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Visualizing the Refugee Experience

This article is part of our latest special report on Museums, which focuses on the intersection of art and politics.

By Joseph Williams, The New York Times

March 11, 2020

“Village Life in Rwanda Before the 1994 Genocide” by Lily Yeh, an artist who also works with displaced people.Credit...Lily Yeh

The goal of an exhibition at the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore is to underscore the danger of demonizing any human being as an undesirable “other.”

BALTIMORE — The art speaks in color. On one wall, there is an explosion of azure, saffron, ruby and emerald, brilliant hues of a sunny village in central Africa. On another, there are subtle yet dramatic autumnal pastels — wheat, chocolate, pumpkin, sky blue — drawn from farm life in the Polish countryside. They speak across time and history: The African paintings, a densely composed triptych of acrylic paint on plain brown paper, are set in rural Rwanda of the 1990s, as neighbor turned against neighbor in a genocide. The scenes in Poland, among a series of nearly three dozen, handcrafted with needle, thread and cloth, tell an unfolding story from the late 1930s, as Nazis occupied the hamlet of Mniszek.

Perhaps most significantly, the art speaks to viewers, bearing witness to the often unspeakable plight of refugees: desperate, traumatized people fleeing persecution and death.The African paintings by Lily Yeh, an artist who worked with survivors in Rwanda and elsewhere, and the quilt series, crafted by Esther Nisenthal Krinitz, a Holocaust survivor, are twin centerpieces of an arresting new exhibition, “Esther and the Dream of One Loving Human Family,” on display at the American Visionary Art Museum here.

Rebecca Alban Hoffberger, the museum’s founder, director and primary curator, said she wanted to contrast the continuing global refugee crisis — and the hostile, often malicious political reaction to it — with unflinching images of displacement through the eyes of displaced people.

“Genocides have been going on for almost the entire human history,” Ms. Hoffberger said, adding that politicians in the United States and some European countries condemn refugees as “vermin.” She said she wanted the exhibition to examine the question of how minor prejudices against groups of people become inflamed — leading to often inhumane ends. The United Nations estimates that there are 25.9 million refugees worldwide, the highest number recorded since World War II and almost twice the total from 2012. If the number includes those people who are displaced yet remain within their national borders, the total soars to more than 70 million. About half are children.

“The reality is there are more refugees than ever before,” she says. “With climate change, you’re going to see that only increase.” Yet compassion, she says, seems absent.

Refugees “don’t leave where they are, hoping, ‘I’ll get a better job’ or hoping, ‘I can feed my family.’ They leave for imperative reasons,” often matters of life or death.

The art by Ms. Yeh, 79, the quilts by Ms. Krinitz, who died in 2001, and other work in the exhibition is in step with a trend in the global art world.

In Minneapolis, the Institute of Art has wrapped its facade in Ai Weiwei’s 2016 work “Safe Passage” — nearly 2,400 blue, orange and red life jackets worn by Syrian refugees during the deadly ocean passage to Greece. The installation is part of the museum’s exhibition “When Home Won’t Let You Stay: Art and Migration.”

“Barca Nostra” by Christoph Büchel was created from a barge that sank while carrying refugees in 2015.Credit...Gianni Cipriano for The New York Times

And in Venice last spring, the Swiss artist Christoph Büchel unveiled “Barca Nostra” — a work created from a barge that sank in the Mediterranean in 2015, killing some 1,100 North African refugees.

The Baltimore exhibit centers on the story of Ms. Krinitz, who fled Poland in 1942 as a seamstress after Nazis occupied Mniszek. Soldiers ordered her family to report for relocation, but Esther, then 15, convinced her parents to let her flee with her 13-year-old sister. The teens never saw their family again; their parents and siblings most likely died in a concentration camp.

After emigrating to the United States in 1949, Ms. Krinitz married, raised children and resumed her craft, but decided in midlife to sew her story. Her daughter, Bernice Steinhardt, said her mother stitched the first panel in 1977 for family, but the striking images — and the gripping, cinematic narrative unspooling from her — was for the ages.

“When she finished each piece, she would just give them to me,” Ms. Steinhardt said. “But it became clear after a while that this was an ongoing series. And it was stunning, and it needed to be seen. I needed to get them out of my house and into the world.”

Ms. Krinitz’s panels, 36 in all, begin with images of bucolic life — the family tending animals, villagers baking Passover matzo — but intensify with the Nazi occupation. The sisters’ flight, narrated with hand-stitched text, is harrowing. They peek from a haystack, hiding, after neighbors have turned them away; on the road, they pose as Catholic schoolgirls when passing soldiers chat with them.

While Ms. Krinitz used her craft to preserve her history, Ms. Yeh, the force behind the Rwandan art, teaches dispossessed people in places like South Sudan and the Palestinian territories how to tell stories they often cannot articulate. Ms. Yeh, who helped still-grieving Rwandans create a vivid memorial atop a mass grave, was inspired to create the colorful triptych — a tale of village life interrupted by slaughter and escape — after conducting workshops in 2006, helping survivors express their pain. Their images, displayed alongside the triptych, are powerful: in one, a mother braids her child’s hair, and in another, bodies lie bleeding on the ground.

Art describing tragedy, like mass murder and life-or-death migration, connects with viewers in a universal language, Ms. Yeh says. Raw, hand-drawn images of suffering and loss, she says, reach past political agendas to speak on a visceral level.

As humans, “we’re afraid of pain. We’re also afraid of responsibility,” said Ms. Yeh, founder of Barefoot Artists, a collective that uses the power of art to heal “broken places.”

Paintings and rudimentary drawings, she said, also compel viewers to engage with the stories emotionally and confront their own assumptions about displaced people: “You know, how could it happen?” But then, she says, “one feels silence, the guilt of silence, of witnessing people’s sufferings — deep sufferings” and not being able to do anything. “The personal is the universal.”

A version of this article appears in print on March 13, 2020, Section F, Page 22 of the New York edition with the headline: Visualizing the Refugee Experience.


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