Julie Poitras Santos (MFA Faculty)
Making Migration Visible: Traces, Tracks & Pathways is a wide-ranging exhibition of a dynamic group of contemporary artists whose work engages the theme of migration. Organized by Erin Hutton ’98, Director of Exhibitions and Special Projects at the Institute for Contemporary Art at Maine College of Art, and co-curated by Julie Poitras Santos and Catherine Besteman, the exhibit runs through December 14, 2018.
Poitras Santos is Assistant Professor in the MFA program at MECA, as well as an artist and writer whose work is fueled by the relationship between site, story, and mobility, often as a means to create community. Besteman is Professor of Anthropology at Colby College who has conducted extensive fieldwork in South Africa, Somalia, and the U.S. Participating artists include Ahmed Alsoudani ’05, Caroline Bergvall, Edwige Charlot ’10, Jason De León with Michael Wells and Lucy Cahill, Eric Gottesman, Mohamad Hafez, Romuald Hazoumè, Ranu Mukherjee, Daniel Quintanilla with United Youth Empowerment Services (United Y.E.S), María Patricia Tinajero, and Yu-Wen Wu. This exhibition is accompanied by a wide range of events related to migration, immigration, and border crossing that are hosted by MECA and collaborating partner organizations throughout the state. Click here for more information about the exhibition.
Obviously this is a very timely exhibit. Why is this exhibition so important? The United Nations Population Fund estimates that 258 million people, 3.4 percent of the world’s population, lived outside of their country of origin in 2017. The U.N. calculated there were 10.3 million people displaced from Syria alone by the end of 2017. Worldwide, an estimated 65.6 million people are displaced from their homes. Whether migrants in search of better economic and social opportunities, climate refugees, or refugees fleeing violence or other inhumane conditions, millions of people are currently on the move, seeking refuge and setting up lives in entirely new and foreign locations. Making Migration Visible: Traces, Tracks & Pathways challenges the idea that migration is an exception, showing viewers that migration is now the norm, inscribed in our landscapes, memories, bodies, and imaginings.
Migration is such an enormous part of human history; how did the idea for this exhibit develop and evolve? Co-curator, Catherine, and I began talking about this project in late 2016. While I don’t recall the exact moment we began developing ideas for the exhibit, as we spoke about our respective experience and interests, it became clear that from within our different fields and shared concerns we could develop a project together based on the work of artists engaged with the topic of migration.
My work as an artist regards the relationship between site, story, and mobility; many of my projects use walking as a tool to navigate the relationship between site and individual story. My paternal grandparents crossed our northern border on foot in the 1930s looking for work and a transformed livelihood. They lived through some difficult and precarious years as they created their lives and eventually became Americans. So many of us are here because our ancestors migrated, whether brought by force, or coming on their own for reasons of economic need or political freedom. Catherine has spent the past decade interrogating borders, asking whose interests they serve and who they empower. Her work as an ethnographer in Somalia in the late ’80s, and with Somali immigrants in Maine, has provided her with a unique and very personal understanding of the challenges and triumphs experienced by contemporary refugees and local immigrants.
When we first talked about the project, many suggested we should bring this show to fruition immediately in order to address current issues surrounding immigration in this country. Since that time the global conversation surrounding migration has only intensified. We both felt strongly that the exhibition should address the long view, to regard global migration as well as local immigration, and that we should take time with the development of the project. We are addressing a transformation that is ongoing, as well as the human stories that are told from within that transformation. We seek to avoid the reactive response that signifies much of our contemporary news landscape. Rapid response action is critical, but the artists making these works have taken the time needed to draw out a story carefully. We wanted to honor that model of storytelling.
How does this exhibition go beyond a typical gallery experience? What kind of impact do you think this exhibit will have in the local community and beyond? Throughout our exhibition planning, we reached out to local individuals, institutions, and organizations to participate. There are over 70 other institutions planning parallel programming during the timeframe of the exhibit. Some of these individuals and groups are on the front lines of these conversations every day, while other institutions wished to participate by challenging stereotypes and assumptions about migrants through public outreach and programming.
The partner events and programming are really extraordinary. There are parallel exhibitions, artist talks, films, panel discussions, community dinners, community art projects, book releases and discussions, music, poetry – all looking at experiences and stories surrounding im/migration, as well as creating pathways for engagement and activism. The process of connecting with so many wonderful community members has been truly affirming. While the challenges of our current political climate are great, many people are envisioning and actively participating in making our communities more compassionate and welcoming on a daily basis.
How might this exhibit change people’s conception of the role contemporary artists play in our society? In addition to the exhibition and parallel programming, on November 2, we are holding Art+Politics, an all-day symposium (RSVP), which is free and open to the public. Leaders in the community will speak about the role of art in cultivating spaces for civic engagement on controversial topics and sparking social change. Our aim is to engage discussion regarding the potential of art to provide platforms for dialogue and learning about others’ experience. We hope to challenge stereotypes regarding refugee status and experience, immigrant lives, and migrants. The exhibition affirms the power of art to tell stories about who we are as human beings and urges us to engage challenging issues.
How did you and Catherine Besteman select these particular artists? Catherine and I looked at artists who engage their communities in their respective art practices and professional livelihoods. Artists included in this project share an interest in creating work that evokes stories about displacement, exile, mobility, identity, and community. In particular, we wanted to work with artists who focus on traces, tracks, and pathways, rather than on portrayals of people, to enable us to conduct a rich exploration of the landscapes, memory, and ephemera of movement in ways that confront in/visibility and disappearance.
Any particular story that stands out for you during this process? There are so many amazing stories! Daniel Quintanilla works with a local film collective, United YES, to share stories in virtual reality (VR) format and he has showed us how this technology can help us envision new and different worlds. United YES is a film collective started by four friends who grew up together in Lewiston after being transplanted from Southern Somalia through Kenyan refugee camps to Maine. Their love of multimedia production and firm commitment to helping their community is inspirational.
This groundbreaking exhibit and its many components wouldn’t have been possible without raising $80,000 in additional funding, including a leadership grant of $40,000 from the National Endowment of the Arts, a $10,000 Lunder Foundation Challenge Grant, a gift of $10,000 from Colby College, as well as valuable support from an anonymous donor, Coffee By Design, Alison D. Hildreth ’76 Hon. DFA ’17 , Candace Pilk Karu Hon. DFA ’13, the Maine Arts Commission (an independent state agency supported by the National Endowment for the Arts), and Jeremy Moser and Laura Kittle.