so appropriate, bringing together all the different ethnic elements of the community,” Stevens said. “It’s been very successful in the school, Crown Heights has become a very wonderful neighborhood and I think Faith would think her work was prescient to show it would all come together.”
Another highpoint in the exhibition comes from the haunting “Tagged” by Patricia Kennedy-Zafred, a collection of hand silk-screened images on cotton fabric dedicated to the Japanese children who were interned in American camps during World War II. Bobbi Baugh’s “How Can We Sing in a Strange Land?” offers a vibrant expression of color, with hand-painted and digital-transfer elements reminding viewers of the brilliant possibilities within the textile genre.
Greeting museumgoers on the way in and out of the show is Consuelo Jiménez Underwood’s massive installation, “Undocumented Travelers. Xewa (Flower) Time,” which recalls her personal experience as the daughter of an undocumented migrant farm worker and a third-generation Chicana. With paint, barbed wire, nails and textiles at play, the piece serves as both the perfect introduction and farewell to an exhibition that reveals both the beauty and harshness that comes from crossing borders.
Stories of Migration: Contemporary Artists Interpret Diaspora
through Sept. 4
George Washington University Museum and the Textile Museum
701 21st St., NW
(202) 994-5200 | www.museum.gwu.edu
About the Author
Mackenzie Weinger (@mweinger) is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.