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Several undergraduate seminars that are part of a new interdisciplinary research venture at Duke with a focus on Europe will culminate in an Incubator exhibition scheduled for Fall 2018. In Transit: Arts & Migration Around Europe will introduce, through art, a new context for migration and the ongoing global refugee crisis.

In Transit draws attention to the long, rich artistic engagement in two major zones of migration: Northern Europe, from the region around Calais, Flanders to the Low countries, and in the South, from Islamic Spain to the African Maghreb. Duke undergraduate students are co-curating the exhibition through seminars taught by members of the inTransit research group, Duke Professors Helen Solterer and Elvira Vilches (Romance Studies) and Raquel Salvatella de Prada and Pedro Lasch (Art, Art History & Visual Studies).

While working in Paris three years ago, Solterer watched hundreds of West African, Kurdish, Afghani and Syrian refugees and migrants camping out under the rails at the Jean Jaurès subway station. European migration, she knew, was not a new phenomemon. But that story—artistic expression of migrants over centuries—she felt, needed to be told. She also knew that many colleagues at Duke, already doing work on the subject, would get involved and bring valuable insights, she said. “A team, a remarkable group, scholars in Spanish, French, Latin American, artist-critics in Visual Studies who could contribute in a new way to the debate on migration in Europe.”

Their Fictions and What They Express

School of Pieter Brueghel II, attributed, Hunchbacked Peasant with Basket, 16th – 17th century. Pen, ink and wash on paper, 9 7⁄8 × 7 inches (25.1 × 17.8 cm). Collection of the Nasher Museum. Gift of Mrs. Viola Fearnside. Photo by Peter Paul Geffrion.
School of Pieter Brueghel II, attributed, Hunchbacked Peasant with Basket, 16th – 17th century. Pen, ink and wash on paper, 9 7⁄8 × 7 inches (25.1 × 17.8 cm). Collection of the Nasher Museum. Gift of Mrs. Viola Fearnside. Photo by Peter Paul Geffrion.

Solterer saw a chance to work with Nasher Museum curators to investigate objects and artifacts in the collection and from other museums—“their fictions and what they express”—and allow students to “go deep and wide” in the investigation of migration around Europe. One work in the Nasher’s collection that Solterer found compelling was a pen-and-ink work on paper attributed to the School of Pieter Brueghel II, the Younger, Hunchbacked Peasant with Basket, dating from the 16th to early 17th century.

“I was fascinated by his handiwork, the basket, the woven hat, even his stockings and shoes, the signs of the well-known textile and other material trades of the North of France, Flanders, in that period,” she said. “When I put this portrait together with the literary voice of the displaced dispossessed worker in that region, we’re starting to see a very different history, an art history, of migration in that northern part of Europe.”

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