A WORLD NOT OURS
La Kunsthalle Mulhouse, France
01.06. – 27.08.2017
Art Space Pythagorion, Greece
05.08. — 15.10.16
Participating artists: Azra Akšamija | Taysir Batniji | Tanja Boukal | Ninar Esber | Aslan Gaisumov | Mahdi Fleifel | Stine Marie Jacobsen | Sven’t Jolle | Sallie Latch | Éléonore De Montesquiou | Giorgos Moutafis | Marina Naprushkina | Juice Rap News | Somar Sallam | Mounira Al Solh | Diller Scofidio & Renfro, Mark Hansen, Laura Kurgan & Ben Rubin in collaboration with Robert Gerard Pietrusko & Stewart Smith, based on an idea by Paul Virilio
A World Not Ours, was a group exhibition focusing on the ongoing refugee crisis and issues of forced displacement related – largely – to the war in Syria as well as other conflict zones. The exhibition began in 2016 at the Schwarz Foundation’s Art Space Pythagorion, on the island of Samos, Greece, a location that has been at the heart of the refugee crisis that broke out in 2015. Samos was one of four Greek islands alongside Lesbos, Kos and Chios that bore the brunt of this humanitarian crisis, which remains a pressing, unresolved issue for the whole of Europe. The exhibition aims to counteract the standardised, simplified and one-dimensional portrayal of the refugee crisis, which is often reduced to images of rickety boats and the perilous sea crossings from Turkey and Libya, and instead looks into the before and after of this dramatic moment. While the first chapter of the exhibition focused on the experience of flight, the precariousness of the journey, and the clandestine economy that fuels the plight of the refugees, this iteration at La Kunsthalle Mulhouse extended its focus to what happens once refugees have reached the ‘promised land’ in terms of reception, legal procedures and daily reality, as well as looking into how European citizens experience the migration crisis themselves. The exhibition also explored problems of the representation of suffering, recalling Susan Sontag’s Regarding the Pain of Others (2003), as well as asking questions about the ‘ownership’ of refugee images and who has the right to represent them. Finally, A World Not Ours aimed to provide a counterpoint to the unfortunate opportunism that the refugee crisis has engendered, with some in the so-called ‘art world’ professing their engagement by producing facile one-liners and generating publicity for its own sake. By contrast, the work that is on view is the result of in-depth, long-term research, on-the-ground engagement and first-hand experience. The works here are the result of sincere motivation and hands-on engagement, as opposed to what Tirdad Zolghadr has called ‘poornography’: the use of images of poverty and precariousness to create sensational images in the media as well as in art.
This exhibition included artists who opt for a more nuanced way of working with these highly sensitive issues, who stay under the radar, working with discretion, thoughtfulness and generosity. Most of the artists here have a proximal and intimate relation to trauma and communal experiences of suffering, and do not have the luxury of a detached touristic viewpoint of the pain of others. They are insiders to trauma, rather than outsiders. Many of them come from the Middle East or South-Eastern Europe, from countries that have experienced war, exodus and perilousness first hand, and thus they also bring an empirical element into their negotiation of the complex issues underlying the representation of the refugee crisis. The city of Mulhouse is a particularly relevant context for this exhibition. Mulhouse has one of France’s highest immigrant populations and is also a border town at the edges of Germany and Switzerland. All three countries have been at the forefront of the heated debate around immigration, and have witnessed extreme reactions towards it, manifested in toxic right-wing populism, for example.
A World Not Ours borrows its title from the award-winning eponymous 2012 film by director Mahdi Fleifel, which in turn borrows its name from a book by the Palestinian writer Ghassan Kanafani (1936–72). The exhibition includes a group of artists, photographers, filmmakers and activists who offer different reactions, reflections, and analyses on the ongoing issue of the refugee crisis in Europe and the complex issues underlying it: from the economic, social and political, to the humanitarian and the personal. Deploying diverse practices from installation, photography, film, video and direct action, the work of the participating artists provides deeper insight into the plight of the refugees and points to the complex roots of one of the most pressing issues of our time, while contextualising it within the larger global picture. The artists provide a more complicated reflection than that normally found in mainstream media, looking at issues of forced displacement and the experience of homelessness, perpetual insecurity, diasporic identity and existential limbo.
The numbers of refugees has begun to subside following the controversial deal between the European Union and Turkey that began in March 2016, whereby for every Syrian returned to Turkey, the EU will resettle one from a refugee camp there. However, this does not mean that the crisis has been resolved, or that the refugees have stopped crossing to Europe. Increasingly, they are now using the crossing from Libya to Europe, an even more perilous journey. There may now be fewer boats landing on the shores of Greece and Italy, but as long as there is war going on, people will continue to risk their lives to seek out a better and safer future for themselves and their families. The refugee crisis has thus become one of the most fundamental political and existential issues of Europe, testing the continent’s attitudes towards human rights, notions of tolerance and peaceful coexistence.
The crisis has brought political polarisation, a rise in nationalist rhetoric, prejudice, increasing xenophobia and racism to Europe once again. The question of refugees may be highly politicised but it is first and foremost a humanitarian issue. So far, Eu- rope’s policies have been largely anti-refugee, with many countries unwilling to open their doors and seeing migrants as a threat, reinforcing the critique that ‘Fortress Europe’ is as closed as it ever was. In that sense, there is not only a refugee crisis but also a crisis in the management of migration within the EU itself, with a lack of common ground in policy-making and sharing of responsibilities. Millions of euros have been spent sending back migrants to their countries of origin, or to countries near conflict zones such as Turkey and Lebanon, and keeping them out of Europe. It is a fundamental question whether that money would be better spent on integrating them into European society and offering opportunities for work and education. The fact that immigration has played a positive role in the economies of hosting countries is conveniently overlooked. There is no doubt that the cultural history of Europe – indeed the world – has been enriched by migrations.
Migrations are not autonomous processes; they are the result of larger dynamics. According to figures compiled by the UN, 62 per cent of those coming into Europe are fleeing war, dictatorship and religious persecution. The conflict in Syria is the biggest cause of the present migration, but other factors are also important, including the ongoing violence in Afghanistan and Iraq, human rights violations in Eritrea, the civil war in Libya, as well as extreme poverty in the Global South. The number of asylum seekers in Europe has increased dramatically over the last few years and is expected to rise even further. Migration due to climate change is also going to be one of the future challenges the planet will continue to face. Apart from increasing xenophobia and racism, amnesia has taken grip. Europeans seem to have forgotten the refugee crisis that took place in the aftermath of the Second World War. We Europeans, our parents or grandparents, have been in the same situation as the one that the Syrians are in today. We also need to remember that the migration crisis did not occur in a vacuum, but has been the result of geopolitical power games in which Europe and the West also bear responsibility.
Since the refugee crisis will not go away by itself, it is necessary that a greater awareness of the nature, complexity, and extent of the issue be developed. Why, might one ask, should an exhibition address such an unresolved critical issue, which is so highly sensitive and difficult to represent? The answer is quite straightforward: artists and cultural practitioners have a different way of looking into socio- and geopolitical catastrophes. Policymakers generally try to capture problems in practical terms and handle them as manageable quantitative data. The media treat disasters predominantly as consumable, spectacularised events, which eventually become old, forgotten news. Many people, mostly under the influence of populist parties and sensationalist journalism, experience humanitarian disasters as a personal threat to their jobs and lifestyles. Artists, on the other hand, may highlight the complexities underlying such questions, pointing out all kinds of different positions that can be taken in relation to them. Artists not only reveal the predicament, but also point out the myriad subjectivities that get lost in the mainstream narratives. They steer clear of polarising notions of ‘them’ and ‘us’, make us aware of our own predispositions, biases, preconceptions and hopefully guide us to become more open-minded, and less self-contained and secluded. They frequently offer a wider perspective and greater criticality, and show contemporary issues under a different, more considered and nuanced light. They bring untold stories to life and reveal hidden experiences, subjectivities and narratives, which is also one of the goals of the exhibition. Certainly, while exhibitions like these do not solve the problem, they do keep it alive in our minds and maintain public awareness so that the necessary debate continues.
What is needed, ultimately, is the ability to consider the question ‘what if this were me? How would I react then?’ The exhibition will hopefully help to foster that viewpoint. As migration will remain one of the pressing issues of our time, with more and more people forced into flight for political, economic or environmental reasons, we need to re-consider what it means to co-habit this increasingly interconnected planet in terms of mutual hospitality and generosity. This is one of the most serious challenges of our time, and the solution cannot be the divisive politics of exclusion.
A co-production of the Schwarz Foundation and the Kunsthalle Mulhouse.
All photos above: Sebastien Bozon
Below: installation views of the exhibition at Art Space Pythagorion, Samos Photos: Panos Kokkinias