Migration is not simply the movement of a body through space. It’s a political act and a personal one; a metaphor and a trigger.
It’s a word that can inspire a fear of the unknown or the hope of transformation; the anticipation of arrival and the joy of becoming. But in recent months, concerns around migration have focused on something microscopic: a virus that will migrate from one body to another.
The artworld is rife with contradiction, not least when it comes to migrating ideas from the abstract into the physical realm. While it decries racism, its institutions are overwhelmingly white. While it abhors gender discrimination, it underrepresents women. As it denounces the climate emergency, it racks up billions of air miles.
In 2018, I visited the travelling European biennial Manifesta in Palermo, Sicily, titled The planetary garden. Cultivating co-existence. Although its title is way dry, the show was anything but. Taking the garden as a symbol of growth, cross-pollination and hope, in their mission statement the curators cited the French botanist Gilles Clément who, in 1997, described Earth as a ‘planetary garden’ with humanity as its gardener. They asked: ‘But how to tend to a world that is moved by invisible informational networks, transnational private interests, algorithmic intelligence, environmental processes and ever-increasing inequalities?’ Their answer – which mutated and evolved across the city in the form of exhibitions, gardens and screenings – was inconclusive. This is apt. There are no neat answers to such questions. What is necessary is the evolution of the conversation.
During lockdown, my garden has been a place of deep solace. I haven’t been out of this small patch of North London in ten weeks – the longest time I’ve spent in one place in decades. When I arrived in the United Kingdom from Melbourne in the mid 1990s, being itinerant was the norm. I meant to stay nine months and I’m still here. I’ve had a new address every few years and, despite a very full-time job, I have never stopped travelling. (Oh, the irony that my great love is painting, the stillest of artforms.)
As well as the pleasure my garden has afforded me, it has made me starkly aware of my own ignorance: I water, prune and weed a space that I have no real understanding of. A friend asks me about the quality of the soil, and I have no idea how to describe it. I’ve lived here for three years, but only now do I recognise and greet my neighbours over the back fence. So much of the art I have seen in exhibitions has been about community and collective responsibility. It’s made me wonder what I’ve missed because I’ve been too busy being elsewhere.
In the London art world, everyone seems to be from somewhere else and, pre-lockdown, more often than not en route to yet another biennial, art fair, conference or exhibition. It’s an exhilarating and exhausting way to live. In the past couple of months, most people I know, while acknowledging the sheer scale of the tragedy, have expressed, in varying degrees, relief at the enforced stillness.
The lockdown has prompted a reappraisal of the local. Gone, I hope, are the days of biennales so filled with the usual suspects of international art stardom that it was easy to forget what city you were in. The exhibitions I remember best are the ones that reflect something about the country that hosted them. In 2006, I travelled to Albania for the first time to visit the third Tirana Biennale. Featuring many artists from the region and put together on a shoe-string budget – much of the show was staged in an underground carpark – it was an inspiring testament to art’s role in a society’s recovery. I had to remind myself that the country’s democracy was only 15 years old: for decades it had been ruled by Enver Hoxha, a dictator so mad he had banned dancing, music, beards and kissing on television. Hou Hanru curated a section of the Biennale at the National Gallery of Arts in the centre of Tirana. After Stalin’s death, Albania had rejected Soviet communism for Maoism. When Hou was growing up in China, the only European art he had been taught about was Albanian. As we walked through the museum, he delightedly pointed out historical paintings he recognised from the schoolbooks he had studied on the other side of the world. Intimacy isn’t always about proximity.
The more I travel, the more I have realised that there is no such thing as a global art: like all languages, art has to be learned and its meaning often thrives on its specificity. (As the great artist and theorist Brian O’Doherty asks of art: ‘If it is a language, who speaks it?’) To witness a young Albanian artist rap the words of The Communist Manifesto in a grim cement bunker signifies nothing unless you know about the brutality of the regime that dominated his country for decades.
My friend Ismail Einashe came to the UK at the age of ten as a refugee from Somalia and is now a London-based journalist. He reviewed one of Manifesta’s collateral events, an exhibition of 150 works of art by 44 international artists. Titled ReSignifications, the show had the ambitious aim of redressing representations of black bodies in Europe. In response, Ismail wrote that the history of European art is an ongoing story,
‘in which our voices have been racialised, subjugated and silenced. It becomes clear that slavery and colonialism are not merely historic footnotes but contemporary lived realities for the thousands of Africans who cross the choppy waters of the sea that the Romans christened Mare Nostrum (Our Sea). Yet, the “our” here does not include black bodies. It’s a sea which the European Union has militarised as its member states squabble over the legality of search and rescue missions.’
Writing from deeply personal experience, Ismail concluded his review with the suggestion that migration can be a creative act: ‘To illegally cross a border, to evade border guards, to scale metal fences and to survive the Mediterranean Sea is an act not only of survival but of imagination.’
Across the world, art, in its expanded form, plays a part in the migration of ideas. I write this as the US is rocked with protests against the police murder of George Floyd. A protest is, by its nature, performative: its message is communicated with choreography, proclamation, texts, images, costumes, poetry and music. The rage has, of course, now travelled to every corner of the globe in an outpouring of support for the Black Lives Matter movement. In the UK, the statue of the slave trader Edward Colston was toppled from its plinth in Bristol and thrown into the river. Conservatives have decried it as a desecration, despite the fact that statues are removed or replaced all the time. When, in 2003, Saddam Hussein’s statue was destroyed by Iraqis in Firdos Square, it was widely celebrated as a symbol of a burgeoning democracy.
What the migration of the Black Lives Matter protests has made clear is that communities need to look inwards, to dissect the structural inequalities and prejudices that poison our societies. The art world needs to cease its incessant travelling and its desperate search for answers elsewhere. The issues faced in our own neighbourhoods are in urgent need of attention. It’s time to stay put.
I type the word ‘migration’ into the frieze magazine search engine and 431 entries come up, often in tandem with the words ‘postcolonialism’, ‘refugees’, ‘crisis’ and ‘decolonisation’. Seemingly countless artists have made work that pivots on the kind of place the world might be if national boundaries were replaced by regions free of bureaucracy. The problem remains, though, that for many people, borders are all too real and the journey to a better life often involves harrowing, even life-endangering, experiences. Art struggles to represent this: often, despite its best intentions, it’s too literal, too flippant, too exploitative. What are the ethics of reflecting upon someone else’s pain from the safety of a gallery?
One of the most profound and useful responses to the global refugee crisis has been Cuban artist Tania Bruguera’s Immigrant Movement International, a project which has manifested in exhibitions and a community space in New York. Through conversation and consultation, Bruguera aims to ask ‘the larger question of what it means to be a citizen of the world’. It’s a question that has also preoccupied the Nigerian-born, Antwerp-based artist Otobong Nkanga, who, in 2007, reworked Alan Kaprow’s performance Baggage 1972. Kaprow took bags of sand from Rice University in Houston, Texas, to a beach in Galveston, where he then replaced them with sand from the Gulf Coast and returned them to Houston. Nkanga changed the route: she shipped bags of sand from Antwerp to Lagos and then sent bags of Nigerian sand back to Belgium – a deceptively simple gesture that made clear how artists are so often in conversations with their precursors. The weight of a bag of sand becomes symbolic of the weight of exchange, the embodiment of the effort it takes to move anything, anyone, anywhere. Wherever we go, we take our land with us.
I write about the 22nd Biennale of Sydney from 17,000 kilometres away. I try to get a sense of it by watching films, going on virtual tours, reading statements and listening to podcasts. There are riches here but experiencing it all on the cold screen of my laptop is not enough. It makes me want to be back in Australia in a real gallery looking at actual objects. As I wander around online, I return again and again to Noŋgirrŋa Marawili’s statement about what the biennale’s theme, Nirin – ‘edge’ – means to her:
‘On the Edge in Yolŋu matha (tongue) is dhäŋali, while djinmir is the edge of the tongue. Dhaŋarr is the edge of the water where the froth and foam form, it is the white crest of the wave. Miyarrka is the temple, the side of the face, the Edge. Läy is the side of the head, an Edge, the shore and rorrurr is the Edge or rail of a boat or a frame. Dhapirrkuma is the action of making the edges level, as in sharpening a spear.’
Her words become images that wing their way across the planet to land in North London. They contain oceans. I read them again and again. My imagination migrates.
Last year, the painter Frank Bowling had the first major retrospective of his 60-year-career at Tate Britain. He grew up in Guyana, migrated to London and lived for a while in New York. In the 1960s, he created a suite of ‘map paintings’. He stencilled outlines of Africa, Australia and South America onto enormous canvases and then complicated the notion of borders with hallucinogenic swirls of paint, obliterating, in the process, a Western-centric world. My friend Negar Azimi wrote movingly about the show. She concluded her piece with a series of questions:
‘Go back to where you came from. What does that mean for any of us? What would it mean for Bowling, whose cosmopolitanism is writ large in his art? Does it mean Africa, where his ancestors hailed from? Guyana, where they were probably once vassals? New York City? Or Pimlico, where he has lived longer than anywhere else on earth? The paint dribbles in every direction.’
Is the endpoint to all of this movement a kind of stillness? And if not, the question must be asked: where to next?