On Women’s Vital Role in Migration

Pictured Above: The cover of “Women and Migration,” the subject of a March 13 discussion at the Parrish Art Museum 

Women make up just over half of the world’s population, and their role in families that are forced to move from their homes is a vital one.

The Parrish Art Museum is exploring this dynamic with a talk with several contributors to the 2019 book “Women and Migration: Responses in Art and History” on Friday, March 13 at 6 p.m. 

The essays in the book “chart how women’s profound and turbulent experiences of migration have been articulated in writing, photography, art and film,” giving “an impression of a wide range of migratory events from women’s perspectives, covering the Caribbean Diaspora, refugees and slavery through the various lenses of politics and war, love and family,” according to the publisher, Open Book Publishers. 

“The contributors, which include academics and artists, offer both personal and critical points of view on the artistic and historical repositories of these experiences. Selfies, motherhood, violence and Hollywood all feature in this substantial treasure-trove of women’s joy and suffering, disaster and delight, place, memory and identity.”

Three of the book’s contributors will be on-hand for the discussion, including one of its editors, Ellyn Toscano, Senior Director of Programing, Partnerships and Community Engagement for New York University in Brooklyn, and longtime director of NYU Villa La Pietra in Florence, Italy, where an international group of women convened in 2018 by another of the book’s editors, Deborah Willis, discussed their experiences with migration.

Grace Aneiza Ali, a Curator, Assistant Professor and Provost Fellow at the Tisch School of the Arts at NYU, was at that gathering.

“What we all had in common was that migration was a central part of our work, lives and scholarships,” she said in an interview with The Beacon in late February. “It was so global in its scope, in terms of the women there and the different ways we had experienced migration, displacement and dislocation,” she said. “To share that in an intimate setting was incredibly supportive, and the discussion was so thoughtful and provocative.”

Many of the women there were artists who used media ranging from photography to literature and visual arts to “expand how we think about what migration does to families, the trauma migration has on families,” said Ms. Ali. “For me art and literature is one of more powerful ways to express those experiences. It brings all of our disciplines into the conversation. It’s a beautiful model.”

Ms. Ali’s piece in the book, “The Ones Who Leave… the Ones Who Are Left: Guyanese Migration Story,” is both her story of being born in the South American nation of Guyana and coming to the United States, and the story of four Guyanese photographers whose portraits of their compatriots humanize stories that have been boiled to statistics by a world too busy to process what has happened to them.

“Bringing back art and literature allows us to restore narratives, and reminds us that these are human lives we’re talking about not, just overwhelming numbers and data that takes the humanity out of that experience,” said Ms. Ali. 

Family photographs are a prized possession among Guyanese people, and photos taken at airports as a family member is leaving or arriving, like this one belonging to Grace Aneiza Ali, are a common theme.

Some of the work is more powerful because of the absences in it, like Keisha Scarville’s series ‘Mama’s Clothes,’ in which she returns to the place of her mother’s birth, in Buxton, Guyana, from her own home in Flatbush, Brooklyn. Once there, she drapes her own body in her deceased mother’s clothes.

“Her work is so much about metaphor,” said Ms. Ali. “You see her engaging with this idea of absence, an absent homeland or a mother absent from their lives, especially if your mother is the last connection you have to your nation of birth. You never see that person in Keisha’s photographs, but you know that person is there.”

“Women are integral to this global migration movement,” she added. “It’s the defining aspect of our 21st Century lives. Women are leading that migration globally, and it has a tremendous impact in both cementing families and also tearing them up.”

Ms. Ali will participate in the talk at The Parrish, along with Kathy Engel of Sagaponack, a poet and Chair and Associate Arts Professor at the Tisch School of the Arts.

Ms. Engel has spent nearly 40 years working with women “living the multiple manifestations of war and occupation, inside the U.S. and across other borders” as a founder of the international women’s human rights group MADRE.

Ms. Engel said numerous friends and colleagues of hers were at the La Pietra gathering, and she was “so excited and intrigued with what happened.”

She was thrilled to have her work, “Migrations,” an essay intertwining her poetry with her life experience with female refuges, included in the 700+ page book. 

“It’s an expansive, connecting work,” she said. “That characterizes Deb Willis’s way of being, way of curating, teaching, and being a colleague and artist. She has an extraordinary vision and way of inviting people.”

Ms. Engel found the topic of migration to be an expansive one — from the movement of birds to amoebas, to people who move of their own accord or by force.

When she was growing up on the South Fork, Ms. Engel knew “African Americans who came up from the south to work for pennies in horrible conditions, and stayed and created communities,” and she also listened closely to her great grandparents’ stories of escaping anti-Semitic persecution in Europe. But it wasn’t until she began working with MADRE that she became intimately familiar with the stories of families that were shaped by war and forced migration.

“When there is war, there is always migration,” she said. “It’s very easy for people in generations coming up to not know the context of things that happened not that long ago. This project opened up my whole sense of worlds, and what is possible, and the connectedness beyond the U.S. borders.”

Along with migration comes involuntary and voluntary amnesia, she said, due to the trauma of being displaced, but also among the people who are doing the displacing.

“That’s part of the challenge, to not run away from the parts that are painful, whether you were responsible or not,” she said.

Ms. Engel approached Cara Winfield of the Parrish Art Museum about hosting a discussion of the book.

“The Parrish is not a little museum, but it is my neighborhood museum, and it means a lot to me that this is an international world, where you are also able to do things close to home,” she said. “I’m very grateful to The Parrish that they are responsive to these kinds of ideas.”

The talk will be held on Friday, March 13 at 6 p.m. Tickets are $12 for general admission and free for members, students and children. The Parrish is at 279 Montauk Highway in Water Mill and can be reached at 631.283.2118.

— Beth Young

Beth Young

Beth Young has been covering the East End since the 1990s. In her spare time, she runs around the block, tinkers with bicycles, tries not to drown in the Peconic Bay and hopes to grow the perfect tomato. You can send her a message at editor@eastendbeacon.com

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