Resistant Currents at the Mills Gallery

October 10, 2018 | By Julianna Sy

The exhibition now on view at the Mills Gallery in Boston’s South End, “Resistant

Currents,” is an exceptional and intelligent presentation of migration, a heated discussion subject today in the western political climate. “Resistant Currents” takes on the challenge of allowing  migrants to depict their personal experiences and asks the viewer to question their own definition of migration. Generally one would say that for humans, migration means moving from one country to another. Yet here we are pushed to ask what constitutes this country as a country? Borders? What constitutes a border, and how does its original geographical meaning translate so quickly into an emotional one? 

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Daniel Assayag's "Trespassers" Courtesy of the artist

“Resistant Currents” was curated by Jeannie Simms, who is an artist herself and is the

director of graduate studies at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts at Tufts University. Simms curated the exhibition with great care and integrity, and a clear intention of examining the fluidity and nuances of migration, while maintaining sensitivity for the artists and their personal accounts. Simms said she asked the artists to write their own bios and descriptions of their featured works, since she felt it was important for the artists to be able to “historicize themselves in this context.” In cases of bureaucratic government definition of borders and national identity, migrants are rarely, if ever, given the chance to do that.


The discussion expands as you move through the gallery. Placed throughout the exhibition are passport sculptures by Daniel Assayag, a Moroccan artist and migrant who now lives in France. Assayag examines the idea of a passport representing personhood. One sculpture in particular features a gold-painted passport cradled in the middle of a large white ceramic layered sculpture resembling reproductive genitalia; the passport is born just like a living organism. The idea of valuing official documents over people, derived from colonization, is largely examined here.


“Navigation by Moonlight” is another striking piece in the exhibition, to the immediate right of the gallery entrance. Yu-Wen Wu gives us intricate drawings of the moon and how she used its phases to track time when she and her family were fleeing to Taiwan during the Chinese civil war. With the moon as her only guide, we are reminded that most refugee journeys are independent and carried out with very little resources. Tracking migration and time using only the moon is an example of the many challenges people face in the process of migrating that are easily overlooked and undervalued at border control sites.


Yu-Wen Wu's "Phases of Navigation" Courtesy of the artist

The film portion of the exhibition features Anto Astudillo’s film “Santiago Barbershop,”

portraying the close-knit community and inner-workings of a Sommerville Dominican barber

shop. Astudillo is a Chilean artist attending graduate school in the United States. Back home, she is Chilean. Here, she is labeled “latina”. Faced with confronting this new trope of national identity, Astudillo provides an intimate examination of what Latinx culture in her community looks like, moving away from and contrasting with the bureaucratic definition and bias.


Upon first seeing Joanna Tam’s “I Just Want a Home” piece, in which images of houses

and public locations — such as churches and hospitals — around Boston are printed onto pillows, a lampshade, and a large piece of vinyl house siding on the wall, I was thinking it was evocative of readymade, everyday objects repurposed. Contextualized, Tam’s piece is extremely nuanced, intimate and disturbing. All of the images depicted are locations where ICE, the Immigration and Customs Enforcement department of the US government, arrested people in underhanded and frightening ways. People were arrested as they were leaving church, at medical appointments, and even when they showed up to a scheduled appointment to discuss their level of citizenship. The softness of the pillows and the dim light of the lamp are in harsh contrast with the distressing events that took place at the scenes they depict. The vinyl siding, however, is a reminder that you are outside the house, not in it, no matter how desperately you just want a place to call home.


“Resistant Currents” is on view at the Mills Gallery until October 14.