Art is often used as a tool to build bridges between communities. It is a means to encourage unity and a reminder of the oft-used saying: we share more that unites us than divides us.
In this month’s Art section, I will share the work of artists who tell the stories of those forgotten by the world – individuals who live in occupation or are fleeing hostility and seeking refuge in faraway lands. Here, art is used as a reminder of the plight of many across the world experiencing the unthinkable. Although unbearable to think about and impossible to comprehend, it is a necessary reminder of the vast spectrum of human experience we are often oblivious of but are all responsible for on some level.
The Liverpool Biennial is the largest international art festival in the UK. As its name suggests, it takes place every two years from July until the end of October. This year, the team of curators have commissioned over 40 artists from 22 countries to produce work on a theme of contemporary relevance.
This year, for the 10th edition of the Liverpool Biennial festival, the theme is ‘Beautiful world, where are you?’
This provocative statement asks both artists and the audience to reflect on a world in social, political and economic turmoil. The phrase ‘Beautiful world, where are you?’ is taken from a 1788 poem by the German poet Friedrich Schiller, which was later set to music by the Austrian composer Franz Schubert in 1819. The years between the composition of Schiller’s poem and Schubert’s song saw great upheaval and profound change in Europe, from the French Revolution to the fall of the Napoleonic Empire. Today, the poem continues to reflect a world gripped by deep uncertainty. It can be seen as a lament but also as an invitation to reconsider our past, advancing a new sense of beauty that can be shared in a more equitable way. At this festival, three particular works stood out to me.
The first is ‘The List’ by Turkish artist Banu Cenneto lu, which consists of a series of two-metre-high billboards naming over 34,000 refugee and migrants who have lost their lives within, or on the borders of Europe since 1993. Measuring one metre wide, her installation of billboards span over 150 metres along Great George Street, the main road that cuts through the centre of Liverpool. It is a stark metaphor that alludes to mass journeys that end in a loss. Compiled and updated each year by UNITED for Intercultural Action (a European network against nationalism, racism, fascism and in support of migrants, refugees and minorities), ‘The List’ traces deaths, remembering those that have passed away whilst reflecting the harrowing events that preceded their demise.
Since 2007, in collaboration with art workers and institutions, Cenneto lu has facilitated up-to-date, translated versions of ‘The List’ in public spaces internationally.
This painting by Francis Alys is part a selection of postcard-size paintings executed in the tradition of classic plein air painting. The paintings allude to the condition of global tourism of our contemporary art scene. I like the everydayness of its portrayal that is far removed from our perceived reality.
Although Belgian by birth, Alys has a long established artistic practice in conflict zones. In 2016, he accepted a residency in Iraq, where he worked with local artists and refugees. On another stay, he was embedded with the Kurdish Peshmerga forces on the Mosul frontline, taking the role of a war artist documenting the fight against ISIS with brush and paint. His paintings are displayed at the Biennial along with a timeline going from the 1980s to today under the title Age Piece, with each work showing his age when the painting was produced.
The single-shot short video ‘People of No Consequence’ by Aslan Gaisumov explores the struggles and turbulent histories of the Chechen people as a result of their displacement at the hands of Russian forces. Produced in 2016, the film documents the gathering of a group o elderly men and women, all survivors of the 1944 Soviet deportation of the Chechen and Ingush nations to Central Asia. A slow, almost static portrayal of transition from empty hall to occupied space, it tells the story of collective memory in an eight-and-half minute real-life documentation of the gathering of the survivors. 119 of the 300 individuals still alive enter the room silently, the youngest having been a babe in arms at the time. Watching, or rather witnessing, the attendees entering the room in silence is perplexing, at the least. The title adds to the confusion. It is only on reading the commentary that one becomes aware of the immensity o the travesty beset upon these people.
Notion of Freedom is an exhibition conveying the current effect of occupation in Palestine through the account and personal experience of documentary photographer Haitham Khatib. Curated by photographer Sara Russell, the exhibition is on display at the Islamic Human Rights Commission in London. I met with Sara at the launch of the exhibition.
What inspired you to organise this exhibition?
Initiating the Exhibition ‘Notion of Freedom’ was inspired by feedback from my own exhibition ‘Another Day’ that led me to understand the need to a provide platform [and] art spaces for the voice of our fellow Palestinian artists and documentary photojournalists, whose works and incredible stories of sacrifice and courage must be appreciated. Such support is tantamount to actively spreading the message of solidarity and encouraging a tidal movement towards peace. It is important to understand that the notion of freedom is what humanity leans towards, and it concerns us all.
How is this relevant to your own practice as a photographer?
As a photographer, understand the power of image and how a camera is a powerful tool that can impact and challenge our perceptions and can encourage reflection and shed light in the darkest of days. IHRC provides support for academics and the arts. I see that both are the backbone to the advocacy in fighting or human rights, justice, freedom and peace.
I want people to come along to the Gallery at IHRC and see the wonderful sunset images on display, with the set o images that Haitham has taken alongside the contrasting images, the weekly demonstrations. It is rewarding to make time to go view the work. There are also biographies in video format on display during the opening time.