Many people have been known to experience sadness or even rage when they hear about kids being kept in cages at the U.S.-Mexico border. But unless we live or work closely with people who are personally affected by these crises, the endless scroll of headlines on our smartphones quickly recedes into the guilt-inducing background noise of contemporary life. As much as we fight it, it’s easy fall into compassion fatigue borne of information overload.
But art has the power to wake us up to the rampant geopolitical and environmental upheaval.
“Artists have been reacting to political climates around them forever,” says Brandee Caoba, the assistant curator at SITE Santa Fe. For instance, she says, “you have Picasso’s Guernica  and Goya’s Third of May, 1808 . Artists have this spectacular way of sharing information in a way we’re able to digest, to give the viewer different ways in. We’re hoping that when our visitors come, they can really see the connectivity between themselves and others.”
SITE Santa Fe presents Displaced: Contemporary Artists Confront the Global Refugee Crisis, 10 projects by artists from the United States, the United Kingdom, El Salvador, Guyana, India, Ireland, Syria, China, and South Africa. Many of the exhibition’s artists have experienced displacement in their personal lives or have spent their professional lives working with those who have. Displaced was originally scheduled to open on March 21 and close the day after Labor Day.
“We were about four days from opening the exhibition when we had to shut down for the pandemic,” says Irene Hofmann, SITE’s Phillips director and chief curator. “We’d worked on the show for two and half years, and then we had to go dark for six months. This show felt especially urgent, and we had artists coming from all over the United States and points around the world, so the disappointment was significant. We asked the artists and funders to extend the loans of the pieces because we hoped to open the exhibition in the future. Because everyone’s schedules had been upended, the art had nowhere else to go, so now we’re able to share it with the public.
“The refugee crisis didn’t go away — it just got pushed out of the headlines,” Hofmann adds. “The CoViD-19 crisis hit migrants even harder than the rest of us. While this show can be tough to view, it has beauty and hope to offer, and feels more important now than ever.”
Displaced runs through Jan. 24.
Caoba and Hofmann, the exhibition’s co-curator, first conceived of the exhibition that became Displaced in 2018. At the time, the Syrian refugee crisis dominated the news. They considered doing an exhibition to coincide with these events, but Hofmann says they realized that taking more time for research would allow them to connect immigration issues around the globe to those closer to New Mexico.
In addition to finding new ways to articulate the myriad impacts and consequences of the world refugee crisis, one of the goals of Displaced is to present work that’s coming from the interior of the immigrant experience, rather than work made about a hot-button social issue. Hofmann says that, for this reason, they shied away from overtly activist art in favor of more deeply personal statements. However, Hofmann says, many of the artists see themselves as activists, with political convictions that cannot be extracted from their creative expression.
“But they’re still producing really engaging objects or images. There’s work in this show that’s very beautiful and poetic, and work that’s visceral and hard to look at, perhaps, for some. By addressing this topic in an art museum, we’re bringing forward some of the strongest voices in contemporary art to give us perspectives that are different than what comes in the barrage of news.”
DISPLACED features exhibits from artists and presenters from around the world. Here's a rundown of what you'll see at SITE Santa Fe.
The harrowing accounts of six refugees were recorded in in-depth interviews by artist Candice Breitz for Love Story, a 7-channel video installation. Juxtaposed with the interviews, actors Julianne Moore and Alec Baldwin reenact segments of the refugees' narratives in another video, edited to highlight the ways true stories change in the telling.
Guadalupe Maravilla makes multidisciplinary art about his twin traumas: immigrating to the United States from El Salvador when he was 8 years old, in the care of human traffickers, and getting Stage 3 colon cancer 30 years later. He believes undocumented immigrants carry a burden within that can turn into disease — and he wants to help people heal.
Artist Harriet Bart and Yu-Wen Wu worked with regional refugee groups on the community-based project Leaving/Belongings, amassing hundreds of bundles for the art installation, which tells a global story of hope and survival.
Every year since 1993, the European NGO network UNITED for Intercultural Action has maintained and updated what is known as the List of Deaths as a way to monitor the human cost of Europe’s strict immigration policies. Although it's not considered art, the 57-page list printed on standard paper appears in SITE Santa Fe's Displaced. "Reading something digitally, you’re just glancing. With paper, you have to stop and turn the page,” says SITE Santa Fe’s assistant curator Brandee Caoba.