UNITED’s Jonathan Karstadt explores an exhibition organised by the Migration Museum Project in London that shines a light on different perspectives on migration to Europe.
The first thing you see when arriving at the exhibition is an installation featuring more than 300 small sculptures of faceless human forms marching towards some distant goal. This is Wanderers by Nikolaj Bendix Skyum Larsen, a work which strikingly – albeit abstractly – illustrates the great wave of migration, forced and voluntary, that has caused so much concern in Europe over the last few years.
“Call me by my name: Stories from Calais and beyond” is a new exhibition at the Londonewcastle Project Space, a gallery built in a former printing workshop in the hip east London district of Shoreditch. The exhibition has been organised by the Migration Museum Project, a group that has been organising exhibitions and advocating for a permanent museum focusing on migration in the UK since 2012.
The exhibition explores the situation of refugees and migrants seeking to enter the UK through the port of Calais and their life there in the so-called Jungle camp, as well as looking at the journeys being made by thousands of people to Europe, and across the continent. Following Wanderers, visitors come to an expansive space with an installation made up of life jackets previously worn by refugees making the perilous journey from Turkey to the Greek island of Kos. While these are all authentic artefacts, none of them are genuine lifejackets; all are fakes, and would not have saved any lives in the event of a shipwreck.
What follows is a zooming effect: after the lifejackets comes a room full of enlarged sketches of individual asylum seekers in the Jungle camp in Calais. Finally, a room dedicated to the day-to-day life for refugees in the Calais camps, including tents and shacks formerly home to camp residents, detailed maps of the camp and a huge gallery of photos. These exhibits are interspersed throughout with artworks produced by refugees and volunteers, large collections of quotes from a huge range of different people, a listening booth that constantly plays excerpts from interviews and public speeches on the refugee situation, and a video room that cycles through three films about the situation in Calais and the people living there.
The exhibition presents a vast array of different perspectives on the issue; sitting for a few minutes in the listening booth, a visitor can hear about the experiences of everyone from refugees living in the Calais camp and volunteers and aid-workers assisting them, to the lorry drivers who fear the serious fines imposed by the British government for stowaways. This provides for some really jarring juxtapositions: I was struck, for example, when an emotional testimony by a Jungle volunteer about the unaccompanied minors she met in the camp was followed immediately by a recording of an infamous speech by prime minister David Cameron in the House of Commons, where he dismissed the residents of the Calais camp as a “bunch of migrants”.
The diversity of perspectives is echoed in the variety of artworks presented in the exhibition. These include sculptures, paintings, sketches and multimedia works by a range of people, but the undisputed star of the show is Alpha, a Mauritanian refugee-artist who lived in the camp before eventually being granted refugee status in France. The exhibitions include a range of his works, from self-portraits that mix paint with real dirt taken from the Jungle’s muddy streets to an installation made from the remnants of police tear gas canisters, and a sculpture of Matine Aubry, the Mayor of Lille, made from a discarded plastic water bottle (I am informed that the mayor herself was very pleased with it). One of the three films shown in the video room is a documentary about his work.
The most touching exhibits, however, are those produced by children living in the Calais camps. These include a wall of paintings, whose smiling faces and colourful depictions of houses, cars and flags do not look so different from children’s paintings seen on fridges everywhere – until you look closely and see the razorwire fences, the harsh fluorescent street signs, and the sirens that show the car is in fact a police car: “Every night we go for the train. This is police car, which catch us and say, ‘back to jungle’” reads the accompanying text.
Receiving its initial funding from Arts Council England, Call me by my name was originally conceived as an art exhibition, but in its final form it is much more than that: with its variety of media and a huge diversity of perspectives and voices, it is an immersive experience that takes visitors right to the heart of Europe’s humanitarian crisis.
“Call me by my name: stories from Calais and beyond” is open from 2 to 22 June at Londonewcastle Project Space, 28 Redchurch Street, London, E2 7DP. It is open from 12pm-8pm every day, and entry is free.