Correction: An earlier version of this story used an incorrect pronoun to refer to Aino Kajaniemi. This version has been updated.
Some fables of migration are epic: “Exodus,” for example, or “The Aeneid.” But most are modest in scope, which might seem to suit the exhibition “Stories of Migration: Contemporary Artists Interpret Diaspora.” The show, at the newly twinned Textile Museum and George Washington University Museum, features the traditionally quiet arts of fabric, needle and thread.
The exhibition was organized in collaboration with Studio Art Quilt Associates and includes work by six invited fiber artists and 38 chosen by a jury. The patchwork creations are meant to evoke “families fleeing their homes clutching textile belongings — quilts, carrying cloths, a few garments,” according to the exhibition’s notes.
Yet the selection represents that idea more in content than in form. Most of the pieces are too edgy to be mistaken for family heirlooms and simply too large to fold into a satchel or pack. William Adjété Wilson’s “The Black Ocean” tells the history of the trans-Atlantic slave trade in 18 appliqued cloth hangings. Consuelo Jiménez Underwood’s map of the Washington area, emblazoned with the names of Indian tribes that once lived along the Potomac and Anacostia rivers, fills an entire wall of the high-ceilinged new building.
Although a few works could have been made centuries or even millennia ago, many employ modern technology — photography, digital printing, projected video — and reflect a contemporary sensibility. Wall pieces unspool messily onto the floor, and unpeopled clothing stands as if inhabited, a ghostly reminder of barely documented emigres. Among the unconventional materials are found bandages, hand-stitched into a mandala by Beth Barron.
There are several free-standing 3-D creations. Finland’s Aino Kajaniemi depicts the journey of some of her 19th-century compatriots to the American Midwest as a series of rocks covered in green fabric that resembles moss. The doll-like figures in Susan Else’s “Crossing Points” include a bazooka-wielding soldier and a running refugee with two children in tow.
“Stories of Migration” was inspired by recent crises that have driven hundreds of millions into some sort of exile. The risky voyages of refugees across the Mediterranean to Europe are evoked by Robert Bein’s “Boat Travelers,” in which the people are blank shapes in a more detailed ocean. In Underwood’s “Undocumented Border Flowers” — a cousin of her D.C. map — the U.S.-Mexico border is a harsh red line through a blossom-rich landscape.
Despite the emphasis on current events, the stories told here begin in prehistory. In Buff McAllister’s “Out of Africa: Primal Diaspora,” divergent human bloodlines flow outward in a rainbow of colors. Among the biblical parables are Brigitte Kopp’s upholstered tower of Babel, surrounded by a message of brotherhood in multiple languages, and Bobbi Baugh’s lament for the Jews exiled to Babylon some 2,600 years ago, “How Can We Sing in a Strange Land?”
Dislocation, or at least our awareness of it, has escalated since then. In addition to works on the trans-Atlantic slave trade and the displacement of American Indians, there are several pieces about European Jews’ emigration to North America and the incarceration of Japanese Americans (and Japanese Canadians) during World War II.
The topics even include “white flight” to the suburbs after American schools began to desegregate, as well as the moves of a U.S. military family. Kristin La Flamme’s “Home Is Where the Army Sends Us” stacks fabric models of houses, among other things, in a shopping cart.
Only a few pieces play on traditional uses of textiles. Sandy Gregg arrays strips of fabric that include miniature national flags across a white backdrop scrawled with words in black. Sara Rockinger’s “This Land” is a sort of topographical map in the form of a long, flowing robe. Shin-hee Chin’s hanging scrolls — one with text in Korean, the other in English — are topped with jackets, suggesting that people clothe themselves in their native language.
Two of the most powerful works are hardly fabric at all. Joy Nebo Lavrencik’s “Mogadishu” is two battered feet, rendered primarily in dried, shaped hog gut. Susan Lenz’s “Cotton, Triangular Trade” is a circular curtain of dangling cotton bolls, hit here and there with black spray paint.
Such pieces take the Textile Museum far from its historical role as a collector of notable garments, tapestries and the like. This show’s subtitle, after all, refers to “contemporary artists,” not “fiber artists.” Clearly, the museum’s new quarters give it room to grow well beyond its original role.
George Washington University Museum and the Textile Museum, 701 21st St. NW. 202-994-5200. museum.gwu.edu/diaspora.
Dates: Through Sept. 4.
Prices: $8 suggested donation.