Elizabeth Untama / Gavel Media

McMullen’s New Exhibit Explores Migration and Climate Change Through a Contemporary Lens

Anyone passing by the McMullen Museum of Art on Friday evening might have been perplexed, as students wearing fuzzy DIY Lorax glasses and holding light-up jellyfish lamps stepped out into the chilly night air, bringing the music and laughter spilling out with them.

These festivities aren't rare at the McMullen—along with a full list of year-round events, it hosts the biannual, students-only Art After Dark event to celebrate new exhibit openings. Last Friday’s commemorated its newest collection, Indian Ocean Currents: Six Artistic Narratives

Students meandered through rooms full of crafts and assorted Middle Eastern and South Asian dishes, accompanied by live music performed by student groups as well as the soothing sound of a nature documentary narrated by Sir David Attenborough. While students enjoyed making handmade buttons and eating rice pudding, the purpose behind the activities was clear: raising awareness for climate change and migration.

Indian Ocean Currents itself is a collection of works by six contemporary artists from around the Indian Ocean, many of whom are now living all over the globe. Their art comments on policies both within their own countries and abroad, and focuses on how economic, social, and environmental injustices have affected individuals as well as their communities. The exhibit was curated over a three-year period through the joint efforts of History Professor Prasannan Parthasarathi and Salim Currimjee, director of the Institute for Contemporary Arts, Indian Ocean (ICAIO) in Mauritius.

The Indian Ocean and its surrounding countries are some of the areas most threatened by climate change, due to their location and a combination of other variables including differences in atmospheric pressure, wind patterns, and ocean currents. The exhibit showcases this by adding an educational, interactive element in which visitors swiped through climate change facts on iPads, while a larger screen displayed graphs representing data such as carbon dioxide concentrations, temperatures, and rising sea levels.

Although many of the works in the exhibit center on environmental concerns, they also serve as a reminder that climate change is just one problem in a larger web of adversities facing these communities.

“While a large component of [the exhibit] is climate change, it also deals a lot with more global aspects of migration and the movement of people and ideas,” said Rachel Chamberlain, the McMullen's manager of Education Outreach and Digital Resources.

Chamberlain pointed out that because of the climate change's immensity and the separation of cultures and communities, people can find these concepts too abstract and difficult to wrap their minds around. Because of this, representing six unique artists’ voices framed these global issues in a more comprehensible way while simultaneously depicting their severity and universality.

“Having these different artists contribute different voices and perspectives... localizes and personalizes it a bit more,” Chamberlain added.

The works included vary in mediums, sizes, and subjects—from miniature paintings of islands and coral reefs (Ocean Miniatures, Shiraz Bayjoo), to a large black vinyl bag that suggests the form of an octopus. This sea creature-like heap is made of rubber work boots, industrial materials, and ribbon, and is meant to represent the interplay between hard labor, South African history, and femininity (Nicholas Hlobo, Ngumgudu nemizano).

In fact, many of the works comment on how these issues have affected various groups in society throughout history. Wangechi Mutu’s I’m too Misty is a collage portrait of a woman’s face, made of an array of contemporary materials and textures to show the diversity of experiences that make up the female narrative. 

“It’s not like there’s just one generic person that’s dealing with climate change, but it gets wrapped up in all of these other things—politics, gender, identity, race,” Chamberlain noted. “How do these different aspects intertwine to create different experiences?”

Chamberlain created Art After Dark when she began working at the museum four years ago. She said its goal is two-fold: to introduce the artworks as well as to make the museum more comfortable, accessible, and welcoming for students. Chamberlain says BC students are pretty good at turning out to Art After Dark, which is exciting—this fall, around 1,000 students attended, which is about 10% of the total undergraduate population.

Everyone processes art differently, and “being able to talk about something that's visual is an important aspect of the cognizant process of being able to understand your world,” says Chamberlain. She finds it important that a student relates to a certain piece of art or information and hopefully takes away something that’s personally meaningful.

This particular exhibit has gained a lot of attention—although it’s only been open for a little over a week, the Boston Globe has reviewed it, its been highlighted in WGBH by Jared Bowen, and multiple BC classes are lined up to visit it.

Chamberlain sees the McMullen as a space of connection between and for students: “We’re here to broaden the worldview of our students, but also to create a hub or community space where students can get together and talk amongst one another, and have something to talk about.”

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