by RACHEL ROSENFIELD LAFO
Immigration is a hot topic these days, not only politically but also in the cultural sector as artists respond to a growing humanitarian crisis. The traveling exhibition In Transit at Blue Sky Gallery through December 30 confronts this timely and difficult topic through photographs and videos of migrants and refugees in the Middle East and Europe who have been forced to leave their homes due to war, political upheavals, economic deprivation, and strife. While the situation in each country varies and each migrant experiences a different set of circumstances, there is a commonality to their existence in a state of transition, with little security or recourse.
The five artists selected by curator Peggy Sue Amison have worked with immigrants in Iran, Jordan, Lebanon, Italy, and Germany, providing a window into the lives of people who endure in constant states of uncertainty, loss, sorrow, fear and frustration. By collaborating with their subjects over a period of time, sometimes years, and giving them a voice, the artists restore dignity to those often seen only as interlopers or victims rather than individuals.
Iranian photographer Gohar Dashti, in her series Stateless, poses men, women and children in a stark, forbidding but beautiful no-man’s land of rock formations rising from the desert floor. Although Dashti’s scenes are staged (on the Iranian island of Qeshm in the Persian Gulf), rather than documents of actual situations, her photographs are powerful visual metaphors of the plight of people who find themselves stateless and in transition. In one image, a woman and child, both holding suitcases, stand on a stone-lined pathway, dwarfed by the huge stone pillars that surround them. Where are they going and where have they come from? How will they survive in this barren landscape? Are they safer in this natural environment than in a war-torn city or village? In another photograph a young couple embraces on the right while a pile of their household belongings, including a refrigerator, air conditioner, fan, television, and other items, are stacked at the left, presumably remnants of the home they had to leave, incongruous in this desolate landscape.
George Awde’s photographs are an ongoing collaboration with a group of young Syrian men and boys living in Beirut, Lebanon with whom Awde has developed long-term friendships. The series, Scale Without Measure, consists of three parts: large format color photographs of urban landscapes of Beirut and Cairo interspersed with images of boys and young men set in nondescript, marginal spaces; smaller gelatin silver prints made from images sent to the artist by his subjects through WhatsApp that capture events from their daily lives; and a case of Polaroids that serve as studies for Adwe’s larger images. In a video produced for the series when it was exhibited at Light Work in Syracuse, New York, Awde speaks of his desire to explore issues of home, belonging, community, masculinity and the alternative family structures that these young men form out of necessity. In Neighbors, a view into the windows of an apartment building at night where several young men are sleeping sprawled on beds or on the floor, Awde exposes the crowded quarters that these young men share. A portrait of three boys standing in front of a wall, shirtless, leaning against each other, suggests their intimacy and dependency. Awde continues to photograph the same boys as they age, creating an ongoing visual narrative of their lives.
Tanya Habjouqa’s series, Tomorrow There Will be Apricots, centers on five years in the lives of Syrian women and girls living in Jordan. Residing in confined quarters, mourning the loss of their husbands, fathers, and homeland, the women lead lives defined by trauma and absence. The artist describes her collaborative approach as “study, investigation, documentary, reenactment, archive, rumination, and even séance, for those desperate to resurrect the dead or confront the past and its ghosts.” Performing for the camera is not only cathartic for the women but allows them to participate in how their stories are told. A young woman named Hala appears in several of the photographs. Her face is never shown; instead her posture and gestures reflect her emotional state and situation. In the image that bears the title of the whole series, Hala reaches her hand out from behind a gauzy curtain that obscures most of the rest of her body. She holds several apricots in her hand, a reference to the Arabic proverb, tomorrow there will be apricots, which can be idiomatically translated as “it’s impossible, so let it go.”
Stefanie Zofia Schulz, herself born in a housing estate in Germany for migrants escaping from Russia and Poland, spent a year photographing residents of Germany’s largest collective housing estate for migrants and asylum seekers. Her series Toleration documents the tedium and isolation of everyday life. As the wall label explains, immigrants placed in this housing estate are supposed to live there for no more than one year, although this timeframe is often exceeded. They are not permitted to legally live in the country while waiting to be relocated, yet some have been there for fifteen years. They remain in limbo, having no choice but to tolerate their existence while barely being tolerated by those outside their compound. On an individual level the photographs represent young people engaged in domestic activities such as watching cartoons, jumping on a bed or having their hair ironed, yet their collective impact builds to form a sad picture of lives lived in a perpetual state of suspension as residents face an unknown future.
In the series Foreigner/ I Peri N’Tera, Daniel Castro Garcia and his collaborators use large color photographs, videos, and extended text labels to tell the stories of young male migrants and refugees from Africa who arrive unaccompanied in Sicily, Italy, having endured arduous crossings by desert and sea only to arrive in a country where their situation is tenuous. Similar to the sentiment expressed in the title of Habjouqa’s series, the Italian phrase I Peri N’Tera translates as “feet on the ground” and is used to caution people not to get carried away with their hopes and dreams. Aly, an immigrant from Senegal who is represented in several photographs and a video, talks about the dangerous boat journey across the Mediterranean and asks, “why we must waste so much time waiting for papers,” expressing the frustration and despair that many refugees experience. We learn that it took Aly five years to receive a work permit only to be dismissed from a trial position in a restaurant before he started work because he is black. Castro Garcia’s compelling photographs communicate through body language the emotional tenor of the young men he photographs. In a striking image of Aly and his brother Yilam taken back in Senegal, the brothers, facing away from each other, are submerged in water that comes to just below their shoulders. The palpable tension of the scene may be a reflection of the difficulties migrants face in providing for families back home.
Given what is currently going on in the United States with new restrictions on immigration and attempts to deny access to asylum seekers, the images captured in these bodies of work could be replicated on our borders as well as in many other communities. Indeed, there is a growing body of photographic work documenting people who are crossing the Mexico-US border. These migrants and refugees are in exile from countries to which they may never return, seeking a better life yet often encountering detention, resistance and discrimination. The photographers in In Transit do vitally important work providing alternative views of the migrant experience, validating the individuality and dignity of their subjects, and allowing them an opportunity to be present rather than absent.
On Thursday, December 6 at 5pm, exhibition curator Peggy Amison will lead a conversation with artists Gohar Dashti and Stefanie Zofia Schulz at Blue Sky Gallery.
Rachel Rosenfield Lafo is an independent curator and arts writer.
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