Since Monday, visitors to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City have been encountering an unusual sight at the museum’s Modern and Contemporary Art galleries, finding Marc Chagall’s “The Lovers” (1913-14) hidden behind a large cloth. A sign posted next to the painting asks: “What would the Met’s walls look like if there were no refugees?” Chagall’s painting will remain shrouded until this evening, June 20, for the World Refugee Day, to symbolically illustrate what the answer to this question might have been.
This gesture is part of a global campaign organized by the humanitarian aid organization the International Rescue Committee (IRC) to highlight the contributions of refugees to their hosting countries. As part of the campaign, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Met Breuer are spotlighting nine artworks created by refugee artists including Max Beckmann, Ibrahim El-Salahi, Max Ernst, Piet Mondrian, Sopheap Pich, and Mark Rothko. A yellow sign posted next to each one of the works reads, “This work was made by a refugee.” The yellow labels (the color is taken from the IRC’s logo) encourage visitors to share the works on social media using the hashtag #WorldRefugeeDay. Tate Galleries and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London are collaborating with the IRC on similar initiatives.
“The Lovers” (1914-15) depicts Chagall with his wife and muse Bella Rosenberg during their life together in Paris. The Belarus-born couple fled Nazi-occupied France in 1941 and resettled in New York City. Chagall’s granddaughter Bella Meyer, owner of the flower studio fleursBELLA in Greenwich Village in Manhattan, was the Met’s guest of honor at the shrouding ceremony. “I wouldn’t have been here if my grandparents were not accepted into the US,” she told Hyperallergic while standing next to her grandfather’s shrouded painting. “I’m very moved by [the Met’s] gesture towards refugees,” she continued. “Our culture is made out of all these extraordinary creators.”
Since June 2000, the UN World Refugee Day has been observed every year to raise awareness of the plight of refugees around the world. “We’re trying to puncture the animus that is swelling towards the refugee populations at the moment,” said David Miliband, President and CEO of the IRC, at a press conference at the Met on Monday.
“We’re living at a time of a double emergency,” Miliband contended. “On the one hand, we have more refugees and displaced people than ever before,” he said, adding that as of 2019, 68.5 million people are either refugees or internally displaced. “The second part of the emergency is that there are more and more places that are turning their back on these people,” he added. “It’s bad enough that millions of people from places like Syria, Myanmar, or South Sudan are fleeing for their lives, but the fact that they should then be seen as a burden or a problem rather than as people in need of help doubles the load. It’s a very important time for people to stand up and recognize global responsibility,” he said.
“There’s an increasingly popular conviction that museums cannot any longer be neutral sites, but they hold responsibility to be vehicles for social justice and civic exchange,” said Sheena Wagstaff, the Met’s chairman of the department of Modern and Contemporary art. “Art can inspire a different kind of understanding, one grounded in the sense of common humanity. While the personal lives of these artists and their devastating experiences as refugees are beyond our comprehension, they are not beyond our empathy or imaginings,” she added.
Chagall was one of 1,500 refugees who were transported out of France under the Vichy regime in 1941 as part of a rescue effort by an organization that later became the IRC. Mark Rothko, born Markus Yakovlevich Rothkowitz, arrived at Ellis Island with his mother at age ten in 1913 to escape persecution in Imperial Russia. Leipzig-born Max Beckmann, whose work was labeled as “degenerate art” by the Nazi regime and banned from museums, arrived in the United States in 1948 after a period of exile in the Netherlands. Max Ernst, who was persecuted by the Nazi Gestapo police and cast out to an internment camp in France with other surrealist artists as “undesirable foreigners,” arrived in the US in 1941 with the help of his future wife Peggy Guggenheim. Dutch painter Piet Mondrian, who lived in Paris in the 1930s, escaped France after the Nazi occupation and immigrated to the US in 1940 after a period in London. Cambodian artist Sopheap Pich fled from the Khmer Rouge’s regime’s massacres and fled to the US with his family as a teenager. Ibrahim El-Salahi, a Sudanese artist and former politician, was imprisoned by the Nimeiri regime in Sudan in 1970 on charges of participating in an anti-government coup. He is now based in Oxford in the United Kingdom.
The IRC was founded in 1933 at the request of Albert Einstein, himself a refugee, who lived in New York at the time. The organization helps resettle war refugees in new countries. “It’s not an accident that [Einstein] was in New York and it’s not an accident that he stayed in New York,” Miliband said, “This is a city that has been opened to the world during the best of its times.”
On Monday evening, President Trump announced mass arrests and deportations of immigrants in the US starting next week. “Next week ICE will begin the process of removing the millions of illegal aliens who have illicitly found their way into the United States,” Trump tweeted. “They will be removed as fast as they come in.”
Miliband, who was a former member of the British parliament and the UK’s Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs between 2007-2010, sent a measured, diplomatic nod toward the Trump administration’s immigration policies saying, “The Federal Government has not always allowed the United States to be open to the world, but the best of New York has come from its remarkable openness: what it gives, as well as what it takes from the wider world.”