Daniel Castro Garcia, Catania, Sicily, Italy November 2015 Credit: Courtesy the artist and East Wing, Dubai

In a time when the question of whether to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border dominates the national discourse and the question of who belongs on each side is omnipresent, two Chicago exhibits wrestle with what citizenship means today, especially for those who are deliberately and structurally denied these rights.

“Dimensions of Citizenship: Architecture and Belonging From the Body to the Cosmos” will be on view for the first time in the United States at Wrightwood 659 after its debut in the U.S. Pavilion at the Venice Biennale last year. Curated by Niall Atkinson, Ann Lui, Mimi Zeiger, and Iker Gil, “Dimensions of Citizenship” plays on the architectural implications of citizenship through seven spatial dimensions, ranging from citizen to nation to, finally, the cosmos, produced by seven transdisciplinary teams. “Stateless: Views of Global Migration” at the Museum of Contemporary Photography, by contrast, looks to patterns of exclusion and belonging in an unprecedented movement of people across borders fueled by conflict, economic inequality, and climate change.

Today migration is at its highest level since World War II. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), in 2018, 68.5 million people were displaced worldwide; of that number, 25.4 million have been designated as refugees; ten million have been left stateless (that is, not recognized as a citizen of any state and often lacking access to basic rights such as freedom of movement and education); and fewer than 105,000 have been resettled. Only 22,491 refugees were resettled in the U.S. in 2018—half the 45,000 permitted, and just a quarter of the total number of refugees resettled in 2016.

Organized by MoCP executive director Natasha Egan, “Stateless” humanizes the numbers of this mass movement and nods to the contradictions and collective trauma of this crisis through the lenses of eight contemporary artists. It asks what kinds of stories are being told about people forced to leave home and who gets to tell them. Some of the most intimate works elevate the individual and incorporate the direct voices of people uprooted from their culture and language and left adrift in unforgiving immigration systems where paper often trumps people.

Educator and visual artist Fidencio Fifield- Perez, who was born in Oaxaca, Mexico, learned to hoard mail at a young age. “My mom told me to never throw away mail,” he says. “It was a way of documenting where we physically had been here, and proof that we exist in this country.”

In order to qualify for DACA, nearly 800,000 undocumented youth have presented a melange of report cards, receipts, and letters to prove their existence. For Fifield-Perez, the process has ingrained in him the necessity of holding on to paper. DACA allowed him to live without fear of deportation for the first time. In his series of 15 paintings called “Dacaments,” Fifield-Perez paints lush renditions of his favorite houseplants on envelopes that represent his own immigrant paper trail: an agave on a white envelope addressed to his husband brings back memories of the Logan Square porch where they met; a split-leaf philodendron, a wedding present, spreads across an envelope from the University of Iowa that held his master’s diploma. “Home is where my plants are,” he says.

Omar Imam and Bissane Al Charif, who are both displaced from Syria, make a radical declaration of love for Syrian lives and stories in an age that has systematically devalued them—the UN stopped counting Syria’s dead in 2016 when the toll was 400,000. The number today is unknown.

Omar Imam, <i>Live, Love, Refugee</i>, 2015
Omar Imam, Live, Love, Refugee, 2015Credit: Courtesy the artist and Catherine Edelman Gallery

In his series “Live, Love, Refugee,” Imam, a photographer and filmmaker, uses droll irony and deft absurdism as a visual response to the usual depictions of refugees in humanitarian photography. After surviving kidnapping and torture (he told the New York Times in 2016 that he wasn’t sure who his captors were), Imam left Damascus in 2012. He settled first in Lebanon, where he began to collaborate with displaced Syrians living in a refugee camp in Beqaa Valley. The experience taught him to believe other’s stories no matter how strange they seem. Imam spent the better part of a year working with Syrian refugees to create theatrical reenactments of their dreams, nightmares, and memories, which he subsequently captured in black-and-white still photographs with handwritten quotes from the subjects.

Imam, the recipient of the 2017 Tim Hetherington Trust Visionary Award and a 2014 Magnum Foundation Arab Documentary Photography Program grantee, now lives in Amsterdam. He was denied a visa to attend the “Stateless” exhibition in Chicago because he does not hold a valid Syrian passport. He says barriers to travel have been the story of his life, another banal annoyance of statelessness. “I wonder if they will accept me when I have a Dutch passport?” he asks in a WhatsApp interview. “I will be the same artist, only the papers will be different.”

Al Charif, a photographer, documents the memories of ten women who fled Syria for Beirut, London, and Paris in a series of videos called “Women Memories.” Among them are Ghada, a mother of Palestinian descent who has lived through two exiles—the first the collective exile after the Nakbah in 1948 when 700,000 Palestinian Arabs were expelled from their homes, the second her own more recent exile from Syria—who arrives in Europe by sea. Another is Maissa, a religious studies student from a rural area outside Homs whose family has been decimated by the war.

In one of these videos, In Ten Years, the women speak about where they see their lives a decade on, often dreaming of the day they will return to Syria.

Al-Charif isn’t sure when a return to Syria will be possible. Ten years seems too soon. “Unfortunately, when I watch this video today, after almost seven years, I understand that we are still very far from what we hoped for at the beginning of the Syrian revolution,” she says. Both videos are near a display of 36 photographs of mundane objects from Syria—hand cream, ID cards, keys, a teacup—that have become relics, a reminder of both the journey and an unreachable home.

The loss of home is an intimate and particularly important subject for Al Charif. “I have made an artistic choice as soon as the [Syrian] uprising began,” she writes in an e-mail. “My questions resulted from my own experience, inciting me to decode the unceasing successive migrations and the footprint they leave on the way we see ourselves and the space in which we live.”

Ironically, “Dimensions of Citizenship: Architecture and Belonging From the Body to the Cosmos” couldn’t escape the fallout from the budget battle over the $5.7 billion border wall between the U.S. and Mexico. Its opening date has been pushed back from February 15 to February 28 due to a slowdown in cargo handling from an east-coast shipyard. “It is worth noting, given the fact that this exhibition tackles topics of migration and boundaries, that the recent government shutdown complicated and no doubt contributed to the delay in the receipt of our shipment,” Wrightwood 659 director Lisa Cavanaugh writes in a press release.

The installation examines genuine belonging in both worldly and heavenly bodies. “Dimensions of Citizenship” invited representatives from the worlds of architecture and design to build what the exhibition catalog describes as spaces of healing and citizenship for all immigrants, legal or otherwise, today and in the future.

“Architecture, urbanism, and the built environment—these form a crucial lens through which we come to understand better what, perhaps, we all already know: that citizenship is more than a legal status, ultimately evoking the many different ways that people come together—or are kept apart—over similarities in geography, economy, or identity,” the curators write in an essay in the exhibition catalog.

<i>Stone Stories</i> by Studio Gang at the U.S. Pavilion at the 2018 Venice Biennale
Stone Stories by Studio Gang at the U.S. Pavilion at the 2018 Venice BiennaleCredit: Tom Harris/Courtesy the School of the Art Institute of Chicago/the University of Chicago

In 2017 the city of Memphis removed three statues that commemorated the Confederate States of America. In Stone Stories: Civic Memory and Public Space in Memphis, Tennessee, Studio Gang envisions a public monument for tomorrow. A video shows how a vacant six-city-block stretch of cobblestones that once served as Memphis’s historic port for the cotton industry and slave trade can be reimagined in a way that blends personal histories of longtime residents into a civic space truly for all. The display in “Dimensions of Citizenship” includes 50-pound stones from Memphis Landing, also known as Cobblestone Landing, and a hand-drawn map of the city.

In Thrival Geographies (In My Mind I See a Line), Chicago artists Amanda Williams and Andres L. Hernandez, in collaboration with Shani Crowe, a multidisciplinary artist best known for her work with hair braiding, question whether all people are able to access the rights and benefits of citizenship in the United States.

The collaboratively built 22-foot-high steel frame structure shooting into the air was set in the courtyard of the U.S. Pavilion in Venice; in Chicago, it will occupy a corner space of the Wrightwood 659 atrium. The “intervention in the courtyard,” as Williams calls it, honors African-Americans who “took up space” in a country that has historically dismantled, stolen, and illegally acquired black land, property, and lives.

Both exhibits, “Dimension of Citizenship” and “Stateless,” call us to create a new measurement for belonging, perhaps in courtyards, dreams, and memories instead of on paper.   v