Art and migration have a fascinating relationship that remains entwined throughout history. Art is an expression of culture and identity. Migrant communities have often used it to maintain a tie to their roots and celebrate their heritage. On the other hand, migration brought new perspectives, ideas, and artistic styles to different parts of the world. Let’s explore 3 stories on a journey between the Middle East and the United States, between past and present.

TARKIB: Contemporary Art Collective In Baghdad

TARKIB was founded in 2015 as a platform for contemporary art to promote emerging and mid-career Iraqi artists. Nowadays, it is a collective that brings together artists from various disciplines, ages, and genders.

Its mission is to introduce contemporary art to Iraq’s creative and cultural scene. TARKIB helps create a new image of Iraq through artistic expression. Here, the artists explore through their work the content, form, and function of art and how it impacts society. 

Every year the collective organizes the TARKIB Baghdad Contemporary Arts Festival

Furthermore, since 2017, Bait TARKIB in Karada-Baghdad has become TARKIB’s new home. Now it is an art center that offers a diverse and high-quality program of artistic and cultural events, training, and workshops. 

But it’s also more than that: a safe space for Iraqi youth to express themselves and encourage social cohesion, particularly among women and vulnerable individuals.

Zaid Saad 

One of the stories that intrigued us the most when looking at the amazing artists that work at TARKIB is Zaid Saad’s. Born in Baghdad in 1991, he graduated from the visual art department at the College of Fine Art, Baghdad University in 2015. He is one of the founders of the collective. 

His conceptual artworks focus on human rights and emigration from Iraq. Art became a way to process the stories of Iraqis (even friends) who tried to leave Iraq and migrate somewhere else. 

Some of his most impressive works are: 

HALF | Installation | 2021 

In the centre of a street, a door stands unattached to any wall. Its purposeful closure intends to evoke discomfort and unease. The act of crossing a threshold and shutting a door is a symbolic representation of leaving one life behind and entering into another. This artwork was showcased before the Central Bank of Iraq. Many individuals migrate in search of improved financial and societal conditions. Hopes and aspirations remain in limbo, divided between those left behind and those who move forward – two groups that remain unknown to one another.

Half Zaid Saad picture representing migration art
“HALF” by Zaid Saad | TISHREEN REVIEW – Group Exhibition, Bait Tarkib, 2019 Source:

CONCRETE o | Concrete sculptures, Room-Installation | 2022

“A life ring is supposed to save people’s life. But, what means a life ring for a refugee?” 

The wall bears this question along with three life rings crafted from concrete suspended from it, while a concrete half ring rests upon the ground. Just like concrete, which is dense and burdensome, becoming a refugee and enduring the associated hardships until reaching a destination are also weighty decisions to make. Furthermore, the experience of shock and treatment as a refugee in the host country compounds this burden. Despite being human, they feel like dense, burdensome concrete. 

Concrete Zaid Saad picture. Room installation for migration art
“CONCRETE o” by Zaid Saad | TARKIB Baghdad Contemporary Arts Festival, Iraqi Artists Syndicate, 2022 Source:

Beili Liu’s Migration Story Through ArtWorks

Beili Liu was born and raised in China in the 1970s. Her earliest memories involved witnessing the Chinese Cultural Revolution and its aftermath. Liu eventually left China and immigrated to the United States where she pursued her passion for art. She graduated with a Master of Fine Arts in Installation Art from the University of Michigan and has since become an acclaimed artist, known for her thought-provoking installations that explore themes of memory, culture, and identity. Right now, she’s based in Austin, Texas. 

Considering her personal experience with migration, it also became a recurrent theme in her art. These are some works that we found more powerful:

Each and Every | Installation & Performance | 2019

It highlights the ongoing issues surrounding migrant children in response to the Family Separation Policy and the Zero Tolerance Policy enforced along the Southern border of the United States from 2017 until 2021.

It consists of hundreds of articles of used children’s clothing preserved by industrial cement. They are arranged to form a vast expanse just inches above the gallery floor. These sculpted clothing figures symbolize the absence of the detained migrant children.

Each and every installation
Image by James Harnois, David Wulzen, Amos Morgan, Katie Miller and Beili Liu Studio. Source:

Recall | Installation | 2015

This is the third project of a series called “The House Phase Installation Series”. Using a variety of materials Beili Liu has created site-specific installations reminiscent of her parents’ hand-built adobe home in northern China. Taking the form of a simple one-room-house structure, this installation is suspended in the centre of a space, echoing the angle of the rafters and the roof of the barn. “Through the fragility of the wax material, Recall speaks to our shared longing for home as an intangible image of shelter, protection and belonging.” (Artist’s Portfolio)

The “Migrant Mother” True Story

This last story isn’t about contemporary art but photography. And the photographer isn’t a migrant. So you might wonder why we decided to include it. 

Well, let’s take a step back in time to 1936. 

At that time, the photographer Dorothea Lange worked for the Resettlement Administration. That was a federal agency whose aim was to move struggling families to communities planned by the government. 

One day in February 1936, she was driving back home in Nipomo, California, when she followed a sign that said “Pea-Pickers Camp”. 

Now, take a look at this picture:

migrant mother story
By Dorothea Lange – This image is available from the United States Library of Congress

You might have already seen it before. 

This picture became an icon of the Great Depression era and launched Lange’s career. 

The picture’s caption described it as “Destitute pea pickers in California; a 32-year-old mother of seven children”. In a 1960 interview, Lange describes the encounter as follows: 

“I saw and approached the hungry and desperate mother, as if drawn by a magnet. I do not remember how I explained my presence or my camera to her, but I do remember she asked me no questions. I made five exposures, working closer and closer from the same direction. I did not ask her name or her history. She told me her age, that she was thirty-two. She said that they had been living on frozen vegetables from the surrounding fields, and birds that the children killed. She had just sold the tires from her car to buy food. There she sat in that lean-to tent with her children huddled around her, and seemed to know that my pictures might help her, and so she helped me. There was a sort of equality about it.”

(Popular Photography. Vol. 46, no. 2. pp. 42–43, 126. Archived)

The woman’s identity emerged only more than 40 years later. Her name was Florence Owens Thompson and she remembered that encounter otherwise. 

She was born Florence Leona Christie in 1903 in Oklahoma. She was a Native American since her parents were both of Cherokee descent. When she was 17, she married the 23-year-old Cleo Owens and over the next ten years, they would move to California and have six children together. Unfortunately, Cleo died in 1931 of tuberculosis. 

By the day the picture was taken, Florence had remarried Jim Hill and had another baby. The family was always on the move. In fact, they were on their way to California’s Pajaro Valley when their car broke down that day. They stopped just outside the pea pickers camp. Jim and two kids walked to a nearby town to get spare parts, while Florence cooked food for her kids. So, according to the family, they had not been “[…]living on frozen vegetables from the fields” and they certainly hadn’t “sold their tires for food”. (The New York Times, 2009)

That day Lange photographed some of the actual pea pickers in Nipomo’s camp, but Florence and her kids’ picture conquered the public. The picture wasn’t a single shot, but it was the result of Lange’s careful manipulation of the frame and subjects. That’s why other, maybe less impactful, versions of this picture exist. 

Florence and her family had a complicated relationship with the photograph. It was hard for them to accept that Lange became famous for it while its subjects continued to struggle so desperately. Even though they came to terms with it through the years, realizing how many people connected with it. 

To answer the initial question: we picked this last story to talk about a debate that is becoming more and more relevant in recent years. Portraying people that are going through difficult situations comes with some responsibility. When global audiences are just one click away, ethical considerations are crucial. That’s why the guidelines of photojournalism have evolved a lot since 1936 to safeguard the people portrayed and the reporting accuracy. 

Art & Migration: The Mic Is Yours

This article can’t be exhaustive of a theme as big as the relationship between art and migration. But we tried to explore the different shades of art’s potential in expressing human stories and the challenges of our world. 

Now it’s your turn! Which works of art, artists, or stories do you think explored best the intersection of migration and art? Feel free to share them with us.

Discover more about the use of different art expressions to represent cultural identities by reading the 10 Popular Dances Around The World article. 

If you are interested in learning more about cultures, meeting diverse people, and learning languages, join the exchange experience at SPEAK as a buddy to share your culture with others, or as a participant in your city or online to begin immersing yourself in a new culture today!  

Author: Sveva Buttazzoni

Sveva Buttazzoni is a digital marketing specialist who has worked in both the cultural and nonprofit sectors. As an aspiring journalist, Sveva is particularly interested in exploring the intersections of media, technology, and civil rights.

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