Emotive migrant exhibition pulls no punches

Pic: Paul Evans

Pic: Paul Evans

Call Me By My Name: Stories from Calais and Beyond, aims to lend a voice to the thousands of refugees inhabiting the Jungle in Calais, and is possibly the most important exhibition you will see this year – just don’t forget the tissues.

Some 20 life-vests, the colours a bit worn out, are standing on pedestals in the middle of a room in a large gallery space in Shoreditch. Apart from a bit of whispering and a few discreet sobs the room is completely quiet. These life-vests, which have accompanied people on the most dangerous journeys of their lives, now fulfil a different purpose.

Call Me By My Name is a brave, in-depth look at the migration crisis which goes behind newspaper headlines and politicians who talk of the refugees in numbers.

The exhibition, hosted by the Migration Museum, consists of dozens of multimedia artworks, created by established artists as well as migrants. It comes at an important time with the EU referendum, as well as Refugee Week, just around the corner.

On one of the many pieces of fabric hanging from the right wall reads the words of Osman from Sudan. Osman is one of 5,178 people living in the Jungle – a large refugee camp in Calais just across the channel from Dover.

“When I got caught at the ferry, it was the last security check, by the British police. They treated me like a gentleman, they put the torch under the truck and said: ‘You have to come out of there now, Sir’. When they called me ‘Sir’, I wanted to go to England with all of my heart.”

Many refugees in the camp have travelled hundreds of miles and are still far away from reaching their final destination. They tend to be very careful when it comes to revealing their names or faces to the media. The artworks are therefore centred on identity and the quest for a safe-haven.

One installation consists of three small tents with sleeping bags and blankets. In front of them are a few kitchen utensils, a large bottle of water, a pair of children’s shoes and The Fall by Camus. At first, it does not feel very different to seeing ancient artefacts exhibited in glass boxes at the British Museum. A few months ago however, these tents were someone’s home. It is hard not to wonder: “What if these shoes belonged to my child”, “What if this book was one of my only possessions” or “What if this was my home”.

On another wall hangs a series of photographs from the camp. One shows refugees waiting for their phones to charge. A child bursts out: “Mum, I know they’re refugees and all, but why didn’t they leave their phones at home?” to which the mother replies: “Because this is the 21st century.”

The artworks, which vary in style and medium, all have one shared trait: they don’t depict war or death. They simply portray life as it comes in the Jungle – with bruises from barbed wire-fences, but also moments of compassion and small glimpses of hope. As a viewer, one is left with a sense of dignity and respect rather than pity. And this is where the tissues come in handy.

The exhibition is well curated and creates an interesting dialogue between everyday objects which due to their recent history suddenly have become meaningful, and artistic interpretations of the migration crisis. The result is an experience, which is incredibly personal without leading too much focus on specific individuals.

Museums and art galleries usually favour the wealthy and the powerful. There may not be any kings or queens in Calais, but the artworks at least give the impression that there are real people with real stories. At the Migration Museum the spotlights shine on those who perhaps need them the most – and that certainly makes the trip to Shoreditch worthwhile.

Call Me By My Name: Stories From Calais and Beyond is open until June 22. More information about the exhibition can be found here

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