The audio file for this article was produced by the Ceramic Arts Network staff and not read by the author.
My first instinct was resistance to the notion that migration could relate to anything other than the migration of peoples, and more specifically, in these times, migration as catalyzed by strife, oppression, colonialism, despotism, and war. As I listened to the remarks by the curator, Hanspeter Dähler, during the opening for the International Academy of Ceramic Arts’ (IAC) members’ exhibition at the Ariana Museum in Geneva, Switzerland, in September 2022, I could feel my bias shift. As I spent time with the exhibition in what felt like catacombs, the lower four large galleries of the museum, I was moved to a different place in my understanding of what I might have previously attributed to the definition of migrations. Such movement in the viewer’s mind and heart is surely the mark of not only excellence in the art, but in the assembly, design, and meaning-making that the whole represents.
The IAC is a juried, international, membership-based organization headquartered in Geneva that to date has accepted or invited nearly 1000 members from over 79 countries. “Melting Pot,” the theme and title of its 50th biennial congress, attracted 335 participants from 44 countries, including over 150 IAC members. Of those members, 32 were juried into the “Migrations” exhibition. Dähler, in his opening remarks, noted that his plan was to arrange the works in a “disturbed symmetry” with the intention of facilitating a calming effect in the perception of the individual works. He places the works in relation to each other “partly with regard to content, partly with regard to form.” Dähler, himself, was challenged by an expansive definition of migration presented by the array of selected works. He found that the majority of selected works could be loosely associated with architecture, home (abandoned or destroyed), and by extension, homeland. Two of the large Ariana galleries are dedicated to artworks that relate to these themes. The rest of the groupings pivot around travel, nature, the transmission of culture(s), as well as the changing nature of the vessel and/or ceramic materials or techniques themselves.
The first artist I met at the opening was Norma Rodney Harrack. I immediately warmed to her Jamaican accent (myself of Caribbean ancestry), and engaged with her regarding her work, Windrush. Rodney Harrack draws on her people’s recent history, inspired by a German cruise ship, the Empire Windrush, that docked at Kingston Harbor, Jamaica, in May 1948. The work takes on a surprising twist, as it not only speaks directly to the migration of 500 Jamaicans who took advantage of cheap passage to London, England, from Jamaica, it tells the story of the transcontinental transmission of ceramic
knowledge. Cecil Baugh was one of the Jamaican migrants. He ended up apprenticing with the eminent British potter Bernard Leach in the UK. He returned to Jamaica and transferred his skills and knowledge to a new generation of Jamaican potters, marking the beginning of the Jamaican studio pottery movement. Rodney Harrack’s Windrush is minimalist in its design and adornment: a white matte glaze finish on a slab-built vessel that deftly evokes the spirit of the ship.
Adel Souki of Brazil submitted a set of three vessels, titled Mortuary Boat. These are more literal in their realization, yet remain squarely in the realm of the suggestive. Fashioned of ceramic media, the passengers of these makeshift long, narrow, open boats are universal, and could be interpreted as any people moving/fleeing from anywhere to any place. They are formed by a blending of shells, tissue, engobe (colored ceramic wet clays) and other found organic matters, that emerge synthesized by the wood fire. For Souki, the migration process mirrors the physical and chemical transformation of the ceramic process, and alludes to a hybrid outcome of new cultures. The three boats in Mortuary Boat carry the stories of those who leave their countries in search of a new home. Each vessel’s cargo conjures everyday clothes, toys, and cultural and religious artifacts.
Yanze Jiang of China rendered Temporal Migration. The work assumes the guise of fabricated urban and agricultural landscapes through the use of layered honeycomb ceramics, built both vertically (the skyline of the 21st-century cityscape) and from an aerial perspective (suggesting an array of crops and fields) in two large collage-like tableaux. I find this work successful, not only in its expertly rendered precision, but also insofar as it urges the viewer to make his or her own associations between the two landscapes. Jiang herself notes that “the work brings together past and present, ideal and reality, old and new,” and addresses “industrialization, modernization, natural resources, the migration of human beings, and cultural transformation.” All of these things and much more are visible, and yet the absences, what is not seen—the people, the devastation, tradition yielding to modernity—offer up a tension that is greater than the sum of the parts.
The Croatian artist Danijela Pičuljan’s work, Migrations , is abstract and chilling. A hollow band of porcelain with a fiberglass frame defying gravity is roughly poised in an isosceles triangle, blushed with cobalt oxide. Here, the trope of absence versus presence works on multiple levels: Pičuljan references her country’s war-torn history, where people have emigrated cyclically for political or economic reasons over the centuries, leaving whole villages empty; it also speaks to the ultimate migration of the human soul. As we strive to leave the world in a better place than where we found it, we “undoubtedly leave a void in the space we lived in and in the hearts of those around us.”
Razalina Busel, of Belarus, transmutes the displacement of the over 6 million Ukrainian refugees and 60,000 of her people after Belarus’ 2020 presidential elections, as well as the more recent exodus due to the war in Ukraine, by making a global social commentary on the discomfort of the surveillance we are subjected to in the process of global migration. Baggage is a ready-made suitcase. What’s inside is only visible through the photograph of the scanned bag, as displayed in the exhibition. The scan of the suitcase reveals an object that appears to be a cactus-like green heart. It is in actual fact a porcelain heart. This art is highly conceptual, while at the same time, it literally gets to the heart of the ramifications of political divisiveness brought on by the greed and power of despots.
The Ukrainian ceramic artist Yuriy Musatov transmutes the brutality of war in his country by distilling the human experience to the simplicity of two people engaging in the shared ritual of tea. His work, Tea Express , is a marvel of mold making and slip casting, engineered and designed into a form that recalls the Empress Express. The work, a toy-like white porcelain train locomotive, is designed with the precision of clockwork. It is fully functional, yet sculpted to a “tee:” there are two mugs on either side, the creamer and sugar containers come apart, and the teapot forms the body of the engine. Musatov ties the dialog of tea to the interpenetration of cultures. For this artist, “the train only goes forward, rushing like an arrow towards its destination.” Musatov weaves a complex metaphor between life, tea, and the train in forward motion—we are all in a state of constant migration from one place to another. Change is inevitable in life, location, and in one’s self.
Two Swiss artists chose to interpret the theme of migration in relation to the absence of a physical home, i.e., the homeless. To me, Maude Schneider’s Bundle, a set of five pieces set on the floor, yet suspended by earthenware poles, mirrors with verisimilitude the fabric of the proverbial bundled babies, delivered by the stork— the convenient side-stepping of the biology of humankind’s entry into this world. In this work, Schneider showcases the vagrant or itinerant nature of the workers who were casualties of the Great Depression. For Schneider, the work “takes on the meaning of an object that bears witness to a time and an event, crystallizing notions of flight, despair, and abandonment.” Here, as with many works in ceramics that imitate another material, there is a deeper meaning hidden in the fragility of porcelain: the symbolism introduces the precariousness of migrant people, in sharp contrast to the harshness of their lived experience.
Patricia Glave comes full circle to migration in its first-degree meaning, i.e., the migration of peoples. Glave similarly exploits the fragility of the medium of porcelain, referencing the precarity of dwellings as they relate to the homeless. Curiously, Glave speaks to the beginning of humanity, citing, “The very first shelter is the womb of the woman who bore us; it is the most beautiful shelter.” For Glave, The Shelter, evolves into the children’s play hut, and ultimately the survival huts that adults build out of necessity. The installation is minimal, yet powerful. The beauty and simplicity of monochrome porcelain asserts a sobering observation, “a paradox in view of the drama of migration and of our world, which learns nothing from the history of the past . . . an imaginary shelter.”
I was drawn to the geometry and seeming simplicity of Cecil Kemperink’s Wishful Thinking. This artist from Pays-Bas (the Netherlands), takes a hopeful view of humanity and urges us to focus on humanity as one community. The work is an assemblage of handbuilt, coiled rings in muted tones of unglazed clay: browns, off-whites, light grays. There are hundreds of 3- to 4-inch rings linked together, and in the image printed in the exhibition catalog, Kemperink is shown wearing the piece around her neck, bent downward, so it appears to be more of a yoke than adornment. Here, migration is about the never-ending movement of the circle moving from link to link, as a perpetuum mobile. Kemperink articulates the allegory, “Each ring is essential, influencing and working with the other, linked together. Each link is integral to the continuity of the chain.”
Christine Coste, from France, exhibited both sculpture and painting, Capsule 3D No°3 and Capsule 2D No°6. The works are unified in line and design: abstract figurative works in a minimalist genre. The sculpture made of unglazed dark-tan stoneware clearly depicts two booted human legs, devoid of a torso; the head is attached directly and appears to be a birdlike helmet. The painting follows the line and form of the sculpture, though brightly colored in layers of repeated forms—white, pinks, reds, mauves, blue, and yellow. Together the works compelled me to find out the stories behind these deformed bodies. Coste references the crossing of boundaries between the inside and outside of the human body, exploring “its organic, living, and pulsating side to reveal its innermost being.” She is also exploring the boundaries between body and mind. Here Coste creates an altered version of humanity. She considers migration of mind and body within the context of survival. Her distorted renderings take the viewer through their own migration of the senses.
The Finnish artist Eliisa Isoniemi’s work is rooted in the aftermath of the Second World War for over 430,000 Finns who were evacuated when their homes were captured by the Soviet Union. The piece, Cattle, depicts photographic archival imagery of the mostly teenage women who were forced to walk their cattle up to 311 miles (500 kilometers) to safety. The images are arranged in a series of eight tiles, lit from behind. The effect of the installation is chilling and draws the viewer into these young women’s stories. The images themselves dissolve at the edges into the porcelain, and emerge in black and white as they might have appeared as found objects, scattered in an abandoned makeshift home decades ago. Some of the images are translucent, or in relief, where Isoniemi has used a lithophane technique to create places where the light shines through. Both techniques evoke the ephemera of memory and archival photography where, as the artist reminds us, “image fade[s] away like our memories and our history.”
I have touched on but 11 of the 32 exhibiting artists. And so I close with an invitation to the reader to seek out the online catalog of the exhibition, which offers artists’ statements and studio images of Migrations. There is no doubt that the theme of this exhibit inspired the artists to evoke the turmoil and suffering of our contemporary world as well as the rich interchanges between peoples that characterize our times. I offer the last words to the curator, Hanspeter Dähler, whose summation is a fitting enticement, “the exhibition takes us to the heart of unusual histories, life trajectories, and intercultural exchanges.”
You can download the exhibition catalog at The Ariana Museum website, www.musee-ariana.ch/en/exhibitions/migrations.
the author Heidi McKenzie is an artist, author, and curator living in Toronto, Canada. Learn more at www.heidimckenzie.ca.