When the Museum of Modern Art decided in February to make a curatorial response to President Trump’s attempts to restrict immigration from some majority-Muslim nations into the United States, it did what seems like the most subversive thing possible in these heated times. The directors decided not to turn the whole world, or at least the fraction of it enclosed in their galleries, upside down. Instead, they put a series of works by artists who hailed from some of the nations targeted in Trump’s executive orders on display in an act that upset the museum’s traditional use of chronology and left a trail of artistic and political bread crumbs for interested visitors to follow. When I meandered through the museum this weekend, I found it to be one of the smartest artistic responses to the Trump administration I’ve seen so far.
Part of what works so well about this curation is that it puts into practice the much-discussed theories about art’s ability to challenge the viewer’s preconceptions. Rather than telling the audience for these works that they ought to meditate on the pieces because doing so will be good for them, viewers can simply be drawn in by the beauty of the works. That the pieces have been put on display is part of a statement is at most the second, and possibly the last, thing you learn about them.
Below the standard curatorial notes, there are two sentences in italics: “This work is by an artist from a nation whose citizens would be denied entry into the United States according to recent presidential executive orders. This is one of several such artworks from the Museum’s collection installed through the fifth-floor galleries to affirm the ideals of welcome and freedom as vital to this Museum.”
By the time you get to that point, though, you’ve already been pulled in, whether by the Sudanese artist Ibrahim El-Salahi’s “The Mosque” or Iranian painter and sculptor Charles Hossein Zenderoudi’s “K+L+32+H+4. Mon père et moi (My Father and I).”
The works displayed as part of this effort don’t necessarily have much in common.
The color palette, a vague resonance with the Metropolitan Museum’s Cycladic Head, and the highly detailed patterns Zenderoudi worked into every inch of his work drew me to “My Father and I.” It has the warmth of Gustav Klimt’s Golden Phase, and looking at it is like trying to absorb all the details on a large temple carving in Angkor Wat. By contrast, “The Mosque” works less by drawing the eye to minute details and more by inviting you to fall into an entire skyline full of swooping minarets. The thick paint on some of the minarets looks like eyes; the architecture itself resembles Arabic calligraphy.
That variety is the point. If you’re drawn to art you’re not familiar with, only to learn that the artist hailed from a country or worked in an artistic or religious tradition with which you were unfamiliar, it challenges your sense of what that tradition consists of, or what it can inspire. And the museum’s use of relatively subtle labeling encourages visitors to look more carefully at art they might have ignored otherwise to see if a piece has been hung as part of the initiative. It’s a metaphorical treasure hunt that uses audiences’ capacities to be surprised and their pride in their artistic discernment to encourage them to look widely and carefully through the galleries; I saw visitors exclaiming in delight when they stumbled over another piece in that project.
Most importantly, this curatorial effort emphasizes the art itself, rather than the political point that is the next logical stop beyond it. If you look at the included works and wonder why it is that Zenderoudi or El-Salahi’s work is allowed in the United States but the artists themselves might have a difficult time traveling here, that’s one thing. But if visitors see the pieces and simply recognize that they’re responding to something that has its origins in Iran or Sudan, and file that away in the parts of their brains that think about those countries, that’s worthwhile, too. The project doesn’t need to attack Trump, and, in fact, the labels don’t even mention him by name: it’s a positive affirmation of the artists’ work and the museum’s values.
The display is a refreshing sign of confidence in the power of art to transcend both borders and administrations.