One only has to read the headlines or turn on a television to find tragic stories of immigrants fleeing persecution, war, and economic hardship. Heartrending images of families abandoning their homelands appear nightly on our electronic screens. Often these beleaguered people are clutching only their meager textile belongings—quilts, carrying cloths, or a few garments.
The story of migration is not one story but millions of stories. The artists in this exhibition comment on some of these stories: the Jewish Diaspora, the African diaspora (resulting from the slave trade), the Japanese internment in relocation camps during World War II, the current Syrian refugee crisis, and other examples of the myriad of displacements that have occurred from ancient to modern times. It is not surprising that contemporary artists, following a centuries-old tradition, have chosen to tell these important stories with cloth, needle, and thread. The artworks in this exhibition are visual “books” that serve as a reference library of the human experience of migration.
Some of the artworks tell personal stories. Some tell collective stories. Some tell both. Connecting Threads by Denise Oyama Miller—a kimono shaped piece with photo transferred images—recounts the hardships of her father’s family’s internment in Japanese relocation camps during World War II and his eventual triumph as a George Washington University trained scientist working on the moon and Mars missions. Faith Ringgold’s painted quilt, The Crown Heights Children’s History Quilt, is not her personal story, but an illustration of scenes from folk tales of Native American, Haitian, Puerto Rican, Jewish, West African, and other immigrant groups who came together to make a vibrant community in Brooklyn, New York. French artist William Adjété Wilson’s The Black Ocean (L’ Océan Noir) recounts 500 years of the African diaspora in a series of eighteen appliquéd cloth hangings. Made in partnership with an artisan workshop in Benin, these artworks use West African pictographs to illustrate both Wilson’s personal family roots and the broader history of the African people. Wilson invites the viewer “to explore this Black Ocean, tracing back a past that is far from concluded, since it holds the key to understanding the present.”
The artworks in this exhibition are as diverse as the diaspora stories themselves. Other examples include a stitched map of the world (Navigating a Broken World by Shea Wilkinson), a repurposed quilt (Receptacles of Memory by Jane Dunnewold), a hand-embroidered quilted coat depicting the migration history of North America (This Land by Sara Rockinger), and a large site-specific installation by Consuelo Jiménez Underwood commenting with mixed media, fabric, and paint on the physical and psychological ramifications of crossing the Mexican/American border.
Artist Patty Kennedy-Zafred could be speaking for all of the artists whose work is included in this exhibition when she writes: “As a story teller, my goal is to create thought-provoking narratives using fabric, dyes, silkscreens, and ink to develop a visual dialogue with the viewer.” Ultimately this exhibition's stories will be read and interpreted by each viewer through his or her own background and experience—contributing to an even greater diversity of meaning.
Stories of Migration: Contemporary Artist Interpret Diaspora is a collaboration between the museum’s professional staff, the George Washington University Diaspora Program, and Studio Art Quilt Associates (SAQA), an organization of 3,400 fiber artists around the world. The exhibition includes the work of six invited artists whose families have experienced diaspora: Hussein Chalayan; Shin-hee Chin; Aino Kajaniemi; Faith Ringgold; Consuelo Jiménez Underwood; and William Adjété Wilson; and thirty-eight SAQA members whose work was selected by Rebecca A. T. Stevens, consulting curator for contemporary textiles, and Lee Talbot, curator of Eastern Hemisphere collections, through a juried completion. The exhibition will be on view at the George Washington University Museum and The Textile Museum April 16-September 4, 2016 and is accompanied by a fully illustrated catalogue. Learn more about museum.gwu.edu/diaspora.