I’ll be the first to admit that I have become desensitised to much of what the news reports about the refugee crisis. Perhaps it is the scale that I cannot comprehend or the thought that families fleeing their war-torn countries aren’t on my doorstep. But one thought that shouldn’t cross our minds is ‘they are not us’. If the ‘Broken Borders: Asylum and Forced Migration’ exhibition achieved anything, it was the rehumanisation of its deserving subjects.
As if to set an example, the exhibition provided a thinking space that anybody could walk into. Almost hidden in the top room of the LS6 Clock Café, the artists’ stimulating collections waited to be noticed. The largely blank walls and minimalist lay-out provided an environment ready to be filled with the discussion, thought and attention that such a critical issue deserves. Soon individuals clustered, craning to read the stories behind the art, but the collections alone spoke volumes. Photographs are able to touch their audience with more clarity and urgency than any other medium. Film too, but photographs capture the very essence of life in a way that we can pore over until we feel as though the photograph is perhaps not a snapshot from the life of another, but a memory of our own. We all remember the impact of the photo of the three-year-old Syrian refugee who was drowned and washed onto Turkey’s shores in September and the shift in opinions regarding migration that the heart-rending image achieved. The little boy created a wave of humanity; a reminder that, whether referred to as refugees, migrants or simply human beings, those forced from their homes are no less important than the people that happen to live on this side of our borders.
However, what struck me about ‘Broken Borders’ was the tone of the whole exhibition: it didn’t pity. Photographer and Ex-Leeds student, Jamie Sinclair, struggled to express his admiration for the refugees in Calais who had welcomed him. The eagerness of those gathered to know about the individuals he had encountered made me realise the mistake that the news makes when reporting on such humanitarian crises. They always seem to extinguish the burning compassion, easily ignited, that could be translated into action. Communities are turned into numbers, individuals into statistics, personal stories into irrelevant detail. How is anyone supposed to recognise our shared humanity when all we are presented with are the cold dregs of such remarkable stories of determination and strength?
Despite Jamie’s work in France as a volunteer, the artist spoke of how “capable” the refugees are and that much of the time he felt they didn’t need his help. This surprised me but, as I walked the small room, all I could see captured was evidence of people building and living. Perhaps our Western obsession of trying to ‘help’ those in difficulty isn’t needed beyond the power we hold to grant them freedom of passage so they can re-build lives that have been destroyed through no fault of their own.
Although much of the work seemed to express a kind of stability as communities created houses, shops, churches and mosques, filmmaker Nanna Katrine Henson’s ‘Room 205’ presented a more intimate view into the very living space of two Afghan refugees. As one man spoke of escaping the Taliban, he told the listeners that because of the painful memories such openness had dug up, “tonight… I will not sleep”. What this expresses, that perhaps other artists failed to address, were the psychological effects of horrors refugees experience that force them from their homes. One of the most poignant moments in the 20-minute film was the simple action of a refugee plugging his mobile phone into a charger, the familiar confirming bleep drawing parallels between the viewers and the refugees. There seemed to be no progress and no purpose in “the Room”, as they called it, except to make tea. The simple act was repeated many times throughout the footage and seemed to express the refugees’ desperate attempt to cling on to a part of their lost life in Afghanistan.
Other issues in the exhibition presented smugglers between Iraq and Iran and the Eritrean refugees, forced to leave to avoid conscription into the army; stories upon stories of real people.
It struck me that ‘Broken Borders’ was the longest amount of time I had dedicated out of my own ‘busy’ life to acknowledge the subjects’ existence. As our generation grow into positions of power, it is essential we improve on attitudes of our current government. It is not about changing the world single-handedly, but updating opinions one mind at a time. We don’t lack information, but we lack humanity. The world has shrunk, but we do not recognise our neighbours.
‘Broken Borders: Asylum and Forced Migration’ will be available to view for free for the next month in the top room of the LS6 Clock Café. Dedicate some time and thought and who knows what this tiny ripple of rehumanisation could grow into.
Images courtesy of Jamie Sinclair