‘Softening the Borders’ asks viewers to consider the chaos of migration

Chairs akimbo anchor Serge Attukwei’s installation at the Moody Center

In Serge Attukwei Clottey’s new installation at Rice’s Moody Center for the Arts, dozens of different chairs are suspended from the Central Gallery’s high ceiling as though paused in flight. Were they flung up into the air or dropped from above? Feeling a sense of chaos while walking among them is the point, Clottey said.

A stack of newspapers and a tidily arranged pair of shoes underneath each of the mid-flight chairs grounds the scene of disarray and disorder, as though each pile had been neatly abandoned amidst the confusion. And along the gallery’s walls, bright yellow posters bear postage stamps and pieces of Clottey’s own passport and other travel documents.

With his installation, “Softening the Borders,” Clottey hopes to evoke the feeling of displacement he and other migrants often feel while negotiating travel abroad — especially to Western countries from African nations.

“It’s sort of a privilege, you know, to travel,” Clottey said. “But in between that privilege, we have to go through a lot of difficulties.”

Following a successful inaugural trip to the U.S. in which he worked with universities and galleries, Ghanian artist Clottey was denied a visa the second time he applied to travel to America. In the past, he’s even missed his own shows outside of Ghana due to the difficulty of navigating the onerous visa application process.

But it’s not only his personal experiences that inform “Softening the Borders.” Traveling with an African passport is famously difficult. According to Passport Index, which ranks the world’s passports by how easy or difficult it is for holders of that passport to travel internationally, African passport holders rank near the bottom in mobility.

'Softening the Borders' is on view at the Moody Center for the Arts through May 16.

‘Softening the Borders’ is on view at the Moody Center for the Arts through May 16.

A tiny purple chair, one that perhaps belonged to a little girl, is Clottey’s favorite in the installation, reminding him in particular of the ways in which children are disproportionately affected by issues of migration.

“Yeah, it’s very depressing,” Clottey said. “But a lot of people are depressed because of the hardships they go through when they have to travel. Some of them can’t even fulfill their dreams because of that system.”

“Softening the Borders” is visible at night from outside the Moody Center, its jumble of objects demanding closer inspection. When guests visit, they’ll find that Clottey’s installation is one piece of the larger “Radical Revisionists” exhibition, in which nine other artists from Africa and the diaspora question Western hegemony and perspectives that Americans often take for granted.

“What I’m interested in as an artist is to speak out about those situations,” Clottey said. “And all those experiences of being denied become a reflection of what I’m creating. I never give up.”

“Softening the Borders” is on view at the Moody Center for the Arts through May 16.

About Katharine Shilcutt

Katharine Shilcutt is a media relations specialist in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.