- South West England
‘Port City-On Mobility and Exchange’ explores the interconnected political issues of Sub-Saharan African poverty, the politics of containment and economic migration. The ambitious project aims to brings specificity to generalisations and address Western preconceptions on economic migrants, rendering a multifaceted, geo-politically aware critique of the notion of the ‘port’ as site for cultural and economic exchange. The initial room hosts the work of Ursula Biemann, commencing with her ‘Saharan Panels’, in which the artist utilises photographs taken by the Moroccan Gendarmerie Royale in Laayoune, Western Sahara, and serve to open a peon into a reality that we in the West have little insight. The photographs taken by the Moroccan police are combined with text that elucidate the logistics of the Trans-Saharan migration from Sub-Saharan Africa and contextualizes the politics of containment. Biemann informs us that ‘Since technological surveillance has been reinforced in the strait of Gibraltar, Sub-Saharan migration has dislocated further down the Atlantic coast of Morocco’. Now near impossible to ensure passage through the strait of Gibraltar, migrants now make their journey from the Moroccan coast, but must bide their time concealed in the Sahara, waiting for their time to traverse the Atlantic. Biemann creates an exasperating sense of futility, the subsequent paragraph informs us that the boats used for the journey might look convincing, but do not ‘benefit from any naval knowledge whatsoever’; the boat a prophetic metaphor for many ill-fated ventures. ‘Saharan Chronicles-Prison Used for Transit Migrants, Laayoune, Western Sahara’, a video piece with a post- Saidian agenda married with a rarely encountered sense of pathos. Biemann confronts us with those who have travelled 3000 km, sometimes having waited months in the Sahara, only to be deported from Morocco. The painful irony here is that the containment and expulsion is not delivered by European but by African authorities. Biemann conducts insightful interviews with those awaiting repatriation, one Senegalese man has saved for three years, another has spent 2 months in the Sahara without water forced to drink his own urine to survive, whilst a Nigerian man has been robbed blind by the Moroccan authorities. Biemann’s exhibits conspire together to construct a narrative defined by its humanity and intimate portrayal of human struggle against staggering odds. The prime locus of the work is to visualise into a political aesthetic of geo-political consciousness the politics of containment and the plight of those who are contained. Simultaneously aesthetically effective and politically potent, Biemann reminds us that art does have the potential to contribute to a critically engaged understanding of our global economic and political landscape. There is predominantly a political rationale behind the selection of exhibits, but there is still time for the light-hearted. This is exemplified by Erik Van Lieshout’s Larium, a work of ambiguous meaning and intent. It is an uncouth model of a tablet packet-Larium- one of a widely available anti-malarial tablet in Africa. Yet the video within the installation seems even more beguiling as it depicts Lieshout’s quest to Ghana in search of the roots of Hip Hop. Upon striking on some pliant or just polite Ghanaians, Lieshout persuades them to rap about Larium. ‘Larium’ could be conflated with cultural osmosis, but does not seem determined enough for this accolade, and to me intimates more the pluralistic curatorial attitude that underpins this project. Proceeding into the adjacent room, I find myself making a nod of appreciation to the curator once again, as the way in which Campos Pons collages, Meschac Gaba’s ‘Sweetness’ and Barrada’s ‘Sleepers’ have been arranged precipitates reflection on the hopes that drive economic migration, combined with the reality of this experience. Gaba’s piece constitutes Utopian vision of a Metropolis, a dream like conception of the expectations which fuel the journeys like the ones vividly evoked by Ursula Biemann. The idea of the idealised Metropolis is suggested through the device of pastiche, as this cut and paste cut and paste city-scape is punctuated by immediately recognisable buildings from around the world such as the Eiffel Tower, the Cathedral of Brasilia, the Gherkin and even the Taj Mahal. Campos Pons works and Barrada’s Sleepers, operate together to create a dark symmetry, flank ‘Sweetness’ on either side. Campos Pons’ work depicts successful ‘migr’s in Padua, prosperously selling their wares, whereas ‘Sleepers’ makes explicit the connection between the notion of the idealised metropolis and the expectations hopes and dreams of the ‘migr’s. Each of the photographs show sleeping migrants, waiting for their time of passage. They could also symbolise those migrants who find the European dream instead a nightmare, falling prey to the very exploitation and poverty they have tried to flee. Here we find works of tremendous integrity that reassuringly demonstrates that art can lay the gauntlet to the forces that wish to curtail its role as an undamaged social voice capable of subjective and profound reflection.