With the ongoing civil war in Syria alone compelling hundreds of thousands of refugees to flee to Europe in 2015, earlier this year Sweden implemented border checks on the train route from nearby Copenhagen. Denmark followed suit by closing its hitherto open border with Germany. How things have changed for countries previously considered leading lights of liberal humanitarianism.
Installed throughout the main floor of Färgfabriken, a former factory located in a suburb of Stockholm, Casablanca-born, Paris-educated Bouchra Khalili’s exhibition, ‘The Opposite of Voice-Over’, features a number of single- and multi-channel video works made between 2008 and 2013. Khalili is primarily concerned with documentary and political representation, and her work at its best upends the dehumanizing effects of categorizations like ‘migrant’ and ‘refugee’.
It’s important to note that, while all the featured works have been exhibited widely, this is Khalili’s first solo exhibition in Scandinavia; so it’s easy to assume that the violence in Syria is a driving force behind its staging.
Installed in three corners of the open-plan rectangular space, The Speeches Series (2012–13) is a three-part video shot in Genoa, Paris and New York. Built around first-person stories told to camera, it sees a number of migrants recall their experiences of adjusting to a new country. In the Paris instalment, migrants deliver political and literary texts from memory. In the New York segment, a man remembers how he hoped to be met with working-class solidarity after arriving in the US, but instead encountered racist resentment from his colleagues. Another person speaks about how the quality of life and work is the same (or even better) in his home country. The only benefit offered in his adopted homeland is slightly higher pay.
Formally speaking, Khalili’s videos seem workaday, but that aesthetic light touch – the stated reluctance to impose a voice-over – allows the work to be led by its featured voices. The narrators are left to describe how they define themselves and how they are defined by others: their journeys, their lack of citizenship, the borders they cross, the countries they decide to set their hopes upon, their pasts and futures.
Hanging from multiple screens in the centre of the space, The Mapping Journey Project (2008–11) – also on view at MoMA, New York, until October – depicts closely framed shots of hands holding pens, hovering over paper maps of Asia, Europe, Northern and sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East. Limited to just this camera angle, the voices of the individuals recount their journeys to the Occident as they sketch their routes across the map.
Some stories are straightforward: a woman comes to Italy for work, but ultimately wants to end up in Norway or the UK. A man relates how he travels across France, Holland, Italy and Spain, staying with a string of relatives as he attempts to gain a work permit, but has to regularly move on due to lack of work or personal conflicts. One end of the space sees a cluster of silkscreens that further abstract the routes from the speakers’ lived experience.
Other stories are almost picaresque: one man leaves Bangladesh and spends years wandering through the deserts of the Sahara and North Africa. Regularly detained and beaten by police, waylaid without a passport in towns for months at a time, he meets con-artists as well as sympathetic people who take him in and treat him as if he were a son. He’s only in his 20s, but his zig-zagging journey speaks of a wealth of experience and frustration. Ultimately, what he really wants is to make enough cash to return home, start a business and live out his days.
It’s a modest and common dream, and this is the crux of Khalili’s work: at the level of media stories these experiences seem distanced and flattened out. But, taken individually, they are extraordinarily human as well as increasingly shared by many. It’s impressive to see something so complex presented with such clarity.
First published in Issue 181