MoMA’s Unblinking Look at the Refugee Crisis


What is shelter? For thousands of refugees and migrants who have made their way to northern France in recent years, clustering in encampments as they wait for a way to reach Britain, it has meant makeshift structures in often squalid settings. Three images shot near Calais by Dutch photographer Henk Wildschut, part of “Insecurities: Tracing Displacement and Shelter,” at the Museum of Modern Art, show refugee habitation at its most precarious: tent-like dwellings made of tarps, rags, and bits of wood, one set in a mud field.

Beside this stark triptych hangs a very different depiction of refugee shelter. A tapestry by the National Union of Sahrawi Women, in collaboration with the Swiss firm Manuel Herz Architects, it presents a map of Rabouni, a camp in the Algerian desert and capital-in-exile of the Sahrawi Republic, which advocates independence for the Moroccan-controlled Western Sahara. Rabouni was set up in 1976; the weavers are refugees, to be sure, but also long-term residents of what has become a town. Indeed, the map shows the location of the market, the school, various government ministries — even a museum.

“Insecurities” is a timely, albeit slightly scattered, take on a vast, urgent subject. There are 65.3 million refugees and internally displaced people (IDPs), according to 2015 data from the United Nations — the most on record. Many have been refugees for decades, but the crisis has lately found heightened visibility through images of the Syrian civil war, of frail overcrowded boats adrift in the Mediterranean, of dreary processions across Europe on foot. Where refugees arrive, the question of shelter arises. What does it look like? How does it address safety and dignity?

Through photography, installations, and artifacts from the field, “Insecurities” looks for answers in art and design. A map of Syria and its neighbors by Vietnamese artist Tiffany Chung registers, with red and yellow dots in varying densities, the number and location of refugees on a given day in 2013. Part of Chung’s cartographic “Syrian Project,” shown at last year’s Venice Biennale, it is paired with a dozen light boxes taken from her series “finding one’s shadow in ruins and rubble,” featuring sepia images of the city of Homs, from buildings shattered by bombardment to streets strewn with rubble. These remind us of the starting point: the launch of the refugee’s odyssey.

Nearby, a wall shows a grid of 42 photos of migrants at sea, versions of a familiar visual (dark bodies, blue water, clear danger), compiled by New York–based artist Xaviera Simmons back in 2010. There are almost no other direct depictions of human beings in the show. Instead, says curator Sean Anderson, the emphasis is on place. “It was a choice: What we don’t see are people,” Anderson says. This averts what he calls the “choreography” often found in refugee photojournalism. More bluntly, it protects against poverty-porn exploitation. It also tilts the exhibition’s formal balance toward architecture and design.

Indeed, the show’s strongest theme is shelter and its variants. Along with the works by Wildschut and the Sahrawi women (each, too, excerpted from a series), a layout of twenty photos and diagrams shows staggering range. Shatila, the old Palestinian camp in Beirut, photographed by David Brunetti, is fully urban, with multi-story buildings and tangled power lines. Turkey’s Nizip II, shot by Tobias Hutzler, is an expanse of shipping containers set like barracks in straight lines. A photo by Gordon Welters shows a field of cubicle-like spaces inside a hangar at Berlin’s decommissioned Tempelhof airport.

Then there are the innovations: photos of DOMO mega-tents by More Than Shelters; elegant, prefabricated Moving Schools, in Thailand, by Building Trust International; Rwandan shelters made of paper stretched on wood frames by the starchitect Shigeru Ban. There are diagrams, too, for new quick-deploy shelters: One, by Suricatta Systems, stretches like an accordion; another, by Suisse Studio, is a foldable private pod.

In the middle of the room stands one actual shelter, which was designed for the Ikea Foundation, the furniture giant’s philanthropic arm, and which ships in the familiar flatpack. It’s a mini-house with an internal partition, windows, and a door that latches, affording privacy and multiple uses: dwelling, office, field clinic. The wall text explains that more than ten thousand of these units have shipped since last year. Left out are the critiques: notably, how the city of Zurich discarded its batch after they failed a fire safety test.

Other artifacts are scattered about: a UNICEF tarp, an arm-measurement band from medical group Médecins Sans Frontières, school-in-a-box field kits. A walkable floor projection by Dutch
studio Submarine Channel diagrams a refugee camp with descriptions of the activities that take place in it, and comes with an interactive digital installation. The point of these seems to be public
education; fair enough. More distracting is a large piece by Reena Saini Kallat that uses a weave of electric wire to depict migrant routes across a world map, though some major flows — for instance, West Africa to Europe — are curiously missing. The map includes circuit boards and speakers and emits a soundtrack of hums, birdcalls, and sirens that fills the room. It would make more sense in a larger show.

“Insecurities” feels like a promising start. It invites, at the least, a fuller investigation of design for humanitarian settings — a busy field in architecture, with plenty of debate — as well as a broader panorama of art responses to forced displacement, including by the displaced subjects themselves. There is also an opportunity to involve the United States, which is represented here, oddly, only by one of Dorothea Lange’s Depression-era photographs of a migrant mother. Linking, for example, the experience of Hurricane Katrina — America’s own IDP crisis, with its FEMA trailers and rebuilding experiments — to those evoked in this show would better underscore that the challenges of emergency shelter implicate everyone in a world of conflict, inequality, and ecological peril.

‘Insecurities: Tracing Displacement and Shelter’
The Museum of Modern Art
11 West 53rd Street
Through January 22