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Rethinking Exile at the Yale University Art Gallery

It makes a quite peaceful, oddly playful sight—pieces of vividly colored Italian glasswork thrown about on a polished steel cart, almost tempting you to hold one up to see it glimmer in the sunlight. At a glance, the shapes are reminiscent of ripe pomegranates from the artist Mona Hatoum’s native Lebanon. After a closer look—grenades thrown in the violence of the civil war that forced her to flee.

On September 1, Artists in Exile: Expressions of Loss and Hope opened at the Yale University Art Gallery, bringing together a diverse array of works by artists who in the past 200 years were forced, or chose, to leave their country of origin for various reasons, including discrimination, war, and genocide. For Frauke V. Josenhans, the Horace W. Goldsmith Assistant Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art who worked on the exhibition for several years, it was important and timely to offer a more nuanced view of the condition of exile.

“I think it started with being a little frustrated,” she explained to The Politic. “Looking back at publications on the theme, the view has always been limited to a Eurocentric, male, 20th century perspective. When I began my research, I was surprised to discover that so many great artists, especially female ones, who have important stories to tell about their experiences in exile, were left out of the narrative.”

Max Rosenberg, Teaching Fellow in art history at Yale who focuses on the postwar period in the United States and Europe, pointed to these same limitations in the traditional understanding of the theme.

“Historically, when we talk about art in exile, we tend to associate it with the fleeing of artists from Nazi Germany and other totalitarian regimes of 20th century Europe,” he said, “These are very particular historical occurrences, and it is interesting to see this bias challenged.”

Wandering the exhibition, visitors are indeed exposed to a true diversity of works which, spanning centuries, styles, techniques and contexts, perhaps would not find themselves on the same museum floor in any other way but for the fact they are expressions of life in exile. Here, neighbors of Mona Hatoum’s Nature morte aux grenades include not only Gauguins and Dalís, but photographs of Vietnamese landscape by An-My Lê, neoclassical portraits by Jacques-Louis David, Elizabeth Catlett’s linocuts honoring African American women, and a sculpture by New Haven’s local Mohammed Hafez.

“I wanted people to be surprised, to challenge some of the assumptions [about] what is exile, who was in exile, who is in exile today, to show that this is not a concept limited in time and that it is present now as at any point in history,” said Josenhans.

The diversity of works on view testifies to how universal these experiences are across time and space. Both Josenhans and Rosenberg emphasized that exile understood as a state of mind, or an act of challenging a social norm, is experienced by most individuals on a personal level at some point in their lives.

Mona Hatoum, Nature morte aux grenades (detail), 2006–7. Crystal, mild steel, and rubber. Yale University Art Gallery, The Heinz Family Fund and Katharine Ordway Fund, 2010.150.1. © Mona Hatoum

Artists in Exile is a collection of intimate, poignant accounts of war and discrimination, a deep nostalgia for a home left behind, and complicated identities shaped amidst cultural confusion. Yet Johansen’s ambition was to explore exile beyond its connotations of loss and trauma.

“It came to be an agent of ingenuity,” she said, arguing that for many artists, separation from the familiar was a catalyst for creativity and a push to innovate in form and technique.

Rosenberg pointed to collages by Kurt Schwitters, who fled Nazi persecution to Norway and then to London.

“You can see that in the late 40s his work suddenly gains a distinct pop flavour–an influence of a robust ad culture which was already developing in the post-war UK at the time of his arrival,” he said. “It is interesting to think how experiences of a new place become internalized and hybridized in the artist’s practice–continuing what they have been doing but with new forms or subjects.”

At the same time, he added, these ‘outsider’ artists made great contributions where they immigrated, and their ideas influenced subsequent generations, as demonstrated by the New York School made up of painters fleeing Western Europe.

“In many contexts, it can also be a liberating experience” stressed Johansen “as for female artists who in their place of exile might be able to escape social restrictions prevalent in their country of origin.”

The same notion of liberation and self-exploration holds true when thinking of many African American visual artists, writers, and musicians who in postwar years decided to settle in Europe or Mexico to escape racial discrimination in the United States. James Baldwin famously writes of his time in Paris: “I met a lot of people in Europe. I even encountered myself.”

Rosenberg believes that the exhibit’s engagement with such voluntary forms of exile, along with forced displacement, is what makes it particularly powerful.

“Marcel Duchamp, for example, [had] fled France voluntarily, in the midst of fervent hypernationalism and anti-Semitism, much like what we see recurring today. His growing uneasiness at the political climate compelled him to emigrate and willingly adopt an exile persona,” he said, and added of the exhibition’s timely relevance: “it is interesting to think that not having a national identity can be a powerful creative act, especially in times of heightened nationalism and xenophobia.”

It is also of contemporary relevance that Josenhans referred to Edward W. Said, who in his 1984 essay “Reflections on Exile” outlined “the pleasures” of exile, proposing this “life led outside habitual order can give an entirely new conception of one’s surroundings and awareness of a multitude of cultures and homes, thus instilling an expanded vision of the world and increased empathy for others.”

Rather than a clearly defined physical place, for many exiles home came to be a rather blurry concept, an idealized memory of lost times, or an unattainable source of nostalgia that was often hard to reconcile with the reality of their homelands if they decided to return. To Josenhans, it was essential to explore the question of “what and where is home”, and let the visitors explore it for themselves.

That is why the exhibition includes an interactive map, where one is invited to trace their own origins and family stories of migration. “I would like for people to take a moment and think about their own background, their own itinerary,” said Josenhans.

With numbers of refugees and otherwise displaced people rising all over the world, experiences of exile are becoming as common a human condition as ever. Perhaps in rethinking our approach to displacement and mobility against their limited narrative in public discourse, art has the potential to help us understand those experiences, connect with them, and realize they are in fact not fully foreign to our own stories.