East City Art Reviews—Sondra Arkin and Ellyn Weiss The Human Flood at American University Museum

By Claudia Rousseau, Ph.D. on June 27, 2024
From The Human Flood, Sondra Arkin and Ellyn Weiss, mixed media monoprints, 2023.  Photo courtesy of American University Museum at the Katzen Arts Center.

An extensive installation titled The Human Flood continues on view at the American University Museum in the Katzen Center through early August.  The collaborative project of local artists Ellyn Weiss and Sondra Arkin, the exhibit occupies a large part of the museum’s ground floor and part of the outdoor sculpture area.  Curated by Laura Roulet, it includes a wide variety of individual works intended to create an immediate sense of the immigration crisis that has become a front and center issue in many countries including the United States.  As Arkin articulated it in the catalog to the show, the artists’ intention was “to investigate a complex topic through a variety of media in an effort to elicit an empathetic response to a wid­ening crisis that is disproportionately affecting vulnerable populations.”  For Arkin and Weiss, that crisis is climate change propelling human migration.

Arkin and Weiss, We All Had A Home Once, mixed media on polyester georgette, 19 banners, 84” x 52” each, 2023. Photo courtesy of American University Museum at the Katzen Arts Center.

Comprised of multiple parts, the viewer is first confronted by a series of flag-like scrims hanging in rows facing the entrance to the gallery space.  Painted by both artists, and titled We All Had A Home Once, their lightness and translucence gives them a mobile quality intended to evoke memories, “a fragment of a life upended.”

Turning to the left, a three-channel color montage/audio is on a nearly ten-minute loop. It documents crowds of displaced people and individuals commenting on why they had to migrate.  The provocative title given in the printed checklist brochure (necessary to follow the show) is Does Why Matter? suggesting, of course, that it very much does.  The explanatory “label” in the checklist indicates that the “why” is climate change, and that the rest of the exhibit will clarify this.  These interpretive texts are, one assumes, a kind of accompaniment to the objects meant to explain their intended meaning and to drive the point home, although this is not always self-evident or convincing.

Arkin and Weiss, The Human Flood, installation shot showing from right: Deluge/Sions (t-shirts stuffed with pillows), Can You See Us?, clear vinyl digital reproductions in window (1 of 5), Humans Passed Here, backpack, shoes and other found items, multiple installations, and monoprints on wall from The Human Flood series, 2024. Photo courtesy of American University Museum at the Katzen Arts Center.

To my mind the most moving parts of the installation are the life-sized vinyl transparencies of drawings by Arkin and Weiss that are adhered to the windows that look out to the sculpture area outside.  Portraying immigrants, this group are titled Can You See Us? and evoke the feeling of invisibility that they so often must feel.  We hear about thousands of migrants seeking asylum at the US border, and the inhumane treatment to which they are often subjected.  But as individuals, they are essentially transparent whether they have arrived because of natural disasters or an array of other reasons.  There are, moreover, many who seek asylum because there is, in fact, no “climate refugee” designation.  There is no consensus around who counts as a “climate migrant,” which unlike other types of migrants, is not a legally defined category.[1]

Sondra Arkin, Clear Consumption, recycled fruit containers, shredded financial documents, found wood, monofilament and Velcro, 48” x 77” x 77”, 2024.  Photo courtesy of American University Museum at the Katzen Arts Center.

I also found Arkin’s construction Clear Consumption compelling as an object.  House-shaped without a roof or door, it seemed to me to allude to the fragility of human structures in the face of nature’s forces, a house with walls of paper and plastic that cannot provide shelter.  The walls are indeed made of plastic fruit containers filled with shredded financial documents meant, writes Arkin, to reference the “source of the environmental crisis and the problems with the systems that contribute to it.”  With or without the text the work evokes the helpless feeling one often has when confronted with the destruction caused by tornadoes, floods, earthquakes and wildfires on the media.  Yet, it has been shown that people who flee internally from sudden natural disasters most often return to their homes, while it is long-term effects of things like drought and warming seas that will drive them further.[2]

Reflecting the artists’ enormous creative commitment in generating this exhibit, The Human Flood is a group of 100 mixed media monoprints creating 110 feet of work.  Made collaboratively over a two-year period, the prints are hung in four sections as a continuous stream around the walls intending, I believe, to suggest the continuous flow of adults and children moving under duress for safety and “home.”

Arkin and Weiss, The Human Flood (partial installation view), from a group of 100 monoprints, sizes variable.  Photo courtesy of American University Museum at the Katzen Arts Center.

 

Top: Arkin, Permanent Temporary Housing, wood structures with used vinyl banners; Bottom: Weiss, Shelter, wire, fabric, plastic, plaster.  Both miniature-sized tents and impermanent structures used by immigrants, 2024. Photos courtesy of American University Museum at the Katzen Arts Center.

Weiss, Arkin and Roulet’s underlying argument is that the root causes of migration of vast numbers of people, primarily from the southern hemisphere to the north, are the increasingly dire effects of climate change.  While this may be true, the Migration Policy Institute has shown that currently it is not the primary reason why most people leave their homes.  While natural disasters often trigger rapid short-term displacement, worsening climate may well increase long-term migration as it interacts with chronic societal problems.  This situation is seen to be especially acute in sub-Saharan West Africa.[3]  At this time, however, the proximate causes of mass migration, particularly from Central America to the US, are violence and political unrest.  The constant struggle to endure increasing scarcity of basic resources, poverty and physical loss that are, to varying degrees, traceable to climate impacts, while also suffering threats of violence–be it from military conflict, terrorist groups, gangs, kidnappings and the like—are the immediate reasons for the desperation that has large numbers of people feeling forced to move, their journeys often in life-threatening circumstances.

The complex situation has no simple solution.  One might hope that moving to help resolve political conflicts and reduce government corruption in the countries affected could have a positive effect on those places being able to address the problems of climate change in their own countries, thus short-circuiting the process.  Predictions about future mass migration show that action to curtail climate change could dramatically help.[3] Yet, how governments of the global North could carry out such intervention is far from clear.

Arkin and Weiss, from The Human Flood mixed media monoprint series.  Photo courtesy of American University Museum at the Katzen Arts Center.

The increasingly negative reaction to and resentment of people in countries to which the migrants go is due in large part to the spike in migration in recent years, and the inability of existing systems to receive and accommodate them.  In Europe, for example, the situation has been especially acute in Italy. Because of its proximity in the Mediterranean, Italy has been on the front lines rescuing and accepting the majority of immigrants arriving from points in north Africa in flimsy overcrowded boats.  Receiving stations and systems for handling the claims of asylum seekers are few.  Attempts on the part of successive governments to improve conditions, particularly on Lampedusa off the coast of Sicily, have been perennially inadequate.[4]  Thus, in Italy, in other countries in Europe and here in the US, we have seen a sharp turn to the right, and decreasing empathy for migrants, rather than any talk of intervention to help create conditions in their home countries that would slow it.  So it continues, threatening to get worse with every passing year.  As the exhibit seems to ask of us, the privileged viewer, if there is no immediate way to stop it, then greater compassion for the plight of migrants once landed is certainly called for.

 


The Human Flood: Sondra Arkin and Ellyn Weiss, February 7 – August 11, 2024; American University Museum at the Katzen Arts Center, 4400 Massachusetts Ave. NW, Washington DC 20016. https://www.american.edu/cas/museum/

[1] Lawrence Huang, “Climate 101: An Explainer,” Migration Information Source (MPI), November 2023. There is no international legal category for climate refugees, and climate change is not grounds for international protection. The 1951 Refugee Convention conditions refugee status on fleeing persecution on one of five grounds—race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group—and makes no mention of environmental factors.

[2] Such as after the floods last year in Pakistan. (Huang, “Climate 101,” 2023.)

[3] Huang, “Climate 101”, 2023.

[4] Emma Conti, an aid worker on Lampedusa reported that she “witnessed an average of 23 boat arrivals per day between April and early May [2023], with a peak of some 2,000 arrivals in 24 hours.” And that “most new arrivals are minors or families from West African countries like Côte d’Ivoire, Guinea, and Sierra Leone” where climate change is an issue aggravating endemic economic problems.  See Stefania D’Ignoti, “How politics and neglect have hobbled Italy’s migration reception system,” The New Humanitarian, 22 June 2023.