Jelena Sofronijevic
'Foreign' in France: Curating Migration and Art
We look into some of the works on display at Paris' Museum of the History of Immigration

Paris has long marketed itself as Europe’s most cosmopolitan city. But now, its institutions are making a more concerted effort to represent the cultural contributions made by those who came – and who continue to come – to its streets.

Built for the 1931 International Colonial Exposition, the Palais de la Porte Dorée in Paris boasts ‘exotic’ murals, terrifying bas-reliefs, and an aquarium, embraced in Art Deco architecture. Now, it sits on a busy main road, and since 2004, has been home of the Museum of the History of Immigration.

It is a powerful occupation - and reclamation – of the city’s former Museum of the Colonies. Whilst its permanent collection is under renovation until the spring, the building and temporary exhibitions remain open to the public; most recently, Paris and Nowhere Else. 

Over four themes – Voluntary Exiles, Hybridisations, The Opacity of the World, and A Universal Language – the exhibition carried the works of 24 artists from the post-war period. Beyond their thematic connections, each individual artist was detailed in a caption (in English and French) delving into their biography, understanding the reasons why, and how, they moved. 

The Hungarian artist Véra Molnar described her political motivation for migration, drawn to ‘the beauty of the French Republic’, rather than France itself. Still practicing, she uses optical and kinetic art to transcend national and linguistic boundaries, a kind of universal language or plastic alphabets likened with Victor Vasarely.

Miodrag Đurić, better known as Dado, drew from his childhood in Nazi-occupied Montenegro, painting human suffering in poetic, oral traditions shared by Slavic countries. (During the Yugoslav Wars of the 1990s, the artist turned to more spatial works, filling abandoned buildings with work, and creating a digital ‘anti-museum’.) Dado’s youthful nostalgia was evident in his writing and, as with most of those who were also on show, visitors could read and hear the artist in their own words.

Archive Photographs of Tetsumi Kudo, Jean-Jacques Lebel, and Erró

In the exhibition, archive photographs attested to the close relationship between Kudo, Jean-Jacques Lebel, and Erró, an Icelandic artist, who has also been on view at the Louvre. Erró’s found-image montages draw from French surrealism and Narrative Figuration, and Western forms of pop art, pre-empting Eduardo Paolozzi’s Bunk by decades: ‘I went to Paris for the same reason that the French went fishing in Iceland. In other words, because that’s where everything was happening…At the time, London or New York hadn’t yet become big centres.’ 

Other institutions focus on the origins of those living in Parisian diasporas. Founded in 1980 with eighteen other Arab countries, France’s Institut du Monde Arabe (IMA), or Arab World Institute, hosts modern permanent and temporary displays – and a vast library - over seven floors.

The Three Graces, Baya (1988)

Baya: Icon of Algerian Painting celebrates the country’s most infamous artist of the 20th century. Propelled to fame aged sixteen, with her first major exhibition in Paris, the exhibition likewise travels quickly from her childhood drawings to her adult works. 

Baya draws from colonial and decolonial studies and is delivered entirely in the French language. But her artistic commitment is visually evidenced, in her practice, and the archive letters from her adoptive mother Marguerite Caminat to Jean Dubuffet. It is lovingly curated – in the round, and a warm terracotta – a reminder to return to her works over and again.

Love of other kinds is explored in Habibi, The Revolutions of Love, which platforms LGBTQIA+ artists in SWANA countries and diasporas. Since the Arab Spring and social movements of 2011, their activism has strengthened – and sometimes been even more violently suppressed, as highlighted in the case of Mashrou' Leila in Lebanon. 

The Mirror, Alireza Shojaian (2018)

Habibi’s power comes instead from the personal artworks on display. Alireza Shojaian seeks to preserve the memory of his relationships, often short-lived by necessity; tender portraits highlight non-normative masculine identities, showing men vulnerable, and sometimes physically small. Others play with gender and sexuality; see Omar Mismar’s ‘The Path of Love, Day 21’ (2013-2013), a red neon map, or itinerary, of his Grindr connections. 

Inclusive by design - and available in French, Arabic, and English, via QR codes - Habibi shows it all. Graphic novels and illustrations. Archaeological evidence of a prehistoric queer civilisation on the Mediterranean. The embroidered subtitles of RuPaul’s Drag Race, an American import accessible without censorship or monitoring in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Iran, all countries where homosexuality is illegal. 

Capturing diversity, in both domestic and foreign settings, clearly matters to the IMA. On the Roads to Samarkand: Wonders of Silk and Gold, is no exception. A wealth of 300 Uzbek items, from sumptuous velvet chapans (coats) to suzanis (embroidered hangings and carpets), bukhara (hats) to silver horse harnesses, together reflect the great regional differences oft clubbed together under ‘Central Asia’.

Installation view

It indulges in its wealth of goods, and the import and adaptation of Persian and Indonesian crafts along the Silk Road. Samarkand also sensitively handles questions around gender-ascribed occupations, and Orientalist paintings of the Russian Uzbek School - contextualised to a (predominantly French) audience as part of the European avant-garde movement, painted ‘as Matisse was discovering Morocco’. It’s considered curation that sets a gold standard for fashion and textile exhibitions, but also histories of migration more widely. 

The permanent collection of the Museum of the History of Immigration is due to reopen in Spring 2023. 

All exhibitions are on show at the Arab World Institute.