When Home Won’t Let You Stay at Boston’s ICA

The newest exhibition at Boston’s Institute of Contemporary Art, When Home Won’t Let You Stay, (Oct 23, 2019 – Jan 26, 2020) is an ambitious and heartfelt look into the extremely complex subject of human migration.

Curated by Ruth Erikson Eva Respini and Ellen Tani, and assisted by Anni Pullagura, When Home Won’t Let You Stay presents artwork related to migration. Yet the curators acknowledge that there is no one story of migration nor can there ever be a definitive exhibition on the subject:

“The point that we hope to make through this exhibition is that there is no one experience of migration. There is no one thing as an immigrant or migrant experience. In fact there are countless stories to tell… We felt it was valuable to look at the topic of migration through the lens of artists but also at the same time we know that this exhibition is not the final word. We don’t think any exhibition could be the final word. Rather we’re thinking about this exhibition as a signpost as an opportunity for us to think deeply around issues of migration border home belonging and citizenship.”

Eva Respini/Ruth Erickson, Opening Reception, Oct 22, 2019
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L to R: Curators Ruth Erickson and Eva Respini, and artists Richard Misrach, Guillermo Galindo and Anthony Romero.

A shared experience

By putting together a show on the theme of migration, the ICA Boston is reminding the public that migration is ongoing, even as it slips in and out of the public consciousness. This exhibition at a well-respected institution also serves to validate the experience of migration in so many lives across the globe. (In 2017 UN estimated that 1 in 7 people across the globe, over 1 billion people were migrants of one type or another).

The title of the show, When Home Won’t Let You Stay, comes from a poem by Warsan Shire entitled Home:

no one leaves home unless
home is the mouth of a shark
you only run for the border
when you see the whole city running as well

your neighbors running faster than you
breath bloody in their throats
the boy you went to school with
who kissed you dizzy behind the old tin factory
is holding a gun bigger than his body
you only leave home
when home won’t let you stay.

no one leaves home unless home chases you
fire under feet
hot blood in your belly
it’s not something you ever thought of doing
until the blade burnt threats into
your neck
and even then you carried the anthem under
your breath
only tearing up your passport in an airport toilet
sobbing as each mouthful of paper
made it clear that you wouldn’t be going back.

you have to understand,
that no one puts their children in a boat
unless the water is safer than the land
no one burns their palms
under trains
beneath carriages
no one spends days and nights in the stomach of a truck
feeding on newspaper unless the miles travelled
means something more than journey.
no one crawls under fences
no one wants to be beaten

no one chooses refugee camps
or strip searches where your
body is left aching
or prison,
because prison is safer
than a city of fire
and one prison guard
in the night
is better than a truckload
of men who look like your father
no one could take it
no one could stomach it
no one skin would be tough enough

go home blacks
dirty immigrants
asylum seekers
sucking our country dry
niggers with their hands out
they smell strange
messed up their country and now they want
to mess ours up
how do the words
the dirty looks
roll off your backs
maybe because the blow is softer
than a limb torn off

or the words are more tender
than fourteen men between
your legs
or the insults are easier
to swallow
than rubble
than bone
than your child’s body
in pieces.
i want to go home,
but home is the mouth of a shark
home is the barrel of the gun
and no one would leave home
unless home chased you to the shore
unless home told you
to quicken your legs
leave your clothes behind
crawl through the desert
wade through the oceans
be hunger
forget pride
your survival is more important

no one leaves home until home is a sweaty voice in your ear
saying —
run away from me now
i don’t know what i’ve become
but i know that anywhere
is safer than here

This poem touches upon many factors that drive migration: war, famine, strife and hardship. As Shire says, “you have to understand/ that no one puts their children in a boat/ unless the water is safer than the land.” Her verses illustrate the desperation many migrants feel: fear that inspires flight, danger that forces parents to place their children in perilous situations, and the desperation that makes starting over preferable to staying put.

Yet this drive to escape crisis for freedom and security are part of a shared humanity across the world. This connection is evident in the many nations represented through this exhibition. One of the most important lessons of being a refugee is that anyone can become a migrant.

This concept is ingeniously addressed in the exhibition by a piece adjacent to both entrances.

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Adrian Piper, Everything Will Be Taken Away #4

At some point in our lineage all of us come from migrants and there is always the possibility that circumstances would lead to a future migration (by force or by choice) again. This is not an exhibition by and for “other people” – this is for us: all of us.

Transition and Movement

One could argue that even if one does not experience an actual “migration” in their lifetime, we all still experience immense amounts of transition. From our growth from child to adult, moves from home to home, job and relationship changes, life is a series transitional junctures punctuated by (if we are lucky) by periods of relative calm. The pieces in this show are stories of migration and immigrants but visitors can relate or engage with them as well.

The piece that greets visitors to When Home Won’t Let You Stay, is Reena Saini Kallat’s Woven Chronicle. This enormous piece sets a tone for the show which is filled with latent energy. Using electrical wire to create a map of the world, Kallat denotes borders and regions while also linking distant lands with long strands woven together.

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Caron Tabb examining Kallat’s Woven Chronicle
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A detail of Kallat’s Woven Chronicle

The draped wires appear to be barbed, suggesting border walls even as they link locations. The draped wires often end in balls of on the floor that are wrapped into what appears to be “yarn” at the base of the piece, complete with knitting needles. Maps are human creations, and the knitting paraphernalia remind us that borders drawn – often by colonizers – are similar human constructs as well.

Map making is inherently political: where one draws borders becomes fodder for identity, nationalism and future disputes. For example, in this instance, Israel is the same color as much of the Middle East, rather than being “singled out” as it may often be politically. Bangladesh and Nepal are linked together, both a canary yellow. India and Pakistan are a burnt sienna, the border between the two hard to differentiate. Afghanistan stands out, gray and separate from all its neighbors. Taiwan stands alone from Mainland China, starkly independent, as is its preference, despite what its enormous neighbor would prefer. In the great continent of Africa, Namibia alone, like Afghanistan, is gray, whereas almost every other country is linked in color harmony with its neighbors.

When looking at this piece, questions abound regarding the choices the artist made. Why one color over another? Why draw a color or physical border here rather than there? Why one connection rather than another?

Any lover of maps or political science could spend ages examining this piece on its own, with its connections and separations. Like the definitions on the facing wall, it served to introduce and contextualize the rest of the work, reminding visitors that every person has a place in the world and an ability to transcend all borders.

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The ICA’s glossary. This is also available, like many other texts in the show, in Spanish

Migrants are put under an unbelievable amount of stress. Relocation on its own is a stressor, as is any sort of detention or issue with law-enforcement. The piece below brings together all of these moments in a transitional sculpture, weaving together the belongings of on individual, Juan Manuel Montes, that were left behind when he was deported in 2017. The items together represent many of those in irregular immigration situations: their belongings in storage or discarded, the person wondering where they are going, where they will sleep at night, what will happen. These items appear in suspended animation, no longer useful.

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Camilo Ontiveros, Temporary Storage

Transition and movement are primordial in Do Ho Suh’s pieces Hub-1, Entrance, 260-7, Sunbook Dong, Sungboo-Ku, Seoul, Koreal 2018 and Hub 2, Breakfast Corner, 260-7, Sunbook Dong, Sungboo-Ku, Seoul, Korea 2018. Both of these pieces are replications of “liminal spaces” meaning that the represent threshold and transitional spaces amongst other rooms that have more clear uses in a home, such as a bedroom or kitchen.

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Do Ho Suh’s pieces Hub-1, Entrance, 260-7, Sunbook Dong, Sungboo-Ku, Seoul, Korea 2018
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A visitor checking out Do Ho Suh’s works

The concept of a liminal space may be also understood metaphorically as a transitional moment when nothing is settled: that time when the air is pregnant with change, or when one awaits news or information. Often migrants may live is this phase of their lives for years: learning to perch on the knife’s edge of the unknown, enduring in a state of limbo.

The tension between movement and stasis continues in the oil on wood panel Bab el Sheikh by Hayv Kahrman. This piece elicits a sense of movement and transition in its composition that complements the surrounding works.

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detail of Hayv Kahrman, Bab el Sheikh, 2013, oil on panel

Similar to Do Ho Suh’s pieces, here one sees a home-like environment. Nude women, oversized and mostly transparent, float around in a home-like structure. The gestures and the women in different positions suggest motion, and the stairs and platforms symbolize transition. At the same time, the choice of wood panel as the support, and an interior home scene create a stationary feel to the work. This dichotomy creates a pleasant tension in the work.

Kader Attia’s La Mer Morte (The Dead Sea) is another piece designed to create a mental discomfort in its viewers, although it leans towards the dramatic and disastrous. It also suggests the opposing forces of change and transition, as well as stillness in its composition.

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Kader Attia’s La Mer Morte (The Dead Sea)
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Detail of La Mer Morte

A sea of blue clothings strewn on the floor. A shipwreck of clothing, the bodies gone. The color and title of the piece make one think of the ocean, of these drowned at sea. The piece connects right back to Shire’s poem:

you have to understand,
that no one puts their children in a boat
unless the water is safer than the land

This blue “tide” of clothing refers to migration by water – perhaps a less common way of arriving in the United States today but nonetheless a significant a part of the migration story around the world.

Richard Misrach and Guillermo Gallindo’s collaborations address overland migrations from South to North, and both visual and sound pieces are featured in When Home Won’t Let You Stay.

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Richard Misrach, Artifacts found from California to Texas between 2013 and 2015/Artefactos encontrados entre California y Texas de 2013 a 2015.
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Visitor and docent, with Richard Misrach’s Wall, east of Nogales, Arizona/ El muro, al este de Nogales, Arizona, 2014.
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Guillermo Galindo, Angel Exterminador/Exterminating Angel, 2015

These works demonstrate the power and scale of the desert and the lengths to which migrants must go in order to survive. These “cyber totemic sonic devices,” as Galindo calls them, like Misrach’s photographs, are artifacts, repurposed. In their reuse and their shift from wall panel into percussion instrument (for instance) they also migrate and morph – just like humans must often do as well.

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Aliza Nisenbaum, La Talaverita, Sunday Morning NY Times, 2016

While the work of Aliza Nisenbaum doesn’t necessarily fit into the narrative of movement or change, it represents a shift in who is being portrayed in the realm of fine arts. This exhibition, in working to include pieces that also recognize the “after” of migration, e.g. immigrants living in an adopted country, an effort is made to expand the narrative and the conversation around who is considered “worthy” of being chronicled.

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Yinka Shonibare CBE, The American Library, 2018

Similarly, this sense of inclusiveness continues with Yinka Shonibare CBE’s work, The American Library. Here visitors are presented with an entire room of books wrapped in brightly colored fabric. These books have the names of Americans he deemed significant to its cultural history stamped in gold foil upon the spines. Visitors can look up names in an electronic database.

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Yinka Shonibare CBE, The American Library, 2018

In fact, at every turn, it feels as though concepts and conversations are intentionally inclusive and yet purposefully left unfinished. This is a subject upon which there can be no final word, and hence none is given.

As was said in the curator’s opening remarks, “I’m sure if we were to organize the show five years from now it would look completely different. So while there’s no claim to comprehensiveness with this exhibition nevertheless we feel it’s important.” We, the viewers, are invited to see what was selected and to draw our own conclusions.

It’s up to each individual to decide what the outcome from visiting this show should be. And, it’s not too bold to suggest that there should be one. While some art exhibitions may be forgettable, this one is not.

This show is important: the more engagement, the more attendance and attention When Home Won’t Let You Stay and other similar exhibitions receive, the more the ICA Boston and other cultural institutions will be supported in continuing curatorial activism and social engagement. Only open until January 26, 2020, don’t miss your opportunity to see the show.