Kyveli Lignou-Tsamantani and Martha Cattell co-curated ‘Refuse/Refuge’ (York Art Gallery, July-September 2018), an exhibition featuring works by international artists and addressing issues of representation in relation to the contemporary refugee and migrant crisis, with support from WRoCAH. Here Kyveli explains more about the origins of the project.
Department of History of Art
University of York
The Refuse/Refuge exhibition was a project that stemmed out of the ‘Reading Group’: Re-framing Violence (January 2017 – January 2018), which I co-directed with Martha Cattell, a fellow WRoCAH History of Art student. In the first six months, the meetings of the reading group were weekly and it worked as a study group in rethinking issues around the representation of human, animal and environmental violence. In other words, we were working at the intersection of our research fields – mine focusing mainly on photojournalistic atrocity images and the ethics of spectatorship in contemporary art that involves photographs of violence, while Martha’s is on the representation of violence towards animals and issues related to the environment.
We had the idea to do something relevant to issues of representation in the refugee and migrant crisis when we visited the exhibition Disappearance at the Sea – Mare Nostrum, in the BALTIC, Newcastle (27 January – 14 May 2017). There, our attention was caught by the video installation Liquid Traces: The Left-to-Die Boat Case, a video report created in 2014 by Forensic Oceanography, which is part of Forensic Architecture. I think that this video has a significant impact on one’s understanding of this ‘crisis’, so we were determined to bring it to York. Therefore, we decided to organize three screenings of Forensic Oceanography’s piece in the York Festival of Ideas. The 2018 Festival was the biggest to date with over 200 mostly-free events presented under the banner of ‘Imagining the Impossible’. Liquid Traces refers to a boat that was left floating in the Mediterranean for 14 days, despite recurrent distress signals, a situation that caused the death of 63 people. Hence, I believe that, in this case, none of us imagined it ‘possible’ but we became spectators to a situation that could even be thought of as unimaginable. Unimaginable in terms of the amount of death and human suffering it caused.
These three screenings preceded this exhibition, Refuse/Refuge, which will take place in the Project Gallery, York Art Gallery (free admission), between 20 July and 16 September 2018. Including artworks by the international artists Majid Adin, Forensic Oceanography, Ina Lounguine, Janne Malmros and Maria Tzanakou, the exhibition comments on the limits of photojournalistic representations of death and suffering as we have seen them in the context of the 21stcentury refugee and migrant crisis in the Mediterranean. At the same time, the exhibition provides a space for the viewers to reconsider the political failures that partook in this ‘crisis’.
For me personally, organizing this exhibition was a very useful experience, because the theme of the exhibition fits directly into my doctoral research, and the exhibition will function as one of my case studies in relation to issues of curating images of suffering. Therefore, this project functioned as a Knowledge Exchange Project (KEP) for my doctoral research, and was kindly funded by WRoCAH and the History of Art Department.
Ethics, being a branch of philosophy, can often be abstract and most often refer to an ideal situation. That is what usually occupies my research – a philosophical thinking around the spectatorship of what I call ‘invisible atrocity images’. Yet, what I have come to understand through a hands-on relationship with these issues in the museological context, is how far from ‘ideal’ reality can be. Museums are spaces with policies and their own sociopolitical dynamics in terms of audiences. And that is a crucial parameter that should not be forgotten. Therefore, I believe that Knowledge Exchange Projects can be very beneficial for one’s own research and thinking.
In the case of Refuse/Refuge one is asked to rethink their ethical responsibility towards all the violent events that have partaken in this ‘crisis’ and the responsibility of a political system that has failed to assist people in need; at the same time, they have to reconsider the way they have been accustomed to look at images of violence.
Curated by Martha Cattell and Kyveli Lignou-Tsamantani
20 July – 16 September 2018
Project Gallery, York Art Gallery
The exhibition takes place with the support of the Department of History of Art, University of York, the York Festival of Ideas and the White Rose College of the Arts and Humanities (WRoCAH). For more information, please visit https://www.yorkartgallery.org.uk/exhibition/project-gallery/
Or the website of the exhibition, https://www.refuserefugeproject.co.uk