"When we arrived in Moria and I saw everybody’s daily problems, I couldn’t sit aside and not do anything. I have a deep belief in words and their effects. I knew that using words to show the reality is the only way to make change."*

Inspired by Parwana Amiri’s journey from Afghanistan to Greece and her text “My Pen Won’t Break, But Borders Will,” this exhibition tells exceptional stories of refuge, the pursuit of happiness, misplacement, violence, and solidarity.

Parwana—a teenage girl from Afghanistan—arrived on the Greek island of Lesvos in 2019, in hopes of a safer and happier life, as the political situation forced her family to leave their home country. What she encountered in the seemingly safe haven of Europe was an overcrowded and underfunded refugee camp that has been neglected by the European Union. Disillusioned but empowered nonetheless, Parwana took a pen and started writing about her experiences in the camp. In a series of letters and photographs, she documented the horrible conditions of a place designed to deter people from coming. They are written from her own and other refugees’ perspectives, as she is just one of many who are seeking a place of peace, equality, happiness, safety, education, and freedom.

The works presented question the ambiguous reasons for migration and moreover, who we delineate as a “good” and a “bad” refugee. Since Russia's invasion of Ukraine, the world has witnessed that refugees with a white, western and middle-class background are viewed as more fit and deserving of unconditioned empathy and help. What most other asylum seekers encounter, however, is “Fortress Europe”—a violent system of border patrols and detention centers that are used to prevent refugees from entering the European Union.

“And what would you say if, after days of walking through mountains, forests, plains, deserts and between valleys, without food and water, in cold weather, without blankets and warm clothes, yet full of hope about your reaching Europe, you found yourself, instead, behind Moria’s jail door, with your dreams of sleeping in a warm and safe place shattered?”*

Humans have been on the move for several millions of years and the reasons for people to leave their home country are manyfold. In “Passagen” (1996), Lisl Ponger tells stories of emigration from the points of view of travelers and refugees who (in)voluntarily left their home country. Whereas the video poetically juxtaposes privilege and necessity of people’s movement, the photographs “There’s no place like” (2007) and “There be Dragons” (2019), sharply criticize Europe’s handling of refugees, especially the EU’s deployment of Frontex—the European Border and Coast Guard Agency that engages in violent and illegal pushbacks. Rajkamal Kahlon unearths the connections between past atrocities and present trauma in the video “People of Afghanistan” (2016). The work is comprised of high resolution thermal imagery of bombing footage anonymously published on the Internet of an American AC-130 Specter Gunship attack. Overlayed onto this footage are the photographs of Afghan men compiled during a 1960s anthropological survey thereby explicitly connecting U.S. immigration history with the ongoing violence against communities of color.

In this context, we must also discuss the rapid progress of new technologies, especially when they are used, unregulated, in the management of border control. Oliver Ressler tackles this issue in his film "Emergency Turned Upside-Down” (2016). This work was influenced by the “summer of migration” of 2015, when the Schengen system was suspended for several weeks and wealthy European states temporarily opened borders for refugees from Syria and the wider war-zone world. However, it soon became obvious that the “welcoming culture” of a few European states would not last long. Regina Jose Galindo’s project “Un latino cerca de ti” (2015), on the other hand, was inspired by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s initiative aimed at controlling individuals who illegally cross the country's borders. Galindo recorded their steps in drawings made from the movements of a GPS device attached to her ankle and demonstrates that smart technologies will increasingly be used to monitor migration for border control, yet we still lack humanitarian migration policies.

“The sea between Turkey and Greece is a black water full of death and corpses. People died because the priority in Europe is to control borders and not save lives.

Do you think these parents are ready to put their children’s lives in danger?

No one, no one, no one… chooses this without having a bigger danger behind his/her back. In every moment, these mothers and fathers are afraid. They decide to risk death just to give their kids the hope of peace.”*

In Borjana Ventzislavova’s photographic work “Migration Standards” (2011) we encounter young asylum seekers’ hopes for the future. It deals with their demands for recognition of their history, their role and social equality and reminds us that the young generation that grows up in today’s regressive and racist societies deserve an equal and just environment. The series underscores the necessity not only to ensure basic human rights but moreover to pay attention to the next generation’s needs, aspirations, and dreams.

Globally, the climate crisis, wars, gender discrimination, famine, socio-political instabilities, etc. are the driving forces of migratory movements and displacements and there is no end in sight. It is therefore ever more vital to ensure safe border crossings, a right to asylum, a social security net and solidarity—after all, the word asylum derives from sanctuary. In this context, NGOs like UNITED for Intercultural Action bring to light how “Fortress Europe” is responsible for thousands of refugees’ deaths each year. Since 1993, the group has been monitoring the fatal results of EU policies, compiled in the “UNITED List of Refugee Deaths”. Over 44.764 refugee deaths have been listed so far; thousands more are never found… The Peng! Collective’s campaign “Become an Escape Agent”, on the other hand, is an ironic yet practical work that demonstrates that we can all be of help. The group launched a campaign in August 2015 that would promote the idea of helping refugees cross the EU borders by giving them a lift. The response to it was overwhelming as almost 600 operations have been recorded by the collective and it is still possible to learn how to become an escape agent yourself!

Tanja Ostojic’s “Mis(s)placed Women?” (ongoing since 2009) is a collaborative art project consisting of performances, workshops and an online platform, including contributions by over 170 individuals from six continents—many of whom identify themselves as women from diverse backgrounds—as well as Ostojic’s own works.“Mis(s)placed Women?” embodies and enacts some of everyday-life’s activities that thematize displacement particularly focusing on migration issues, gender democracy, feminism, gentrification, inclusion, and power relations. In the exhibition, four projects are presented highlighting the gendered dimension of migration and the vulnerability concerning female and transgender bodies.

“But it’s enough! Stand up girls! Stand up women! We are not their objects of lust! We are not the prey of wolves! We should shout out that we want to be safe! We want our rights! We want to look up!”*

The installation “8 Years to Freedom” (2017) by Jodie Lyn-Kee-Chow asks: Where is home? It intimately deals with her own immigration story from Jamaica to the U.S. and her coming of terms with the cultural, societal, and personal expectations as an adolescent. Moreover, it includes the acclimation process of her family from generations ago with descendants hailing back from Africa, China, and Europe. Michikazu Matsune similarly tackles identity and cultural hybridity in the photograph “Stranger” (2014). Matsune shaved his eyebrows, gluing it below his nose like a mustache. This became his official passport picture. Lastly, “Goodbye” (2016) is a performance and installation that deals with farewell-letters written by various people in history, speaking to the intimate aspect of leaving one’s place of origin. One such letter is the suicide note from the famous Austrian writer, Stefan Zweig, which he wrote as a refugee in Brazil during World War ll.

The curator of this show would like to thank Parwana’s unbreakable spirit and perseverance as it is more vital than ever to tell these stories, to raise our voices, to listen and to galvanize action. A simple pen, brush, or click can break all kinds of borders.

“I am a girl in a tent and I am thinking about this world as the days won’t pass by and I am waiting for permission to leave this place.

My pen won’t break until we end this story of inequality and discrimination among human kind. My words will always break the borders you built.”*

With thanks for the support of Tanja Ostojic’s project to ifa - Institut für Auslandsbeziehungen * All quotes taken from Parwana Amiri’s “Letters to the World from Moria (2019)

Julia Hartmann
Open Call Exhibition
© apexart 2022

To the exhibition page