Essma Imady’s “Thicker than Water” On Display at MIA

Artist shares stories of refugees in her exhibit

Illustrator: Stevie Lacher

“Thicker than Water” is an exhibit by Syrian artist Essma Imady on display at the Minneapolis Institute of Art. It explores the emotions of Syrian families who escaped from the civil war. Imady currently lives in Minnesota, but for her project she traveled to Canada and Turkey, visiting and collecting items and stories from those whose lives were uprooted by conflict. The result is a moving depiction of the struggles faced by families and a gentle reminder not to distance ourselves from those who come into a new country seeking refuge from terror.

Upon entering the exhibit, a large room is empty except for a projection on the wall showing a grid of 16 silent videos of children from refugee families. On the opposite wall are sets of headphones where visitors can listen to Imady interviewing them. She asks a variety of questions including what they remember of their home, what they miss, and how they are adjusting. The children talk about everything from missing their cat to struggling to explain their predicament to new schoolmates, to what they want to be when they grow up. Some don’t fully understand why they had to leave their home while others can recall bomb blasts and protests. The piece is titled “Synechism”—defined as “the human need to connect via communication”—and aims to share the complex individual experiences of crisis. Amidst chaotic times, we don’t really think to ask for children’s perspectives. Hearing this personal narrative emphasizes the damaging effects of war on one’s childhood.

The adjacent room is filled with various smaller, more intimate displays. An intricately-carved screen titled “Loss” emits a haunting prayer-like song. A baby bottle full of sea water sits on a speaker playing a recording of a child repeating prayers. A display of a baby mobile called “Fragile” lists the materials used as “glass, mobile, dreams, gravity.” Other pieces include an illegible “History Book” covered in sea salt, a few prayer mats embellished with matches and firecrackers, and a blanket with an image of a decimated building printed onto it.

Other displays centered around children include the child harness made of a rock and straps, a teddy bear stuffed with “a mother’s weight” in lead pellets, a backpack sitting on a pile of sea salt that weighs as much as a child, and five disembodied tongues sticking out of the wall holding one piece of alphabet pasta each.

A book in a glass case belonging to a display titled “The Holy Book of Emails” is described as containing 1,000 emails from people living in Damascus. It’s open on a page where someone tells a loved one about how worried they are about their sick cat—a strikingly mundane concern in contrast to all the violence going on right outside their door.

Isolated by a wall from all the other displays is a photo album containing water-damaged family photos. All the photos are blurred or distorted, leaving family members faceless and memories hazy. The album contains text clippings from the Koran which narrate a story of Moses being placed in a basket by his mother and sent up the Nile in hopes that he will reach safety. It is a fitting metaphor for the many families displaced by the chaos, desperate for asylum.

Politicization of the refugee crisis has caused many people to strip the humanity away from immigrants and refugees. This exhibit showcases the struggles of people just like us whose lives are forced into turmoil, and causes the viewer to reflect on how they would react if they were in the same position. “Thicker than Water” makes for a worthwhile trip to the MIA and will be at the museum until June 24.