It’s hard among the deprivations and anxieties of 2020 to remember that for thousands of people, this year – like many before it – has been fraught with perils and unimaginable choices, risks and sacrifices just to find somewhere safe to live. If this year has made you reassess what you realise you can’t do without (or actually can do without), the new ‘Refugees’ season at the Imperial War Museum will resonate on all kinds of levels, from the domestic to the global.
The first half of the show, ‘Refugees: Forced to Flee’, presents evidence of a century of displacement, from WWI to the ongoing crisis in Syria. People have fled their homes for millennia, so a hundred years is a relatively small window, but there’s no shortage of material. Starting with Belgians escaping the advancing German army in 1914, through the Jewish Kindertransport of the 1930s, to the conflicts of the Middle East and Bosnia and right up to the present day, the show demonstrates again and again that to be a refugee is to lose everything: home, identity, family, possessions, language, clothes, pets, toys.
The first few rooms are scaled domestically: this is the first show I’ve seen in years (maybe ever) that has actual wallpaper on the walls. We’re used to seeing refugees at the end of their journeys, or en route. But they all start somewhere, and they all leave that behind. It’s an effective message, especially since our own worlds have become so circumscribed. Interestingly, a lot of responses to flight are domestic too, from an Afghan rug woven with images of kalashnikovs and mortar bombs, to Grace Schwindt’s delicate clay models of houses. There are drawings by kids; there are drawings by adults.
Alongside this wealth of stuff, there is another kind of loss: the loss of two letters. When you become a refugee, you go from having a status to being a stat. ‘Forced to Flee’ is a collaboration with the Arts and Humanities Research Council and the Economic and Social Research Council, and the graphs on the walls showing acceptance of asylum seekers and the number of cases that have been approved and rejected over recent years make for chilling viewing, especially alongside grim physical items like a sticker found in a south London phone box which reads ‘Refugees Not Welcome’ around a graphic showing a family pursued by a lion. To become a stat is dangerous: it’s one step nearer to forfeiting your right to being regarded as a person.
In a separate room, there is a collaboration with the broadcaster CNN. ‘Life in a Camp’ is a 360-degree film of the Moria refugee camp on the Greek island of Lesbos. The first part was shot in February this year. People wander in and out of shot, or sit on the ground. A little girl moves from one screen to the next, to be replaced by a group of young men listlessly tending a pot boiling over a makeshift stove. The sequence suggests that this could be her future too – to live among these squalid gullies filled with rubbish until she is a grown woman. Actually, the future was quite different. In September 2020, most of Moria burned down – maybe as a result of a similar open fire. The end of the film, shot this month, looks like a WWI battlefield: black, smoking, alien. A few stumps of trees among the ashes, a few people wandering around the scene of their most recent loss. It’s a brilliant work: the best thing in the show.
As a bit of light relief (possibly slightly misplaced), there is a tongue-in-cheek installation from artists Anagram. ‘A Face to Open Doors’ uses AI software to read your face, in anticipation of the kind of technology that might feature in some dystopian future society to determine your eligibility for asylum (or housing benefit or aspirin, presumably). After a series of questions, it informs me that my application has not been successful, since my facial reactions suggest I am not ‘emotionally consistent’, something I could have told them for nothing.
Alongside Ai Weiwei’s striking installation in the IWM’s main atrium, ‘History of Bombs’, these new additions to the museum’s free ‘Refugees’ season (which runs in London until May 24 next year) are timely and impressive. Spend time with ‘Forced to Flee’, but do not miss ‘Life in a Camp’.
‘Refugees: Forced to Flee’ (Sep 24-May 24 2021); ‘Life in a Camp’ (Sep 24-May 24 2021); ‘A Face to Open Doors’ (Sep 24-May 24 2021, and touring, dates TBC). Imperial War Museum. Free.
A Brixton art gallery has a show on with a ghost train in it.