Dani Levinas is chairman of the board of the Phillips Collection.
Last month, the Phillips Collection, America’s first museum of modern art, launched one of the most extensive, ambitious and timely exhibitions in its nearly 100-year history, “The Warmth of Other Suns: Stories of Global Displacement.” It will be open through Sept. 22. The massive show featuring 75 artists examines the worldwide phenomenon of people on the move — internally displaced within their own countries, crossing borders to flee war and persecution, victims of trafficking or those searching for opportunity. Much of the work exhibited is made by refugees and migrants themselves.
However, as you travel through the Washington region, you won’t get news of this show from the side of a bus while you wait for a green light or in a Metro station as you make a connection on the way to work. The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority would not accept the museum’s advertising campaign, citing its policies regarding political messaging in ads on buses and trains and in stations. WMATA justified this rejection by citing two specific aspects of its guidelines: “Advertisements intended to influence members of the public regarding an issue in which there are varying opinions are prohibited” and “Advertisements that are intended to influence public policy are prohibited.”
However, this exhibition, with no specific political point of view or policy stance, strives to illuminate the humanitarian crisis of migrants today while reaching back to historical landmarks in U.S. history such as arrivals at Ellis Island and the Great Migration. The art is as varied as the migrant experience. Sculpture, paintings, video, photographs, found objects and installations take the viewer on a kaleidoscopic journey through the modern refugee experience.
Washington is embroiled in political battles about immigration, but it can be an island when it comes to the human experience. It is far from the Greek and Italian islands where desperate people, and sometimes their bodies, float ashore. It is far from the border stations of Texas and California where people stream in from Mexico and Central America. It is far from the teeming refugee camps of Jordan and Lebanon. It is far from the roads of central Africa where families travel on foot to escape the chaos of ethnic strife and simmering civil wars.
“The Warmth of Other Suns” is not a political show. It recommends no policy response from Washington or the international community. It draws no conclusions about who is to blame or what is to be done about the record number of men, women and children who now live far from home. Ever since early humans tried to describe their lives in caves with charcoal, art has been a reflection of the times in which we live. This is art that identifies displacement as a persistent part of the human condition, from works by Jacob Lawrence and Dorothea Lange to Arshile Gorky and Honoré Daumier, to African and Latin American migrants who were made into artists by their own experience.
I am an immigrant. I left a comfortable life in my native Argentina not fleeing poverty but seeking liberty, as it became clearer to me I was living in a lawless state where the constitution was increasingly meaningless. Bringing my family to America made me identify with my father, who left rising anti-Semitism and narrowing opportunity in Lithuania for South America. My family shared something fundamental to all displaced peoples: We did not want to leave. Fleeing your home, your culture, your friends and wider family, your language and all that is familiar is not done lightly, nor with joy. As this exhibition reminds us, the refugee story often ends in tragedy. An artwork by Kader Attia features clothing that has washed up on a Mediterranean beach scattered on the floor, quietly testifying to the human cost of migrant flows. In a searing video by Erkan Ozgen, a language-disabled boy vocalizes his anguish and describes the bombing of his hometown.
I hope that readers will come to Dupont Circle and see our exhibition for themselves. They should prepare to be moved by unforgettable art.