At the entrance of the gallery, a wall-mounted rectangular grid of sixteen videos plays interviews with Syrian refugee children. Many of Imady’s pieces juxtapose imagery of childhood innocence with symbols of loss, strife, challenge and war. In “Pillar of Salt” (2018), a teddy bear wearing a quilted pink-plaid backpack sits on a pile of salt the weight of a child, referencing the story of Lot’s wife and the danger of looking back during an escape. “Coming Home Outfit” (2018) displays a lone child-sized lifejacket, hanging from a padded, be-ribboned sweater hanger, and the plush “Receiving Blanket” is printed with an image of the bombed-out Syrian city Homs. These incongruous pairings evoke both tenderness and horror, conveying the tragedy of war and dislocation. Children are endangered or die, families are torn apart and safe havens can harbor racism and alienation.
Now at the Minneapolis Institute of Art, Essma Imady’s installation, Thicker than Water, is a heart-rending contemplation of the effects of Syria’s civil war and the realities of life as a refugee, including leaving friends and family behind and the strangeness of navigating a new home. Syrian-born Imady moved to the US to get her MFA just before war broke out. Her work explores the tensions and anxieties of refugees and immigrant parents.