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Yoko Ono’s Refugee Boat Sparks Renewed Conversation About Immigration

While lacking much critical edge, Ono’s participatory contribution to the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council’s River to River Festival pushes visitors to discuss the historic contributions of immigrants in the U.S.

Yoko Ono, Add Color (Refugee Boat) (1960-2009) at the River to River Festival in New York (All photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

Fans hoping to catch a glimpse of Yoko Ono at the June 19 opening of her project Add Color (Refugee Boat) at the 2019 Lower Manhattan Cultural Council’s River to River Festival were bound to be disappointed to find that the artist was not present. On the flip side, the work itself evokes precisely the vibes that shot the legendary experimental artist to fame in the 1960s. For better or for worse, Add Color (Refugee Boat) is just the sort of project Ono might have completed during her hippie heyday: a rosy statement about peace and love delivered through digestible symbolism without any real critical spike.

Add Color is a participatory project that invites the public to draw, paint, and scribble on a white rowing boat, or over the white walls around it and the floor beneath it. Brushes and canisters of blue paint (to symbolize the sea) await visitors, who are encouraged by a docent to add their contribution.

But the project is worth attention for the same reasons it falls short of packing a political punch: while asking people to paint a symbolic little boat (not a real refugee boat) might be a somewhat tame gesture towards the death and misery caused by the refugee crisis, Add Color’s reliance on human interaction and audience participation has more impact as a commentary on the collective work of immigrants upon which the United States is founded.

Detail of Add Color (Refugee Boat), featuring messages of political resistance and anti-war messages in a plethora of languages.

A wall text describes the installation as a “collaboration between the viewer and the artist” and a stage to practice “collective opinion, hopes, and dreams related to all forms of the international refugee crises.” Refugee Boat arrives in New York City after being shown in Germany, Greece, and England. The project is the latest iteration of Ono’s “Add Color Painting” series, first presented in 1961, in which she invites onlookers to improvise with paint over white surfaces including canvas, a globe, and other plain objects.

Ono’s installation is symbolically housed in a gallery space in New York’s Seaport District, at the city’s shorelines, and not far from the Statue of Liberty and the historical immigration entry point of Ellis Island. Overlooked by critics and art world tastemakers, the exhibition has mostly been frequented by random visitors who happened upon it on their way in and out of the cafes and restaurants of the Fulton Market, as evidenced by the number of people walking into the gallery holding cups of ice cream.

Alena, a photo studio manager, commented on Add Color (Refugee Boat): This city gave me life, and I gave it life back.”

By the second day of the installation, the walls were already filled with jottings of political resistance and anti-war messages in a plethora of languages. Slogans included “NO WALLS”, “Black Lives Matter”, “Every refugee boat is a Mayflower”, and “We are all humans.” There were statements of solidarity expressed with activists in Sudan, Hong Kong, Syria, Palestine, and other conflict zones around the world. Some visitors had simply tagged their names or the names of their loved ones. In true Yoko spirit, peace signs abounded, as did scrawlings of the word “love” in various languages and formulations.

Take any sample of New Yorkers and you’ll find immigrants among them. Layla Tabatabaie, a first-generation American-Iranian who works as an account supervisor and crisis manager at a media firm, was writing her name in Farsi on the floor in big bold blue letters when she spoke to Hyperallergic. “I have friends who are in Ph.D. programs in Germany who wanted to come here, but obviously could not,” she said, referencing Trump’s Muslim Ban, which denies citizens of Iran and six other countries entry to the US. Tabatabaie’s parents came to the US in their 30s to seek higher education and to escape the tyranny of the Iranian Ayatollah regime, an opportunity her friends have had to seek elsewhere. “My friends are doing PhDs in artificial intelligence and medicine, literally trying to cure cancer through algorithms, and we don’t get them because of the Muslim ban,” she said. “Now Europe gets that brainpower that would’ve come here.”

Mohit, a software engineer: “I applied for a Green Card in 2013, but I’m projected to get it after I die.”

“We’re all immigrants,” said Alena, a photo studio manager and an immigrant from Russia. Alena came to New York to pursue her master’s degree, then stayed, married, and had a child. This city gave me life, and I gave it life back,” she said pointing at her son, who was doodling on the boat. Alena inscribed “I love you” in Russian on the floor.

In came Mohit, a software engineer from India on a temporary work visa, and his friend Pria, a project manager at the same tech company. Both were coming out of work with their name tags still attached to their clothes. “I applied for a Green Card in 2013, but I’m projected to get it after I die,” Mohit said humorously, explaining that there is a per-country quota for Green Cards and that the line is too long in India because of the country’s large population. Pria, however, already got hers because she married an American. Mohit, married with a kid, finds the idea of returning to India abhorrent. “My wife wants to go back to India because we have a son and she wants him to be close to his culture as he grows up, but I’m not a fan of the current leader,” he said calling India’s current Prime Minister Narendra Modi a “Nazi.” The job market and climate change are other big considerations against going back. “India is drying up,” he said, “I don’t want to go back in that situation.” Pria took to the wall to draw an open gate with the writing “open borders”. Mohit, however, chose to impress a less peaceful message: “Fuck Modi”

Refugee Boat arrives in New York City after being shown in Germany, Greece, and England.

Two days before the exhibition opened, President Donald Trump announced mass arrests and deportations of undocumented immigrants to the US. “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 on June 17, “They will be removed as fast as they come in.”

“I don’t care what Trump thinks or what his crazy ass says,” said George Mack, a real estate title examiner who has been working in the Seaport District since 1989. “Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and Colorado — they all belonged to Mexicans until they lost their war,” he added. “When you lose a war, the conquerors will rename the land however they choose.”

George Mack, a real estate title examiner: “Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and Colorado — they all belonged to Mexicans until they lost their war.”

There are currently 70.8 million forcibly displaced people in the world, the largest number in history, according to data provided by the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR). This figure includes 25.9 million refugees, 41.3 internally displaced people, and 3.5 million asylum seekers. Earlier in June, the UNHCR sounded an alarm against the increasing death toll of migrants crossing the sea from North Africa, specifically Libya, to Europe. The organization’s records, along with data provided by the International Organization for Migration, show that nearly 350 of 1,940 people who have crossed the Mediterranean from North Africa to Italy since the beginning of 2019 have died en route, raising the death rate of migrants in boats to 15%. “If we do not intervene soon, there will be a sea of blood,” said Carlotta Sami, UNHCR’s spokeswoman in Italy.

The latest iteration of Ono’s “Add Color Painting” series, first presented in 1961.

Add Color (Refugee Boat) Runs through June 29 at 203 Front Street, Seaport District, as part of the River to River Festival. The exhibition is curated by Lili Chopra.  

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