Type “refugees” into Google images and chances are, the pages will be awash with perilous journeys and overcrowded camps. Little is dedicated to the impact that migration has had on memories of their homelands and how they transform over time.
It’s this curator and London-based writer Lizzy Vartanian Collier, sets out to investigate in month-long exhibition Perpetual Movement. In conjunction with Arab Women Artists Now Festival and Arts Canteen, seven female artists of Middle Eastern and North African heritage explore movement and the unique intricacies of the legacy of migration on their identities.
With roots in Egypt, Kuwait, Syria, Yemen, the artists – some of whom are based in the Middle East and others born outside – explore whether it’s possible to be ethnically associated to a location without having visited. Others spotlight on how inherited memories have become fragmented over time.
While Lizzy does concede that her knowledge of the region is somewhat superficial – she grew up the UK and is half-English – her dual heritage has been instrumental to Perpetual Movement, not least because her mother migrated from Beirut during the 15-year Lebanese Civil War. “I have memories of Beirut and also inherited these fragments of my mother’s home from the stories she tells me and my brother about her childhood,” she explains. “I wouldn’t have these memories to work from if it weren’t for my mother.”
Najd AlTaher, Al Yaqeen, 2017
The exhibition couldn’t have come at a more poignant time – refugees’ place in the UK and the wider Western world is continually contested. We’ve become increasingly desensitised to images of migrants attempting to survive life-threatening routes to seek solace and ultimately, acceptance, in a new country amidst a backdrop of increased hostility. Just last month, the Italian election was embroiled in a race row after a candidate from a right-wing party claimed migrants were endangering indigenous Italians.
But it’s the impact of migration on the Arab diaspora in particular that Lizzy sets out to unveil. After all, migration to and from the Middle East is intrinsic to their identities – citizens from MENA countries account for 11 million citizens – and that was back in 2013. ‘Perpetual Movement’ spotlights on the multiplicities of their experiences, or as Lizzy tells tmrw, “illustrating that women with roots in the region are definitely not the same”.
While some artists focus on the challenges that can accompany migration – London-born fine art graduate of Syrian-Armenian heritage, Araz Farra, touches on the effects of genocide among the Armenian diaspora, while Kuwaiti-based visual artist Najd AlTaher explores the realities of being trapped and stagnation – lightness is an overarching theme of the exhibition.
When migration has been caught up in negative rhetoric in recent years –former UKIP leader Nigel Farage’s anti-migrant poster, for one, capitalised on the refugee crisis to secure Brexit votes while former PM David Cameron described asylum seekers as “swarms” – celebrating the positive aspects that can be gained from movement is integral to the exhibition. Just take Yumna Al-Arashi’s series of portraits featuring the last tattooed women of North Africa. “If it weren’t for her images, these beautiful women might be forgotten,” Lizzy affirms. Visual artist Shaikha Fahad Al Ketbi’s work ‘Ghaya’ deftly explores movement through a bride diving underwater in pursuit of a pearl. “The act of reaching for the pearl is almost a symbol of taking control.”
Araz Farra, Armenian Diaspora, 2016
When mainstream media depictions of the Arab world exclusively tend to focus on images of war, violence and terrorism, was it a conscious decision to feature artwork that didn’t feature this? “None of the artwork directly shows depictions of war or violence but it does address it somewhat,” Lizzy agrees. Yemeni-born, Netherlands-based photographer Thana Faroq’s photobook The Passport, documenting the portraits and stories of refugees hindered by their passports is testament to this. “The images do touch on war but it personalises the real victims of violence without actually showing the conflict.”
With the likes of Abu Dhabi-based art platform Banat Collective and Variant Space, founded by Saudi-born, London-based artist Nasreen Shaikh Jamal Al-Lail launching, is now an exciting time for young women of Arab heritage in the art world? “It’s an incredible time, especially for young women,” Lizzy affirms. “What’s more, they are all so supportive of each other.”
While she hopes visitors to Perpetual Movement will have an opportunity to expand their knowledge of the region and understand more about Middle Eastern history and culture, ultimately, Lizzy hopes to provide the artists with a platform to present their work, “telling the world a little about them and their heritage in an understanding and respectful environment”.
Nada Nada Elkalaawy, December Child, 2017
‘Perpetual Movement’ runs from 1st – 25th March at Rich Mix, London
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Words by Salma Haidrani