SF Camerawork’s diverse group show uses photography, film, and performance to examine the in-limbo experience of immigrants straddling cultures.
In her final essay collection Regarding the Pain of Others (2003), Susan Sontag wrote, “Photographs of an atrocity may give rise to opposing responses. A call for peace. A cry for revenge. Or simply, the bemused awareness, continually restocked by photographic information, that terrible things happen.” Her astute observation may best describe western media responses to the present day conflicts and economic disparities that have driven human masses from northern Africa and the Middle East to western Europe, and from Central America to the United States. To footage of bodies floating in open water, and children separated from their parents at the southern American border, we have called for support and shelter. Those calls have, for the most part, fallen on plugged political ears. Migration continues, and the catastrophe unfurls.
In Transit, on view at SF Camerawork until March 15th, marshals the work of five artists - George Awde, Gohar Dashti, Daniel Castro Garcia, Tanya Habjouqa, and Stefanie Zofia Schulz - to deliver us to Lebanon, Iran, Italy, Jordan, and Germany as after-the-fact observers of Sontag’s “terrible things.” It’s not dead bodies we see, or active warfare. The exhibition presents the consequences of warfare in all its forms from the survivor’s perspective; separation from family and culture, loss of citizenship, socio-economic privation, fear, grief, and unmitigated boredom.
Presented in partnership with Portland, Oregon’s Blue Sky Gallery and San Diego State University Downtown the exhibition debuted in Portland in late 2018, and will continue on to San Diego, CA in April 2019.
Exhibition review by Roula Seikaly
Gohar Dashti’s Stateless establishes a critical context in which the issues that shape the migrant crisis and western responses to it may be understood. The choreographed scenes staged on Iran’s Qeshm Island visualize popular western perceptions of the greater Middle East; desolate, bearing no mark of “progress,” tribal. Dashti’s nuanced compositions defy those stereotypes, striving to portray those who live throughout the region as individuals who deserve assistance and acceptance. If the sky is a roof, and the earth a floor, we may make our home anywhere. It is a beautiful, but wholly fantastical proposition.
Dashti’s work also quietly notes a link between consumerism and identity. In one image, a woman lounges comfortably on a carpet, gazing at a mirror or possibly an iPad while in another, a couple embraces in sight of their domestic belongings. This might suggest a colonialist thrust to introduce and enforce the "benefits" of capitalism in the developing or war torn world – how lives might be improved with material consumption. Dashti’s staged scenes illustrate the long-term consequences of colonialism as they are lived, day to day, by millions of people.
Daniel Castro Garcia's compositions of trauma are numbing to a point that looking at them with an aesthetic eye feels criminal. But the images representing Garcia’s two collaborative series Foreigner and I Peri N’Tera whet our taste for beauty, and foreground the personal accounts of unaccompanied minors against a xenophobic media narrative that presents them as invaders. Aly Gadiaga, a young Senegalese man now living in Italy, survived the dangerous passage made by thousands. Dressed in a blue shirt and shorts in ankle-deep azure water, Castro's lush portrait presents the singularity of existence against steep odds.
Contrast the singular narrative against the video Gucci: The Journey of Aly and the trauma of traversing Atlantic waters in a boat not fit for passengers that it portrays, and Aly’s unperturbed gaze is all the more remarkable. He's one of the “lucky ones,” because he didn't drown or fall into the hands of human traffickers. But is it luck when Aly and thousands of men and boys like him are denied education or work opportunities upon arriving on European shores?
The loss of personal agency and bone-deep boredom defines daily life for the women of Tanya Habjouqa's series Tomorrow There Will be Apricots. Drawn from a popular Levant saying, the series title is akin to the phrase "that will be the day"; a hope entertained but never fulfilled. The women who inhabit Habjouqa's long form project are widows of the Syrian civil war. They are known as "martyr’s wives," a designation that simultaneously isolates and endangers them. Maintaining contact with the outside world is forbidden, so it is within these unremarkable rooms in a Jordanian apartment block that they pass the time.
The photographer’s presence affords them the opportunity to perform, a release from crushing mental and physical stagnation. Before the camera, these women improvise using spartan props - a curtain, one’s own untamed hair - to call up their souls before circumstance kills them. Habjouqa’s quietly arresting work captures the uneasy stillness that enfolds these women as they navigate uncertainty.
George Awde and Stephanie Zofia Schulz take up performance as a survival technique. A professor at Virginia Commonwealth University’s Qatar campus, Awde builds relationships with young Syrian men in Beirut and Cairo who are bound in community by separation from family, friends, and cultural belonging in Scale Without Measure. Awde's portraits paint with gentle light that softens the features of these young men who have grown up all too fast. The tactile allure of his human subjects is intensified by the unforgiving urban environment they inhabit. Schulz’s Duldung (Toleration) documents life in Germany’s largest housing estate for migrants and asylum seekers. Schulz photographs command attention, for they document the the slow death of basic pleasures by boredom and insecurity. Theirs is a daily struggle for normalcy before abnormal circumstances.
When I read that In Transit would be presented at SF Camerawork my first question was, “why?”
Unproductive and deeply cynical, the question acknowledges a callous collective response to the horrors faced by those facing forced migrating worldwide, and photography’s inability to move audiences to demand an end to the misery. That cynicism was slightly tempered after hearing curator Peggy Sue Amison describe working with the five artists whose work illuminates this installation, and through their work, seeing the profound personal toll that displacement, isolation, and rejection exact from vulnerable populations. In Transit is not a corrective, but a group effort - curator and artists alike - to comprehend suffering borne out at an almost incomprehensible scale.