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Opinion | The art of illegal immigration

With the outrage over the Assam NRC release, a look at what draws artists to the displaced and the stateless

Chilean poet Raúl Zurita with his immersive installation ‘The Sea Of Pain’, at the Kochi-Muziris Biennale in 2016. Photo courtesy: Kochi-Muziris Biennale
Chilean poet Raúl Zurita with his immersive installation ‘The Sea Of Pain’, at the Kochi-Muziris Biennale in 2016. Photo courtesy: Kochi-Muziris Biennale

Don’t you hear me? In the sea of pain... Won’t you come back, Never again, In the sea of pain?" At the last edition of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale in 2016, the Chilean poet Raúl Zurita’s words were printed on the walls of a warehouse that he had flooded with seawater. Viewers were meant to take off their shoes and wade through the water to read the poem. The immersive installation was titled The Sea Of Pain.

Zurita, who has in the past written poems into the sands of the Atacama Desert, dedicated The Sea Of Pain to one particular casualty of the Syrian refugee crisis: five-year-old Galip Kurdi, whose brother Aylan Kurdi became the unfortunate icon of the crisis. If the image of three-year-old Aylan washed on the shore disturbed you, remember that there were many, many more children, and there will be many more, Zurita seemed to be saying. By encouraging visitors to wade through the stretch of seawater, Zurita attempted to highlight the human nature of the crisis. It’s not just foreign affairs and peace treaties, there are people out at sea.

The Sea Of Pain was one of the most compelling works at the three-month art event. Earlier that year, photographer Rohit Chawla also paid his tribute to the Syrian crisis by collaborating with the human rights activist and artist Ai Weiwei to lie face down on the pebbles next to the Mediterranean Sea in tribute to Aylan. Weiwei, who self-identifies as a person in exile, has been involved with creating a memorial on the Greek island of Lesbos for the Syrian refugees. Weiwei said in interviews then that artists don’t have to be more political, just more human.

Mint has argued in the past that “India remains one of the few liberal democracies not to have signed, supported or ratified the international convention that governs how nations should treat distressed people who are forced to leave their homes under harrowing conditions. It has signed neither the 1951 United Nations Refugee Convention nor its 1967 Protocol, which has 140 signatories, an overwhelming majority of the world’s 190-odd nations." The article, however, also brought to light India’s unique predicament with porous borders and how it has historically fulfilled its duties towards refugees. That said, the release of the final draft of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) in Assam earlier this week has made even the apolitical take notice, and poets and artists are particularly prone to be moved. What is it about the displaced and the stateless that speaks to an artist? “It’s heartbreaking not to find your name on a list," says the Mumbai-based artist Shilpa Gupta, who has spent several years travelling to the enclaves in the India-Bangladesh borderlands. Gupta’s art practice, which places a great deal of emphasis on the notions of identity and communalism, was spurred on by the 1992 communal riots in Mumbai while she was still an art student. “After the riots, it was the empty chair in class...the student who never came back," she says over the phone. “It is rarely media headlines, rather the human experiences that stay on." When I ask Gupta how she felt she was impacted by the NRC release, she says it reminded her of the story and visual of the 15-year-old girl Felani who was shot dead by border security at the India-Bangladesh border in 2011 (the news surfaced in mainstream media a little later). “Unlike journalists, artists may not feel the compulsion to be on the scene at ‘the moment’ to gather news. They instead deal with memories of what a moment leaves with them. The empty chair in class informs my work even today."

An artist’s response can be subject to scrutiny and questions of exploitation. Chawla’s photograph of Weiwei got global attention, which quickly turned to criticism about its staged nature. Chawla has his defence. The question to ask of the Weiwei image or any political art is that did it focus renewed attention on the then flagging media attention on the refugee crisis, he points out. “That image was not ever intended as conventional photojournalism, yes it was indeed a staged image with the express intention of provoking debate. Weiwei understood that and that’s why he agreed to perform for my camera," he says. “For political art to succeed, it needs to provoke a mainstream audience in an unexpected creative idiom and create awareness about a just cause."

Anindita Ghose is editor, Mint Lounge. She tweets at @aninditaghose.

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