Who are we? Art, migration, and democracy

Behjat Omer ABDULLA (“From a Distance”).

Who are we? Art, migration, and democracy
by Justine GREGG for Shared Future News
7 November 2018

Open University (OU) Northern Ireland hosted a seminar titled, “Who Are We? Art, Migration and Democracy”. The booked out event was led by OU’s Dr Agnes Czajka and Counterpoints Arts’ Dr Aine O’Brien. The two-hour learning lab at the Belfast MAC was one of the 300 events occurring over seven days as part of the UK-wide ESRC Festival of Social Science. Themes of identity, belonging, migration and citizenship were the focus of the talk, specifically: how participatory art connected different types of people to exchange experiences and ideas, thus raising public awareness and giving new learnings and perspective.

Dr Czajka and Dr O’Brien originally came together in London as academic collaborators and storytelling facilitators to work on the TATE Modern’s project: “Who Are We?”. The project saw leading academics collaborate with migrant artists; this intersection of artists and academics on level 5 of the Blavatnik building has become the TATE Exchange London. The space is described as a forward thinking, participatory space — a place where collaboration between academics, artists and actors is equal and horizontal, where no one is above another and cultural conventions are undone.

The space was architecturally designed by firm Herzog & de Meuron, to give off a welcoming feel like a warm cosy library on a cold wet day. Only, instead of dropping into a lounge, solo with a book, attendees are viewing art — whether an installation, a live performance, or a film. In this space, the artist may be present too, ready to engage in a chat or suggest some kind of contribution towards their work — for example, by writing feedback on the wall or taking a self-portrait in front of the work.

Feedback from the MAC audience on art gallery spaces indicated reasons for reduced attendance at galleries, including:people in Belfast weren’t visiting galleries during the Troubles; art galleries were not for the “likes of them”; and art galleries are still thought of to some as stale spaces for rich, white middle- to upper class-people. However, the fog is clearing, with the democratisation of traditional barriers between classes and cultural groups; individuals are becoming mobilised to create change and belonging.

Dr O’Brien noted that the “Who Are We?” project, now in its third year, is largely a teaching method experiment. She said that when activists, artists and academics come together and have their work stationed at the TATE, to be viewed by some 5,500 people annually, with an average of 40 minutes spent per floor, the themes surrounding migration become normative or regular. Teaching and learning about belonging, migration and citizenship are welcomed by various types of groups within the space.

Dr Czajka, whose expertise is in the topic of belonging, discussed the power of critical art; she said that art intervenes and lends itself to participation of the viewer to find something in common with the piece. Dr Czajka quoted the French Philosopher Jacques Rancière, who noted: “Critical art is an art that aims to produce a new perception of the world, and therefore to create a commitment to its transformation. This schema, very simple in appearance, is actually the conjunction of three processes: first, the production of a sensory form of ‘strangeness’; second, the development of an awareness of the reason for that strangeness; and third, a mobilisation of individuals as a result of that awareness.”

On the intervention of art, Dr Czajka asked: “who belongs to community and who is excluded? Who is seen and heard? Who has a share of what is common and who does not? What comprises our world and our community?” She said that once people participated in the art and exited the TATE Exchange, they left with a new perception of what a migrant is and what a refugee is.

A comment from the audience at The MAC was that people in Belfast may not think that they can relate to the experience of migration. But with the world moving as it does, a migrant may be their new neighbour or reside in their neighbourhood. Another audience member recollected: “I walked into an exhibition at Belfast Exposed earlier in the year, and I saw a woman begin to cry. She was looking at an artwork displayed on the wall — it was of a black woman. Through her tears, I overheard her say, “This is the first time I’ve seen myself represented since moving here.” This story illustrates that even if a person is not a migrant or refugee, at some point, the struggles which they face can touch the lives of citizens in some way.

Four artists who have collaborated with either Dr Czajka or Dr O’Brien on “Who Are We?” projects are listed below, along with a description of their work . Film content of these artworks was screened at the MAC; the screenings were powerful and at times uncomfortable.

Behjat Omer Abdulla: “From a Distance

There are five drawings based around family experiences of crossing the Mediterranean Sea. One of Abdulla’s drawings is of twin girls. The baby girls and their mother were crossing the sea between Turkey to Greece, during which one of the twins died. After holding her dead baby for a few days, the mother was asked by the smugglers to throw the body overboard. The mother refused. While the mum fell asleep, a smuggler threw the body into the water. In the morning, the mother woke holding her dead child, and realised her living child was missing. The smuggler had mistakenly thrown the sleeping twin into the sea.

Bern O’Donoghue: “Dead Reckoning

This art installation was of colourful paper boats, with each origami boat representing a person who died in 2016 while attempting to cross the Mediterranean Sea while looking for refuge. There were over 5,000 little boats. Dr Agnes said that the artist, Bern O’Donoghue, translated the hard statistic of 5,058 refugees drowning into something more emotive and participatory. Each boat was someone’s family member, a real person who drowned while trying to find a better life. The atmosphere at the MAC was sombre and mournful.

Farhad Berahman: “The Afghan Camera Box

Berahman built a traditional Afghan camera box in Dorset, Portland. He took portraits at the rocky seaside location and used the camera box to start conversations with people who he ordinarily may not have spoken to. He said (on film) that people have different characters in different environments and that there is something in a harsh landscape contributing to the softness of people. He said that people would approach him to ask what the box was, then he would explain its origins. He explained that the conversations had were not about Afghan stereotypes but about a displaced object.

Nele Vos: “The Citizenshop

Vos created an art installation based on an online learning game she produced, which challenges players to find their way to travel from Syria to the UK. A player can be, for example, a migrant or an investor. Investors can choose where in the world they want or can afford to buy citizenship. The game shows how it is acquired, who has access to it, and the obstacles faced along the way. The experience can also be taken as a refugee looking for a new citizenship. The unequal journey shows how governments value and accept people differently.

In conclusion, “Who Are We? Art, Migration and Democracy” was a profound and thought provoking seminar and was well received by the MAC attendees. The brave and courageous “Who Are We?” artists, together with the academics, have succeeded in creating difficult conversations on identity, belonging, migration, and citizenship as engaging and more acceptable to be had. Perhaps these conversations will lead people to safe passages, a safe home, and somewhere to create a new belonging. With Brexit approaching, it will be interesting to see what happens next at the TATE Exchange programme, as it enters its third and final year.


Aine O’BRIEN (Counterpoint Arts) and Agnes CZAJKA (Open University). Symposium: Who Are We? Art, Migration, and Democracy. ESRC Festival of Social Science. The MAC, Belfast, Northern Ireland.
Behjat Omer ABDULLA (“From a Distance”).
Behjat Omer ABDULLA (“From a Distance”).
Bern O’DONOGHUE (“Dead Reckoning”).
Bern O’DONOGHUE (“Dead Reckoning”).
Farhad BERAHMAN (“The Afghan Camera Box”).
Farhad BERAHMAN (“The Afghan Camera Box”).
Nele VOS (“Citizenshop”).
Nele VOS (“Citizenshop”).
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