The stench of death is the blossom twig of empathy for “Making Migration Visible / Traces, Tracks & Pathways” now on view at the Maine College of Art’s Institute of Contemporary Art in Portland.

That’s always been the obvious avenue of Western Art since the Catholic Church felt the need, almost two millennia ago, to save all of our souls by setting us on the only proper path in its eyes. Tombs, memorials and beacons of warning were always the norm. Even what we call a “still life” was first known as a “nature morte” – “dead nature.” And the “memento mori,” maybe a skull in a painted image, was the eternal reminder that at some point we would all die and, ultimately, be judged.

Half of my family now lives in Arizona, so I knew well the topography of Lucy Cahill and Cameron Gokee’s map of “Migrant deaths in Arizona: 2001-2018.” The grim setting is topped by Phoenix and marked at the bottom by Nogales, the border town I have visited with my children, the first place they ever set foot in the country of many of their forebears. Red dots – each representing the loss of human life – shift the white box gallery wall to, at times, pure red. Of course, when my boys’ ancestors migrated to California, there was no Arizona, let alone an American border. But that didn’t stop General John Charles Frémont from forcibly removing them, making migrants of them once again.

Yu-Wen Wu, “Currents,” mixed media on Duralar, 158 by 120 inches.

Headless iguanas as a desperate meal. Vultures – real ones – in addition to the metaphorically-named coyotes, the people who smuggle migrants from Mexico to the United States. Traces of the desperate dead who gave their lives seeking a better one. These are some of the grim bits, lives and voices that well up from the show. I doubt it’s the same for everyone, but for many, I imagine this to be a jagged pill indeed.

“Making Migration Visible” isn’t limited to our southern border, the site of so much current suffering and venomous political bloviating. Yu-Wen Wu’s “Currents,” for example, is a map of the world that comes into view merely through the plotted trajectories of global migration.

Ahmed Alsoudani, untitled, acrylic and charcoal on canvas, 48 by 38 inches.

Ahmed Alsoudani is one of MECA’s star stories: Born in Baghdad in 1975 before coming with his family to America in the 1990s, Alsoudani attended MECA as an undergrad, then went Yale University for his MFA. His two paintings appear to show body parts (without other context-providing details) jammed ignominiously together, putrefied and horrifying. While Alsoudani’s works add little clarity to the messaging of the show, their textures and aesthetic presence are unparalleled in their sense of lethal urgency: The option to migration, they whisper, is atrocity.

“Making Migration Visible” is a visually complex exhibition. Intellectually and morally, it’s a straight shot: People migrate because they need to migrate, and they have always needed to migrate. But what this means and how it plays out is difficult and troubling. The complexity of the emotions and content is often reflected in the work. In terms of Western Art, this echoes what we have long referred to as the Baroque – Romanticism’s chaotic world of emotion as opposed to the rational enlightenment landscape of the Renaissance.

Eric Gottesman, “Reinstallation of Roshana’s Memory,” pigment print, 27 by 29 inches.

This switching from data to something more emotional is the very method of the work that Cahill did, not only with Gokee, but with Jason de Leon and Michael Wells. The data and imagery overwhelms: Instead of informing the viewer with rational forms, the suffering and death – reams of it – leaves us with an (appropriately choked) emotional response.

“Making Migration Visible” is often gritty, but it also offers spacious moments of metaphorical elegance. Edwige Charlot’s wall pieces of textile and birch ply “apart from you, the sea” offer almost dreamlike depth to the subtleties and nuance of black, white and translucent material. Shadows and space whisper of loss, distance and time with a poetic elegance that, for however wordless her works, extend an emotional context to the entire show.

Maria Patricia Tinajero, “I_legal,” temporal mixed-media installation (paper, nylon, flowers, sand and crocheted yarn, dimensions variable.

María Patricia Tinajero’s vastly complex installation “I_Legal” fills the ICA’s gallery with more than simple objects. The suite of accompanying drawings – like thickly labeled architectural renderings – doubles down on the intellectual ambition of the installation. Repetitions of the title and critical terms again and again within the printed and drawn components proffers a sort of dark branding, more rumination than self-cheered title. Despite its insistent components such as crotcheed squares or dream-catcher-like forms, it’s a defiant statement, no less overwhelming than weighty. But it pulls back over its own stench of death – in this case, the musky perfume of myriad dried yellow roses. And it is these flowers that begin to appear again and again as a leitmotif, bittersweet in their uncomfortable stasis between alive in the pictures and dessicated in real life. While the installation reveals its story at glacial pace, its sense of shift, change and life unfolds with gathering dynamism bit by bit. And, yes, like many of the works in “Making Migration Visible,” it takes time.

Edwige Charlot, “apa ou, lanme / apart from you, the sea,” printed and cut textiles, birch ply, dimensions variable.

The video, sound and VR components make “Making Migration Visible” hardly a show to take in when you merely have a couple of spare minutes. Not only is it vast, but the topic is weighty, the works are generally complicated and many of the media pieces are lengthy – but definitely worth the wait. Daniel Quintanilla + United YES + Yarn Corporation’s “| At the Periphery |” is a virtual reality piece with a few physical points of welcome – a stretched photo that sets the context for the uncannily unpopulated spaces. (While the benefit of the doubt goes to the migrant workers, their lack of screen presence isn’t surprising.)

Ranu Mukhergee, “Begin,” wool, 48 by 72 inches.

While the expected storytelling might lead one to look for the migrant workers we have long seen in Maine such as Mexicans and Jamaicans, much of the work looks to the Middle East and Asia. Eric Gottesman’s photos, such as “Jordan is not a Country,” effectively dot the wall. Ranu Mukherjee’s handmade wool carpet “Begin” is potentially the quietest but most poignant work in the show. Mohamed Hafez’s “Desperate Cargo” is an undeniable work in the ICA’s main space: a suspended inflatable boat with life vests on top of it and a post-apocalyptic mini world of battling fortresses and fighter planes below, blackened and made dynamic by an effective sound installation design. Boom. Pow. Crack!

“Making Migration Visible” is a legitimately international show with a heavyweight cast and even broader ambition. Its main flaw is potentially a issue of context. And, no, it’s not a question of whether MECA students or Portland’s Art Walk crowd can follow the show. Surely they can – and have: The show has had a huge following, in no small part because of the myriad associated programing run by the ICA. Rather, the question is what would the folks delivered by the coyotes think? What about the troubled subjects: Would they recognize themselves or find aesthetic solace? In many cases, the answer is surely yes, but where the answer isn’t “yes,” we might find ourselves with tougher puzzles to parse and cultural oceans to cross.

Freelance writer Daniel Kany is an art historian who lives in Cumberland. He can be contacted at:

[email protected]

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.