×
STRANGERS THUMB

WHO AMONG US?

Text by Carolina Drake

Images have never circulated this widely. Yet while a photo that depicts suffering can change one’s view or trigger a call to action, it can also cause its viewer to feel saturated, numb or avoidant. Nevertheless, these are signs that socio-political debates and conversations are happening in the visual field. Artworks, free from some of the representative confines surrounding photography, also operate in the visual and in the conversations surrounding migration can offer something that the media can’t. We just need to look again.

Ismail Einashe’s book Strangers (Tate Publishing, 2023) surveys artworks made by artists displaced as migrants or considered strangers where they live. “By definition, strangers are not friends. They are someone you don’t know. Their foreignness and otherness may be a threat,” he writes. At the same time, “a stranger can be a guest or a visitor – someone we do not need to vilify or fear and who may require our assistance, compassion, and empathy as fellow humans.”

In an article for Frieze, Einashe wrote, “The ‘migrant crisis’ has become voguish in art and film, but, unfortunately, much of this engagement has been reductive and exploitative. How do you visually represent those labeled as ‘other,’ ‘dangerous,’ or ‘invaders’?” One example of an artwork which was unsuccessful at responding to migrant deaths, according to Einashe, was Gianfranco Rosi’s much-lauded Fire at Sea (2016), a documentary depicting the experience of Italian authorities and migrants on the island of Lampedusa, but which – as Einashe writes – veiled “the mostly black figures with their suffering while reducing them to unspeaking bodies.” Christoph Büchel’s Barca Nostra (Our Boat, 2018–19), a migrant shipwreck installed at the 2019 Venice Biennale, was also produced under “clouded judgment”. Intended to represent a tragedy of more than 1,500 North African migrant deaths, the installation had no label or descriptive text to offer any context. Meanwhile, unwitting visitors took selfies with the piece.

A journalist who has reported on migration for decades and a Somali immigrant who has also been displaced by civil war, Einashe told me that “there is something about art in all its forms that seems to humanise the migrant experience, even though art can also be negative. Coming to this book, I was interested in both these lenses – and in asking if art can allow us to chart new possibilities.” When searching for pictures of the civil war in Somalia, Einsahe could only find images of malnourished children and decimated cities. “They brought me nowhere near the photos of happy family moments my mother left in a hole in the ground, in hope. But art can take me closer than I ever imagined in giving flesh to these lost memories, setting a tone where I feel close to my three-year-old self”.

Lastran003

Arshile Gorky, Garden in Sochi Motif, 1942

Andichurai

Khadija Saye, Andichurai , 2017, from the series: “Dwelling: in this space we breathe”. Courtesy of the Estate of Khadija Saye. In memory: Khadija Saye Arts at IntoUniversity

 

Nak Bejjen

Khadija Saye, Nak Bejjen, 2017, from the series: “Dwelling: in this space we breathe”. Courtesy of the Estate of Khadija Saye. In memory: Khadija Saye Arts at IntoUniversity

Einashe brings together a wide range of voices across time and space in the book. Florentine artist Theophilus “Imani” Marboah examines racial hierarchy by pairing black faces with canonical works in Echoes and Agreements (2017-2022). Placing black bodies, historically racialised as “less human,” at the same level of beauty as their white counterparts, Imani’s works show us that “art can be used to disturb and embed socio-political and media representations of migrants.”

Likewise, artist Arshile Gorky, who fled Ottoman-controlled Armenia in 1915 during the Armenian genocide, depicted a migrant experience of a place that didn’t exist anymore. The home he was forced to flee, which was then destroyed, appears in fragmented form in his works. Garden in Sochi Motif (1942) is an abstract composition inspired by childhood visions and personal history, and just like the artist’s memories of home, it is hard to pinpoint place. As Einashe writes, “Given the near-extinction of Armenian culture because of the genocide and the century of denial that surrounded it, Gorky’s fragmented memory and style reflect a loss that is impossible to reconfigure.”

British-Palestinian artist Mona Hatoum’s work Exodus II (2002) captures the fragility of migration’s connective threads with two suitcases joined by long strands of human hair. “The hair, the material of that remaining connection, is so redolent with biological identity and essence that its power is profound, even in its near invisibility.”

Perhaps most poignantly, Gambian-British artist Khadija Saye explores the place of trauma in black experience in her work “Dwelling: in this space we breathe” (2017), which inspires “a dream-like feeling that recaptures the spirituality of black and diasporic identities”. Saye’s work was on the cusp of wider recognition when she died in the Grenfell Tower fire in 2017. Most of the people who lived and died in this tower, Einashe reminds us, were migrants, Muslims, and people of working-class backgrounds – other “strangers”.

​​The cover image of Einashe’s book – a fox running loose in the dark in the National Portrait Gallery, “trespassing the gilded cultural heart of London,” was taken from Belgian artist Francis Alÿs’s twenty-channel video installation, The Nightwatch (2004). The image is an invitation to be alive to the presence of strangers, and to seek out the art that travels beyond the simplistic media-driven narrative; to depict migrants not as strangers but as neighbours, friends, artists and citizens. In his book, A Hunger for Aesthetics (2012), philosopher Michael Kelly argues, “If we focus on moral-political art critique in particular, the hunger for aesthetics is even stronger, perhaps surprisingly so.”

In a world crammed with images designed to transmit information, not feeling, our hunger for art and beauty grows; fortunately, both  are tools in the project of building a liberated co-existence. ◉