"A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not even worth glancing at" - Oscar Wilde, The Soul of Man Under Socialism.
French-Moroccan artist Bouchra Khalili's Mapping Journey Project (at the Lisson Gallery just off London's Edgware Road) is the best, and most thought provoking, art I've seen focusing on the migrant crisis since Gideon Mendel's Dzhangal at the Autograph ABP Gallery in January. In common with Mendel's work Khalili seeks to see the individual humans involved and, in doing this, to cement in our heads that this, above and beyond anything else, is a humanitarian crisis.
The bulk of the exhibition is given over to eight large screens. Each one shows a different film in which an unnamed narrator tells their story of migration whilst their hand marks out the route on a map. I love maps at the best of times but this is far more than a celebration of either geography or cartography. It's a simple, and highly effective, method of getting us to sit down and listen to stories told by those who lived them rather than through the prism of the press.
The fact that the Algerian who travelled to Marseille via Sardinia, Naples, Milan, and Paris, on the way being coerced into illegally selling cigarettes and taking on back breaking leaflet delivery work, had probably the easiest journey of all should be enough to cause concern. We left him pondering joining the Foreign Legion.
A young Tunisian travelled to Libya to catch a boat to Lampedusa where he was arrested by Italian police and taken to Bari to stay in a Red Cross camp. He made his way from Bari to Naples where he found digs and work in a market. He journeyed north to Rome and on to Marseille where he now hopes to get papers, became a European citizen, and, one day, see his mum again.
Another North African began his journey in Beni Mallal, Morocco. He reached the northern port of Tangier before crossing to Algeciras in Spain where he spent four days in an orphanage. Arriving in Alicante he spent two years working on a farm before driving through France into Italy to reach Milan. Staying with family in Italy didn't work out so he went back to Spain. Barcelona. Alicante. Girona. Then to Breda, Holland where the expected work didn't show up. On to Utrecht to work in a phone shop before heading back to Alicante to see his lawyer. His application was rejected so he went to pick apples in France. He's since returned to Barcelona where he waits, in hope, to get his papers.
Equally exhausting is the Afghan who travelled through Iran, Turkey (spending four months in Istanbul), Bulgaria (two months in Sofia), Hungary, Austria, Germany (three months in Munich), Belgium, and eventually England before heading back to Rome via Paris and Milan.
A young Somalian lady took on an equally epic journey. From Mogadishu she travelled to Addis Ababa in Ethiopia and on to Gedarif in Sudan. She took a bus to Khartoum though she says it was more a glorified car. Then another 'bus' to Kufra in Libya. A five day ride in sweltering heat half-choking on sand. A planned ride to Tripoli was diverted via Benghazi. In Tripoli she spent two months before she could board a boat to Lampedusa and, finally, Palermo. In Italy she spent another two months in an asylum centre before being sent to Bari where she now lives, works, and speaks Italian. She's happier than in Somalia but would still prefer to be in either Norway or England.
Possibly the most mind-boggling story of all comes from a Bangladeshi man. He'd always had a dream of improving his life, like all the others, and had got it into his head that Italy would be the country he could do this in. He left Bangladesh for New Delhi and, via Moscow, reached Skopje in Macedonia. There he ran into problems with the Macedonian authorities and was jailed for eight months before being sent back to Bangladesh.
After five months he tried again. This time he travelled to Dubai from where he flew to Bamako in Mali. He ended up spending three months in Bamako as the man who said he'd sort out his passport disappeared. Giving up on that he paid 1000 euros to get into Spain. To get there he travelled to Niamey in Niger and then Agadez in that same country. Next was Algeria where he was arrested (again) and jailed for four months before being sent back to Niger to work in a sugar factory.
A six month journey, mostly spent walking through the desert, saw him reach Ghat in Libya where he was beaten up and, one more time, arrested by police. After three months in a Libyan prison the chief of police, somewhat bizarrely, gave him a job. He worked in Sabha for a year before taking a car to Tripoli and a boat from Zuwarah (at a cost of 2500 euros) to Lampedusa.
They went the wrong way though. All 24 people on their small plastic boat may've died if a large ship hadn't passed by and put them back on course. After a week they landed on Lampedusa where our narrator was taken in and started to attend school as he was, unbelievably considering all that had happened, still a minor. He learnt Italian and got a job in a bar in Rome where he works to this day. It'd been a five year journey and one he'd taken, for the simple and admirable reason, of trying to help his family.
None of this obviously fits with the narrative we're served up daily of lazy or criminal immigrants and the way Khalili had allowed these people to speak for themselves said volumes. I realised how rarely we hear the voices of those that are most adversely affected by the current geopolitical situation.
It would've been hard for the rest of the exhibition to match up to these films and, to be honest, it didn't. There's another film, Foreign Office, that touches on the experiences of a female Omani freedom fighter. It contains music by both Archie Shepp and Miriam Makeba and makes use of the mantra "Jazz is a black power. Jazz is an African power".
It is said that Christians go to Jerusalem, Muslims go to Mecca, and revolutionaries go to Algiers. To this end Khalili has provided some more maps. This time of the Algerian capital and she's marked out various points of interest on them. After Algerian independence from France Algiers housed HQs for a wealth of disparate, if sometimes interconnected, pro-independence and revolutionary groups. Movements from Guinea, Cape Verde, Mozambique, Angola, Portugal, Zimbabwe, Eritrea, Quebec, Oman, and South Vietnam all had addresses in Algiers. Palestine had several. Even the Canaries Archipelago had one. The photographs that adorn the walls of the gallery (and this blog) show some of the different architectural locations that this band of internationalists utilised to foment revolution.
The Black Panthers splinter group run by Eldridge Cleaver were there too. The father group in Oakland had disowned them but Khalili, in one of her few failings, makes hazy links with Nelson Mandela, Malcolm X, Agostinho Neto, and even Chris Marker. It's not that I'm disputing the validity of these links. I'm just saying I could've done with the level of clarity she'd provided with her migratory maps.
If it's in the nature of art to sometimes obfuscate then that's fine but I felt Khalili's work was better when it was bolder and more lucid. The quote from Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, "The very conditions that make the State possible....trace creative lines of escape", didn't speak, to me, anywhere near as loudly as the simple pen lines over maps of Europe, Africa, and Asia and the testimony of those who made them.
The socially constructed nature of borders were laid as bare as the useless nationalism some of us still cling to. Metaphorically, and morally, as lost at sea as twenty four migrants on a boat between Zuwarah and Lampedusa. To even stand a chance of solving this huge, and highly complicated, issue, we'll need to listen to more of these voices and I applaud Bouchra Khalili for taking a small, but hugely significant, step in the right direction with her powerful and necessary installation.