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‘Objects of Witness and Resistance’ small MFA exhibit speaks to cultural crises worldwide

Celina Colby | 4/28/2017, 6 a.m.
The MFA is showing a small collection of objects and art that bear witness to efforts to erase, displace and ...
“The Slave Ship (Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying, Typhoon Coming On)” by J.M.W. Turner Photo: Courtesy MFA

In conjunction with their display of photographs of the Lodz Ghetto, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston is showing a small collection of objects and art that bear witness to efforts to erase, displace and silence peoples. “‘I must tell you what I saw:’ Objects of Witness and Resistance” runs through July 30.

“Good Hope Road” by Arshile Gorky

“Good Hope Road” by Arshile Gorky

The eight artworks in the exhibition span cultures and time periods from Assyrian Ninevah to contemporary France. “Every One (#2)” by French photographer Sophie Ristelhueber shows a black and white close-up of a stitched-up wound on a man’s back. Ristelhueber is known for showing the effects of war both in decimated landscapes and bodies. The artist created “Every One (#2)” in 1994 in response to the violence in the former Yugoslavia. The striking piece harshly reminds the viewer of the lasting scars war leaves on its participants and its country.

J.M.W. Turner’s “The Slave Ship” takes the crown of most famous piece in the exhibit. The abstract canvas of bursting color and tense brush strokes depicts the horror of the transatlantic slave trade. Limbs bob in the murky ocean still attached to chains and shackles. A violent storm tosses a ship in the background and rivulets of blood in the water show where people were thrown over to lighten the ship’s load.

“The Slave Ship” sits next to a relief of Assyrian soldiers deporting Babylonian women and children. The unexpected comparison shows human atrocities thousands of years apart. “Objects” serves as a taste of the other struggle-born artworks available in the MFA’s collection. Next to the extensive exhibit of photographs from the Lodz Ghetto, it’s a necessary nod to the other kinds of destruction and discrimination also at work.

“Good Hope Road,” by Arshile Gorky is the only piece that falls a little flat in the context of the exhibition. Gorky had a notoriously difficult life including issues with citizenship and violent expulsion from his homeland of Armenia, but this painting is from one of his few happy periods.

Despite this anomaly, the exhibit packs a punch in its small but well-curated display. Curator Pheobe Segal told Boston Magazine, “‘Objects of Witness and Resistance’ certainly relates to two pressing issues — displacement, immigration, and deportation resulting from conflicts worldwide, and the increased destruction of cultural property we’ve seen in the past few years.”