by BRIAN SLATTERY | Aug 13, 2020 9:30 am
Statues stand together, a small family of them, somehow radiating both fear and total resolve. A pair of shadows huddle under rafters. Another group stands together, bearing witness, demanding to be counted. The pieces are all part of a larger exhibit by New Haven-based sculptor Susan Clinard focusing on refugees, migrants, and border crossings, for a new journal seeking to use groundbreaking ways of representing art to perhaps change hearts, minds — and policy.
Clinard got involved in the project at the request of Robert Barsky, Canada Research Chair of law, narrative and border crossing at Vanderbilt University’s college of arts and sciences and law school. “He knew that a lot of my work spoke about border crossings and shared humanity,” Clinard said. The request came only weeks ago — but in another sense has been two decades in the making.
“I came up with this plan just before 9/11 of promoting free movement across borders, and that was in response to years of experience in refugee law,” Barsky said. “While working at a visiting professor at Yale, I started a journal called Ameriquests.” That was in 2003. The idea behind that journal was to “mix together policy, law, and humanistic approaches to border crossing.”
Barsky continued to develop his journal. “But along the way, and in particular in the past few years with this current administration, it’s becoming increasingly apparent that policy can be shifted really rapidly,” he said. “It’s terrifying to watch how quickly years and years of litigation and advocacy can be upended.” Attending the Venice Biennale, which featured artists who featured borders and border crossing in their work, “solidified in my mind that rather than focusing on policy, we need to focus on people’s fundamental attitudes about borders and border crossings.” In some sense, it was about moving away from politics, and toward telling people’s stories.
At the same time, he noted that “the journal was not benefitting fully” from being online. So he approached the Knowledge Futures Group at MIT to talk about how to create “a new journal that would allow for us to pioneer ways of representing artwork related to border crossing. They loved the idea and said they had a specific mission — the goal of developing new types of digital platforms for the dissemination of knowledge.”
So with research money Barsky had from last year, he built a new journal, called Contours Collaborations. When it came time to choose an artist to highlight first, “I put two and two together,” Barsky said, and asked Clinard.
Barsky first connected with Clinard in 2018 ago, when he received an email from New Haven-based writer Jake Halpern. Halpern was looking for someone who could translate Toto Kisaku’s play Requiem for an Electric Chair, a story about Kisaku’s experience with war in Democratic Republic of the Congo and becoming a refugee (the play was performed at the International Festival of Arts and Ideas that year). At the time, “I was a Rockefeller recipient of a residential fellowship in Italy,” Barsky said, “so I was living in a 1000-year-old villa given to the Rockefeller Foundation.”
“Rather than recommending someone for the task, I told him I would do it myself,” Barsky continued. He was fluent in both French and English, and was familiar with both the issues of the piece and that part of the world. He later traveled to New Haven to meet with Kisaku, and then met Clinard. “To thank me for the translations, Susan gave me a sculpture of a boat with a man in it,” Barsky said. Taken with Clinard’s palm-sized sculptures, “I bought one for each of my sons, and sent one to Noam Chomsky,” on whom Barsky has written two books, published in 1997 and 2007.
For Barsky, “much of Susan’s work relates to border crossing. It’s powerful and gorgeous, and profound,” he said. So he wrote her about Contours, which he described as exploring “how art and humanities can shape the way we think about border crossing without using the same stuff we always hear,” Clinard said. It was about seeking “new and creative ways to create empathy for a subject that is so layered. When you learn about border crossing it’s often described as what the laws are, without talking about the human factor.”
Clinard signed on, and she and Barsky talked more about what Barsky had in mind — a way to present art about border crossings that took advantage of the fact that the piece could be online. “The only hitch is that it has to be presented in a new and groundbreaking way,” Clinard said with a laugh. “I can’t just be ‘here’s some pictures of my work — I hope you feel something.’”
So Clinard’s idea centered on placing her artwork not in a traditional white-walled gallery, but in the dark, wooden interior of the Eli Whitney Barn, adjacent to her studio. “Here’s this glorious space right here — why don’t we use it?” Clinard said. The presentation could walk the viewer “through different rooms that tapped into the different stories of people fleeing their homeland, of being in the shadows, and the feelings of actually crossing the border — if they arrived,” she said.
The works used some of her fully embodied sculptures as well as pieces made from cloth and wire that were far more ephemeral, the physical embodiment of shadows. For Clinard, it was “the metaphor of so many immigrants who are here already, being pushing into the corners, not seen.” But she also wanted to show the struggle of “those who have so little — the sheer fight to keep your head above water.”
Collaborating with Clinard in shaping the presentation were two photographers who were themselves refugees, “bringing their own insight” to Clinard’s work, she said. On July 28, photographer Maher Mahmood visited the barn to document Clinard’s artwork in that space. “I tried to set it up so each piece could breathe,” Clinard said. “Then I let Maher decide how to document it.”
On Aug. 2 Weruché Uzoka visited Clinard’s studio to show how the works were made. In thinking about how to put it all together, Clinard was discussing ideas with Catherine Ahearn at Knowledge Futures and PubPub’s staff at MIT, who were suggesting ways of intermingling the works of the two photographers. Clinard was also considering some deft use of sound, “of oars hitting the water, a mother telling a child to keep quiet” — a sensory experience to “generate an empathic connection.” The results will be “free and open-source,” Clinard said. “Anyone can view it. The work will find its place in whatever way it’s meant to be.”
For Barsky, the work comes at a particularly acute time. “If it is the case that you can elect a policymaker who happens to milk people’s fears, racism, and xenophobia and turn it into policy, and upend a legal regime in a short amount of time, then we need to go deeper, and get into people’s hearts and souls,” he said. Many of the appeals to Americans’ hearts and souls, he said, tended to focus on the narrative that “we’re all immigrants…. It’s a well-worn path that doesn’t seem to have much traffic,” he said.
By contrast, he said, “people are very interested in exceptions. Even if they believe in cracking down on migrants, they always know an exception — a gardener, a painter — who is a jewel of a person and deserves status.”
For Barsky, Clinard’s work has a similar effect. Her work isn’t about “migrants” and “refugees”; it’s about people. “A sculpture from Susan of a man who is also a boat makes you think differently and causes you to reflect,” he said. Barsky is always on the lookout for art that offers a different angle on being a migrant or a refugee; he’s currently writing a book revisiting famous works of literature with characters who go through trials similar to those of refugees — Satan in Paradise Lost, Alice in Alice in Wonderland, Frankenstein’s monster in Frankenstein.
But his concerns are up to the minute. “If you would have said five or six years ago that it would be legal and given a stamp of approval by the Supreme Court to have a ban on Muslims, you would have said that was preposterous,” he said. Or the U.S. refugee resettlement movement “could be dismantled in the course of one administration,” or that “the entire international law regime could be ground to a halt by a series of actions taken by the Republican Party — I don’t think you would have believed it.”
“You wonder about the amount of hatred that is in the minds of people who are so dogmatically committed to ruining the lives of people they should be helping,” Barsky continued. Perhaps “you would expect that something of this magnitude would happen in a weak economy,” he added, except that the economy, at least before the pandemic, was nominally strong. “It may be that the United States is built on far deeper roots of racism than we were willing to acknowledge, and in that sense the Black Lives Matter movement has been illuminating.”
From the Trump administration’s efforts to build a border wall to its dismantling of refugee resettlement work, “the effort made to endanger lives is so vast,” Barsky said. “Hurting people and destroying communities — it’s not just sad and horrifying, but really surprising. I hope the work we’re doing can contribute to a reversal, or an acknowledgement that we need to think differently about what our society needs.”
“I’ve been doing this for 20 years,” Clinard said about her focusing her art on social issues and refugees. “So the work was always present and the passion was already there.” She saw her art as trying to push back against the current administration’s “constant way of making others feel less than human. It’s on the minds of so many people — it’s affecting so many.”
Clinard said her installment is set to be available in the fall. Barsky is also talking to other artists already, like Serge Alain Nitegeska, a Rwandan artist who is living in South Africa. “We are in discussions with him to make him the second artist to be represented in our journal,” Barsky said. He saw it as a three-part mission to represent great art, employ refugees, and maybe — just maybe — move refugee policy toward focusing on the humanity beneath the policy.
“It’s huge wishful thinking,” Clinard said. “But I don’t see why art can’t be part of the discussion too.”
Watch the Contours Collaborations website for Clinard’s exhibit, due in the fall.
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Susan is a New Haven treasure, but I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say she’s a national treasure, as well. She fosters empathy, which is the foundation of a humane society.
i am delighted to read about this upcoming opportunity for susan’s work to be included in this new publication
it is a well-deserved honor for this powerful body of work
the fact that it will be presented in this historic barn adds depth and timelessness - qualities that her work embodies