Chicago: Museum of Contemporary Photography

When I can’t sleep, I often find myself on Google typing random things like, “Free Museums in Chicago” into the search bar. So, if you ever wonder where I find my random sources of inspiration, thank Google.

I stumbled upon the Museum of Contemporary Photography when I typed in the exact phrase mentioned above. The MoCP is attached to Columbia College Chicago, just off the Harrison stop on the Red Line. It’s a modern building with large windows and completely a part of Columbia’s campus.

I’m not big on fate, but the museum is featuring the exhibit, Stateless: Views of Global Migration from January 24 to March 31. I discovered the museum February 15, smack dab in the middle of those dates. As an advocate for staying up-to-date on current events with an extreme interest in global migration, this sure felt like fate slapping me across the face.

The museum consists of three floors which came to this exhibit’s advantage. As someone invested in and passionate about this topic, the layout fascinated me. It starts out with the struggles of the United States on the first floor, moves to the Syria Lebanon conflict on the second, and then works up to African refugees crossing the Mediterranean on the third. I found this structure intentionally symbolic of an American understanding of global migration.

The first floor focuses on the DACA and Mexican migration into the United States. Putting this part of the exhibit on the first floor was ingenious. The DACA and Mexican migration hits closest to home here in the States so it will suck people in. While this situation is extremely important and impactful on our day-to-day lives, I think it makes sense to qualify it as surface level when it comes to global migration.

The artwork on the first floor is primarily created by Fidencio Fifield-Perez. Born in Oaxaca, Mexico in 1990, Fifield-Perez was smuggled into the United States at the age of seven. He received his DACA papers in 2012 and has been presenting his work ever since.

My favorite piece by him was entitled El Hielo . Made of acrylic, ink, maps, and map pins, it’s as if the artwork is made of spider webs.  When you look closely you can see that the webs are actually intricately cut out roads from a map. It seems fitting that someone so connected to migration would use maps as a way to express himself.

The second floor was completely dedicated to the Syrian crisis. This example of global migration has had a decent amount of coverage in American news, probably because of its overall impact on the United States as a whole. In my brain, they placed this on the second floor because it’s a form of global migration that hasn’t gone over our heads here in the US. It’s still making an impact on us here, so, if you’ve been paying attention, you know what’s going on.

The images on this floor were shots from Omar Imam’s Live, Love, Refugee series that came out in 2015. Imam was a Syrian refugee that spent time volunteering at a refugee camp in Lebanon’s Begaa Valley in 2012. There was an eerie lightheartedness to the images, all in black and white.  The true pain was found in the quotes from each photograph’s muse often, written underneath the picture.

One quote struck me; hit me so hard in the gut that I felt hallow for the rest of my time on the second floor. It was simple, but seemed to echo in my brain after reading it. It said,

“The gap between me and my memories from Syria becomes bigger; I’m afraid of the blank.”

The third floor was completely dedicated to African migration into Europe, primarily through the Mediterranean Sea. This floor, and particular example of current global migration, is more out of reach than the other two. Out of sight, maybe? I’ve written about the stresses and tragedies that are currently striking the coasts of Africa in a few of my International Updates, but the articles I’ve found on this subject were never American sources.

Most of the work on the third floor was by photographer Daniel Castro Garcia. For me, his most impactful image was Muhammad Ali Bah, Rome, Italy, February 2017.

It’s a lone man in a white and black hoodie, black leather trenchcoat, and black acid washed jeans. He’s looking straight ahead at the camera. The corners of his lips are slightly upturned as if he knows he should smile but a hardness has prevented him from fully committing to it. There’s no smile in his eyes. An outline of a dinosaur’s skeleton is painted on the brick wall behind him. Everything in the image has grey undertones.

The man is Muhammad Ali Bah, who met Garcia in 2015 while living at the C.A.R.A. di Mineo Reception Centre– one of the largest migrant/refugee centres in Italy. It is currently under investigation for fraud, embezzlement, and other illegal Mafia operations.

When you first enter the third floor, you are struck with Garcia’s photos, but as you prepare to leave you will be sucked in by Leila Alaoui’s 6-minute video entitled Crossings as it’s projected onto the staircase’s wall. I highly suggest you watch her depiction of the Sub-Saharan African struggle before you leave.

Leila Alaoui died in 2016, at the age of 33, from injuries sustained from a terrorist attack in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso. She was working on a project for Amnesty International’s women’s right campaign, My Body My Rights.

While I’ve written a lot, the cliché still rings true: a picture is worth a thousand words (I missed that count by thirty). Stateless will be on display at the MoCP until March 31st. It’s a compact museum, so if you’re in Chicago any time this month, I highly suggest dedicating an hour of your time to this project.




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