Crawford exhibition highlights migrants' plight

The impressive images from the In Transit exhibition are now online, writes Colette Sheridan.
Crawford exhibition highlights migrants' plight
'Stateless', taken from the online exhibition. Pic: Gohar Dashti

The impressive images from the In Transit exhibition are now online, writes Colette Sheridan.

An impressive exhibition of photographs and video by five international at the Crawford, was cut short by the virus lockdown, but the Cork gallery has made the images available for viewing online.

Entitled In Transit, the exhibition documents the limbo-like existence of immigrants who have fled their unsafe and economically depressed homelands in search of a better life. These people often find themselves living between different cultures, facing physical and psychological challenges. The exhibition was created in Germany, Jordan, Lebanon, Italy and Iran.

Its curator is Peggy Sue Amison, an American who ran the Sirius Arts Centre in Cobh for fifteen years. She is touring the exhibition which showed at various galleries all the way along the west coast of America as well as Cambridge in Massachusetts and Denmark. Amison, who lives in Berlin, says the exhibition has sparked a lot of emotional responses. "I think for many people, it makes them realise how close they are to these people. A lot of us are only one pay cheque away from being in serious trouble financially."

Amison says that with the rise of the far right and nationalism, it is a very frightening time both for citizens and new citizens. "It's a really crazy time. I think the only way we're going to survive is by stopping seeing each other as 'us' and 'them' and instead, seeing us all together as one. We all want the same things. We want a safe place to live, we want to be able to take care of our children and feed them and we want health care."

For Amison, the people in the photographs and video installations "are bright people with amazing potential. If that potential could be harnessed, you could do amazing things. I understand that people are concerned that these immigrants are coming to take their jobs. But if they could just step back and listen to the voice of Aly (they would empathise.)"

Aly, from Senegal, was captured on video and in photographs in Catania in Sicily by Daniel Castro Garcia. After nearly five years living there, he finally received a work permit. He recently turned up for a trial shift at a restaurant but was dismissed before starting. The reason given to him was because he is black. In the video, Aly talks about his experiences and powerfully explains why he was forced to leave his native country.

Amison says that Daniel Castro Garcia, brought up by parents who emigrated from Spain's Galicia region to Oxford, started making his work to help migrants and refugees have their voices heard. "He was reading references in the papers to migrants getting killed on ships and described as cockroaches, murderers and rapists."

From the 'Tomorrow There Will Be Apricots' installation at the Crawford Art Gallery, prior to Covid-19 measures.
From the 'Tomorrow There Will Be Apricots' installation at the Crawford Art Gallery, prior to Covid-19 measures.

Jerusalem-based photographer, journalist and educator, Tanya Habjouqa, born in Jordan and brought up between there and the US, is exhibiting documentary work and collaborative portraiture. It is called 'Tomorrow There Will be Apricots' which is a Levant expression meaning 'in your dreams.' This absence of hope is the daily reality for over 600,000 registered Syrian refugees living in Jordan. Many of the women in the images have lost their husbands. They call home a six-floor concrete apartment block from which hangs a banner that reads: 'Martyrs' Wives.'

Habjouqa describes herself as a feminist. "I find myself leaning towards the feminine in my stories." What began as a news assignment for Le Monde became, for Habjouqa a five year project. "It started at a very specific time in 2012 when the word 'revolution' was used to describe what was happening in Syria. I was meeting the men running the revolution in a living room. You never saw the women apart from their hands, as they handed trays of coffee in the door. While I was accessing the men who spoke of freedom fighters to describe the Syrians fighting, I was thinking 'who were the women beyond the door?'

"And so, that became a curiosity. I started to poke and poke. It was hard to get access to the women but I finally did when the men were away. As things escalated, the women were alone. Sometimes, I wasn't getting any pictures because they can't show their faces. But the narratives were so strong that my instinct was to figure out a visual story later. The picture was almost secondary."

It took nearly two years for Habjouqa to win the women's trust. "Most sane people would probably have given up the project. I was living in East Jerusalem and I was having to make my way to Jordan. It's quite expensive to make that journey and sometimes I only got to take one or two pictures."

Over time, the women became widows. "They were living in these houses paid for by Saudi and Qatari patrons with no strings attached other than a list of rules such as 'no chewing gum', 'no high heels' and being in at a certain time. Each apartment was identical consisting of a horrible dingy room with one window and hideous polka dotted curtains."

(There is a replication of such a room in the exhibition accompanied by video.) Out of fear of sexual assault, girls were not allowed to attend school after the age of 12. While children could be photographed for her project, Habjouqa says that young women over the age of sixteen couldn't show their faces. But she found imaginative ways around these restrictions which can be seen at the Crawford.

Mobile phones are a feature of the exhibition. "There were women left behind, whose men had gone to Germany. One woman was exhausted from her child who was wailing hysterically with fists flailing. The woman took out her phone and played an audio message from her husband who was in Germany. The audio was him singing a lullaby for the kid. It was amazing. Immediately, the kid's fists unfurled and the red colour from his face went. Others started to share their messages.

"They had old Nokia phones. They were poor village people who didn't use iPhones. A lot of them had photos on their phones. In one case, a woman had photographed her house before she fled Syria, thinking that maybe she'd never see it again. Two weeks later, the house was bombed. And then, when the phone died, it was thrown away. The treasure trove of memories and pictures of the dead, etc, was gone."

'Stateless', taken from the online exhibition. Pic: Gohar Dashti
'Stateless', taken from the online exhibition. Pic: Gohar Dashti

Iranian artist, Gohar Dashti, stages photographs that focus on the relationship between nature and home. Her photographs at the exhibition are influenced by Iranian miniaturist art with expansive mountains and blue skies framing figures of people made tiny by distance.

Dashti, who shot the photographs on show of actors on the Iranian island of Qeshm in the Persian Gulf, wanted a location "that is universal." Nature can be "a safe haven" for refugees. The sky, she says, "becomes the ceiling and the mountains the walls of their new home, because nature is the only promising place that shelters these people, giving them an eternal and everlasting refuge."

Dashti has done a lot of work on the meaning of home. "If you lose your home or you have to leave it, what is going to happen? Who is going to open their house to you? It's like people living in airports. It's an in-between state." In Transit captures the stateless in all kinds of creative and sometimes poignant ways.

The Crawford Art Gallery in Cork is currently closed due to Covid-19 restrictions, but the images from In Transit can be viewed at crawfordartgallery.ie

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