The Migration Museum Project have opened a new exhibition at the Londonewcastle Project, Shoreditch. It deals with the ‘jungle’ refugee camp in Calais and asks questions about how we view migrants and refugees. The project pushes no specific political agenda but through a mixture of art, photography and storytelling it reminds us that every face is human, every story unique.
Hundreds of hunched figures crowd the entrance. They trudge in the same direction, a seemingly endless line. Their bodies are black, their faces featureless. How do you see them?
This is a sculptural work, ‘Wanderers’, by Nikolaj Bendix Skyum Larsen. It occupies the entrance of the space that the Migration Museum Project has made its (fittingly) temporary home. It issues a challenge to each person who walks through the doors: how do you choose to see the people of the refugee camp in Calais?
A cacophony of voices has sought to define the migrant crisis in Europe, from the mainstream media to politicians and charities. Are they a Cameron-esque ‘swarm’, a threatening horde? Are they an idea to be brutally reduced and used as a political tool, to stir fear or influence the EU referendum? Are they a call to arms, a group of needy victims, or a chance for us to give money and feel worthy? The simple point that this exhibition makes is that despite the difference between these viewpoints, they all de-humanise the people who live in Calais’ so-called ‘jungle’.
Wanderers by Nikolaj Bendix Skyum Larsen
The exhibition gives a more complex idea of the camp’s people than you’d get from a photo or a newspaper. Alongside fear and fatigue there is joy, friendship and creativity. Yet some of the most affecting displays are eloquent of the migrants’ plight. In the first room life-jackets are lined up, collected from the beaches of a Greek island where refugees arrived in dinghies. The buoyancy aids are obscenely plastered with a sponsor’s logo and, worse, don’t even stay afloat.
Every evening the men of the jungle attempt to climb a fence and find a way to the UK. They almost always fail. Moving black and white photos show this Sisyphean effort, which often results in injury from barbed wire and falls. One image shows a man with questionable priorities heaving a goat over the fence before himself.
The walls are covered with quotes about the camp and the migrants’ lives. Some are predictably heartbreaking. Wassim from Syria says, “Every night we walk 28 kilometres from the ‘Jungle’ to the ferry and try and hide in a truck or we go to the train station. We spend at least seven hours walking, waiting, hiding... We have lost everything: our jobs, our houses, our sweet memories. Believe me – I no longer feel human. I am an animal with human feelings.”
Yet to the credit of the Migration Museum Project, not every quote details the refugees’ hardship. Every side of the situation is explored. We hear from volunteers at the camp, politicians, schoolchildren, and a lorry driver whose doors are assaulted daily by people desperate to hitch a lift. We hear about the conflict and tension between camp-dwellers of different nationalities, and we hear about Azzat from Sudan who is trying to unite the refugees of different ethnicities and faiths, leading by example. One Afghani woman is happy, after months of travelling and danger, to reach the safety and peace of the camp. She wants to stay. This exhibition is not trying to sell a perspective, just to show how complex the situation is – the multiplicity of lives, perspectives and hopes.
Many of the issues raised will be new to those who have not visited the camp in person. We see how many migrants do not wish to be photographed or reveal their names. A photographer theorises that the inability of the UK media to ‘put a name to a face’ has only made it easier to dehumanise their depiction of refugees. The question of comfort is also raised – people want to live safely and hygienically, but the jungle isn’t supposed to be a permanent home. Would making their tent or house more comfortable be tantamount to admitting they’ll never leave?
There is also art on display, created by the camp’s inhabitants and visitors. One of the most intriguing figures is ALPHA, a francophone artist who has made a permanent home in the jungle. He fashions sculptures and paintings from scrap materials, and appears to be one of the jungle’s most colourful characters. Yet even his story is tinged with sadness. Under one of his paintings reads the script ‘my art can go to England but I cannot.’
Attention is also paid to the projects set up by volunteers and locals to help improve the quality of life in the camp. There’s Jungle Books library, a recording studio and the Good Chance Theatre, which was recently dismantled. One particularly sweet project is Birds Crossing Borders, which allows people to colour in and send postcards to unknown recipients, posted between the jungle and the UK. It has no grand goal, just to increase sympathy and understanding. Like this exhibition, it’s not providing solutions. It encourages us to think carefully and ask questions.
The exhibition is from now until 22nd June at the Londonewcastle Project next to Shoreditch High Street overground. Entrance is free. For more details, see their website.
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