New worlds: how artists are being inspired by Europe's refugee crisis
From an Iranian artist’s creative reappraisal of Persian miniatures to a Syrian-Palestinian’s exploration of the memories of Syrian refugees, artists are using their work to highlight the human dimension of the crisis
As the words “migrant crisis” permeated daily conversation, and migrants became refugees became people fleeing for their lives in recent weeks, artworks that explore the darker side of the human condition are given a new context.
A sailing boat, with thin wooden masts and white sails rolled up, hovering against a darkened sea is from a series of revisited Persian miniatures that the Iranian artist Shahpour Pouyan is currently showing at London’s Copperfield Gallery in an exhibition entitled "History Travels at Different Speeds”.
Of the 16 miniatures in the show, the boat – titled God Sets the Course for the Ship and Not the Captain – is the one that stops you in your tracks. Pouyan sees a bleak metaphor for the refugees’ plight in the piece’s colours.
“Silver was used to paint water,” he says. “But the destiny of silver is to oxidise, to blacken. People are putting their lives into the hands of traffickers, who put the boats on autopilot and jump ship. The ships travel west with no captain or crew, but packed full of believers, literally entrusting their destiny to God.”
Pouyan has been reworking these classic miniature masterpieces since 2008. Using digital and manual manipulation, he removes all people from the artworks, then painstakingly recreates their landscapes. Yet the resulting images have an eerie emptiness to them. You go to many places, he says, places like Persepolis, emptied of people but pregnant with a sense of civilisation abandoned.
“And it’s what’s happening today in Aleppo, for example. This destruction, this emptying has happened before – it will happen again.”
Lives and killings are erased, grass and flowers are etched into life, the sea is as dark as a tomb. The miniatures hover between something like hope and something like despair.
While Pouyan focuses on history, Bissane al Charif, a Syrian-Palestinian artist now based in Paris, operates in the immediacy of life as a recent exile.
Charif studied scenography in Nantes, France, before returning to Syria to work. She accompanied her parents to Paris in December 2012 for a medical operation. Afterwards, going back just didn’t seem like an option – life in Damascus was no longer liveable. Which isn’t to say that living elsewhere was easy.
“Leaving your life behind isn’t simple,” she says. “Dropping everything, accepting you have to start again someplace new. There are so many questions.”
An exhibition at the British Council earlier this year showcased the beginning of her multimedia work Mémoires de Femmes.
While Charif’s departure was altogether less traumatic than that of so many Syrian refugees – she left by plane, when there still was an airport – she felt that they would have held similar concerns. So she interviewed a diverse group of eight women who had fled, asking them the same questions. What is the home you left like? How did you leave? What did you take with you? Where do you imagine your home will be in 10 years’ time?
Because Charif chose detail over drama, the documentary results are mesmerising in their mundanity. The women describe beloved homes in such detail that you are right there with them; they relate arduous, extended journeys; and they list the random things they found in their handbags.
Charif wonders constantly if she shouldn’t make work about something else. Or if she should have gone back to Syria and stayed. Or if she ever will go back. Maybe not. “I don’t know yet what I feel. I’m still in transit. I’ve not completely accepted my departure, but at the same time I know that I have left,” she says.
An artist who has examined every side of this coin, for decades, is the Cameroonian Barthélémy Toguo, whose installation Urban Requiem is one of this year’s Venice Biennale highlights.
A collection of oversized wooden stamps, whose handles are sculpted human busts, are arranged on large, stepladder-like structures. A huge canvas bears printed messages culled from news reports, social media and encounters with members of the public: “Nous sommes tous les enfants d’immigrés” (“We’re all the children of immigrants”).
A couple of these stamp sculptures are on display at Pippy Houldsworth Gallery in London, the words “Hope” and “migrant” in bold woodcut capitals.
“I use these stamps to show the cries of people who are suffering, and also to deal with the problems our society is facing – immigration in particular. I feel that we are all in transit, we are all potentially beings in exile. We take our cultures with us, and that can go as well as it can go badly. But it cannot be stopped.”
These stamps are not a response to recent events, but a presage – Toguo has been exploring these ideas for years. As early as the mid-1990s, he was working on a series of confrontational performances entitled Transit. His 2005 installation Climbingdown was a direct response to the intensity of the life that comes after the departure – huge multi-storey bunk beds hung with cheap, chequered plastic-fabric travel bags – while Road for Exil, from 2008, is an uncanny prediction in rough-hewn wood and canvas: a small wooden boat, heavily laden with ostensibly African bags, atop a sea of glass bottles.
And we’re back at the unseaworthy vessel, that symbol of lives adrift and beyond control that each new news cycle makes real: people, by their thousands, throwing their lot in with traffickers and smugglers and needing not a metaphorical but an actual lifeboat.
As migration becomes the defining issue of this century, Toguo, Al Charif and Pouyan bring the humanity of it all back to the fore and ask that we remember – with each speech and each story – that very real lives are at stake.
Dismaland bemusement park to become Calais refugee shelters, says Banksy
Timber and fixtures from Banksy’s “Dismaland” theme park in western England will be sent to build shelters at an informal migrant camp in Calais, northern France, the elusive street artist said on his website.
The “bemusement park”, billed as Britain’s “most disappointing visitor attraction”, was a sell-out attracting more than 150,000 paying visitors in the five weeks it was staged in Weston-super-Mare.
“Coming soon … Dismaland Calais,” the website says, with a picture of Dismaland’s Sleeping Beauty castle amid the tents of the camp.
“All the timber and fixtures from Dismaland are being sent to the ‘jungle’ refugee camp near Calais to build shelters. No online tickets will be available.”
Banksy, whose identity has never been confirmed, says the show was not a swipe at Disney.
But the dilapidated castle, a dead Cinderella in a crashed coach providing a photo opportunity for the paparazzi and sulky attendants wearing Mickey Mouse ears, all mocked and subverted the world’s best-known theme park.
The material will go to the “jungle” camp, one of a number of camps around the French port, where thousands are staying in the hope of travelling to Britain.
Paul Sandle and Michael Holden