New at Mia, “When Home Won’t Let You Stay”: Artists respond to migration

A new exhibit at the Minneapolis Institute of Art’s Target Galleries takes a deeper look at migration through art.

Ai Weiwei's

Charles Walbridge

Ai Weiwei’s “Safe Passage”, installed at the Minneapolis Institute of Art for the exhibition “When Home Won’t Let You Stay: Art and Migration”. Courtesy of Charles Walbridge.

Alex Strangman

The exterior columns of the Minneapolis Institute of Art’s north entrance adopted a new look this week, exchanging the normal off-white color for an array of oranges, reds, blues and greens.

For the U.S. premiere of his work titled “Safe Passage,” Chinese artist Ai Weiwei covered the columns with a total of close to 2,400 life vests, each representing an individual life affected by migration. The work is just one part of the new “When Home Won’t Let You Stay: Art and Migration” exhibit opening in the museum’s Target Galleries. 

For Gabriel Ritter, curator and head of contemporary art at Mia, the “Safe Passage” work is part of a much larger conversation.

“I really don’t read it so much as a memorial, as much as a beacon to the community and a beacon to visitors to recognize the difficulties that face refugees on their harrowing journey. But, also to implicate viewers themselves. We are part of the problem,” he said, adding that individuals vote for those in office who make policies with real life ramifications.

The title of the exhibit is taken from “Home,” a poem written by Somali-British poet Warsan Shire.

The exhibition focuses on different aspects of migration, immigration and forced displacement, and is made up of more than 40 works by 21 different artists from across the world, some of whom are immigrants, refugees or migrants themselves.

“When Home Won’t Let You Stay” debuted at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston, which organized the exhibit. However, for its installment at the Mia, the museum commissioned Twin Cities-based organizations CarryOn Homes and Postcommodity, based in the American Southwest, to create two Mia-specific works, the “COH Living Room” and “Let Us Pray for the Water Between Us.”

“Let Us Pray for the Water Between Us” is the first part of the exhibit visitors will see upon entering the museum. The work consists of a 2,200-gallon Hazmat tank repurposed as a “self-playing polyrhythmic ‘host drum’” creating rhythms derived from Dakota songs.

Complete with comfortable seating, dim lighting and a plethora of soft pillows, the “COH Living Room” is a shared space at the very end of the exhibit, designed as a place of respite and relaxation where people can decompress after what might be an emotional or draining viewing experience.

The rest of the show features a wide range of different art works from personal accounts to poetic meditations, including sculptures, paintings, installations and videos.

For a state like Minnesota, which has the highest number of refugees per capita of any state in the U.S., according to the Immigrant Law Center of Minnesota, it only makes sense that an exhibit showcasing a wide variety of migration experiences would come to the Mia.

According to Katherine Luber, the Mia’s recently-elected director, it’s time that museums step up and take a lead around starting and continuing difficult conversations.

“It’s the perfect opportunity for us to think about where art museums can make a difference in our bigger cultural conversations about what we stand for,” she said.

What: ‘When Home Won’t Let You Stay: Art and Migration’

When: Feb. 23 – May 24

Where: Minneapolis Institute of Art, 2400 3rd Ave. S, Minneapolis

Cost: $20