Skyscrapers and Shadows: Notes from the Opening

Hi all,

A migrant portrait from the exhibit Skyscrapers and Shadows. Photograph by Kristin Giordano, 2010.

On Wednesday, September 12, Kristin and I held the opening to our collaborative show called Skyscrapers and Shadows: Labor and Migration in Doha, Qatar. The opening was well attended, and we had a fantastic time talking and answering questions from students, colleagues, friends, and visitors. The show itself is going to be up for another two weeks in the University of Puget Sound’s Collins Library (in the main display area across from the circulation desk). Please check it out if you have the time and inclination!

Briefly, the show was a collaborative effort between me and Kristin. We worked together in Qatar between 2008 and 2010 on this material. In addition to Kristin’s captivating portraits of labor migrants in Qatar, we’ve included transcripts from interviews, synopses compiled from labor migrant experiences, miscellaneous ethnographic material, and labor migrant material culture (the stuff they keep, buy, or are issued during their stay in Qatar).

While Kristin gave a fascinating presentation about some of the photographic and artistic impulses behind this show, let me briefly tell you a little bit about the overarching mission of the exhibit.

First, while I’ve written quite a bit of scholarly and academic work about labor migrants, there’s no doubt about the limitations I face as an academic: the audience I write for is typically other scholars and academics, and it’s small. By channeling some of this work through an artistic vernacular, we saw the exhibit as an opportunity to reach a new and broader audience. And part of that process rests upon our reliance and focus on a visual medium.

Second, we wanted to allow viewers to see and access better information about the third largest transnational migration flow in the contemporary world, and to see both ends of that migration flow.

Third, we wanted to provide viewers with an unguided tour. We present all sorts of material, but consciously avoided tailoring these materials to any particular conclusion or idea. Instead, we wanted to replicate the ethnographic experience: we present information and objects and representations from this world, and you draw your own conclusions.

Fourth, we wanted to give viewers access to Doha’s backstage. Much of what’s presented to the world is Doha’s sparkling and astonishing urban and modern front stage. Our work, however, carried us (and viewers) to a very different Doha — the urban backstage where other sorts of lives are lived.

Finally, in Doha and throughout the Gulf, transnational migrant laborers are encountered en masse — in large workforces, uniformed and anonymous. Our goal with this exhibit was to provide encounters with these men as humans and individuals, with histories, experiences, stories, families, and more.

A shot from the opening itself, September 12, 2012.

We owe a great debt of gratitude to the migrants who shared their lives with us and who allowed their photographs to be taken. We also want to thank the various funding agencies who paid for the research projects underlying this exhibit, as well as the University of Puget Sound, the Collins library, and particularly Jane Carlin and Jeanne Young for all their advice and assistance.

Anyway, the show will be up for another two weeks. Check it out if you’re interested.


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