Migration Stories From World War II to Now

UTICA, New York — A 2022 New York Times article by Susan Hartman, “How Refugees Transformed a Dying Rust Belt Town,” details how Utica, New York, was reinvigorated when it became the new home of refugees escaping war and persecution in countries including Bosnia, Myanmar, and Somalia. The US Census Bureau estimates that about 22% of Utica’s 64,000 inhabitants were born outside the US. This significant immigrant population inspired the exhibition Between Worlds: Stories of Artists and Migrations, on view at the Munson through May 5.

Between Worlds spans a period from the cusp of World War II to today, and presents works that address migration, displacement, home, and people’s geographic and metaphoric movements. While pieces like Yasuo Kuniyoshi’s painting “Empty Town in the Desert” (1943) and Frederick Sommer’s photograph “Arizona Landscape” (1945) reflect the strangeness of moving overseas and encountering the American West for the first time, other works speak to migrations within the United States. 

Romare Bearden’s lithograph “Before the Whistle” (1973) depicts an African American couple readying for work, exemplifying those who moved from the Jim Crow-era South to the industrialized North during the Great Migration. Phil Young’s large-scale acrylic and sand painting “Glen Canyon Desecrations No. 3” (1990) protests the development affecting Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, which crosses the Arizona-Utah border — an area traditionally inhabited by and important to many Indigenous Americans. Shaunté Gates’ dynamic mixed-media composition “There’s No Place Like Home” (2021) reflects ambivalent memories of friendships and trauma experienced in the neighborhood where the artist grew up.

Supplementing the artworks, a QR code in the gallery leads visitors to a website that hosts audio stories of travel, survival, adaptation, and identity by people currently living in Central New York whose families were displaced, including members of the Haudenosaunee Six Nations Iroquois Confederacy. 

Several big-name European-born modernists like Louise Bourgeois, Marcel Duchamp, and Willem de Kooning are also included in the exhibition. In a time when the word “immigrant” is often used as a slur in sociopolitical discourse to describe people of color from the Global South seeking sanctuary in North America and Western Europe, these White 20th century artists’ experiences may seem irrelevant to current events — and some of their works in this show do ostensibly have little to do with its theme. It’s important, however, to recall the global turbulence of the early to mid-twentieth century, a period marked by the spread of Naziism across Europe, the Armenian Genocide, and the rise of strongman dictators like Mussolini, Franco, and Stalin. Many of these artists’ stories and works remain as relevant today as they were nearly a century ago.

Between Worlds: Stories of Artists and Migration is on view at the Munson Museum (310 Genesee Street, Utica) through May 5. The exhibition was curated by Mary Murray and was created through a multi-year collaboration between the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; the Mattatuck Museum, Waterbury, Connecticut; and the Munson, Utica, New York. 

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