Humans, and our ancestors, have been migrating for more than a million years. So it’s not surprising that the themes of displacement, desperation and dreams of a better future frequently wash up on the shores of artists’ imaginations.
At Art Basel Hong Kong, two artists are shining a light on the subject of refugees and migrants who leave their home countries, crowd onto boats and take to the ocean in sometimes deadly journeys in search of a safer life. And though their backgrounds and styles are as different as the materials they work with — stone versus fabric — the artists’ messages are united by universal stories of people seeking a place to call home.
Many muses inspired Stanislava Pinchuk to dream up “The Wine Dark Sea,” her installation of engraved marbles that form a testament to the migrant experience. Her first was Homer’s “Odyssey.” For many years, the Ukrainian artist — who emigrated to Australia and, eventually, to Bosnia and Herzegovina — was searching for a way to interpret this epic tale, which she considers the first migrant novel.
Then she encountered a darker muse: the Nauru files. In 2016, these 2,000-plus reports were leaked from Australia’s detention centers for asylum seekers on the Pacific islands of Nauru and Manus. They exposed incidents of physical abuse, sexual assault and self-harm — more than half involving children. The asylum seekers had come from the Middle East and Asia. Many have lived on these islands, waiting for immigration processing, for nearly 10 years, the same length of time Odysseus was sea-bound and struggling to get home.
The Nauru files reveal experiences that echo the suffering of migrants and asylum seekers throughout the world and time. “Reading them, I was surprised that in the absolute brutality and human rights violations, just how eternal this story is,” Ms. Pinchuk said in a video interview. She realized that many people upheld Odysseus’ story of displacement as heroic literature. But, she noted, they are often unwilling to accept the narratives of displaced people arriving on their shores today.
To illustrate this point in “The Wine Dark Sea,” Ms. Pinchuk took phrases from the Nauru files and from various retellings of “The Odyssey” and swapped the protagonists. After apprenticing with a stonemason, she sandblasted or laser-cut the sentences into blocks of Mediterranean marble, whose swirling patterns resemble a tempestuous sea. The marbles are traveling by ocean to arrive at Art Basel Hong Kong and be presented by Yavuz Gallery.
The installation’s structure is inspired by yet another muse: Homer’s purported grave on the Greek island of Ios, which consists of piles of rocks placed by visitors. Like those cairns, Ms. Pinchuk’s blocks will be stacked, so that the engraved phrases will form vertical and horizontal stories.
But the artist will not stack the stones herself. The reason, she explained, is that “one of the key ideas of ‘The Odyssey’ is hospitality, and that how we treat our guests says more about us than it says about our guests.” In that spirit, she invites a guest to arrange the stones; at Art Basel Hong Kong, the guest will be Alexie Glass-Kantor, the curator of the fair’s Encounters section. By choosing which sentences to reveal, hide or juxtapose, the guest will retell the classic story of migration.
Jakkai Siributr seems like an unlikely person to focus on migration. Apart from studying in the United States for a few years, the Thai textile artist has lived in the same house in Bangkok for five decades. But the fact that the experiences of refugees and asylum seekers are often hidden from the public motivates him to investigate and expose these stories. “I do these works because I want to educate myself,” said Mr. Siributr. “If I can raise issues that are not spoken about often, that is my duty as an artist.”
In “The Outlaw’s Flag,” his textile and video installation presented at Art Basel Hong Kong by Flowers Gallery, Mr. Siributr spotlights the plight of the Rohingya, a Muslim group in Myanmar, a majority-Buddhist country formerly known as Burma. The Burmese military has committed acts of genocide, rape and arson against the Rohingya, forcing many to flee in boats from the port city of Sittwe.
Mr. Siributr visited Sittwe with a videographer, collecting materials and film footage for the installation. He strolled along the beach where many Rohingya start their potentially deadly journey. He went with a search-and-rescue team member to a place where the team had just buried Rohingya found on the beach. Mr. Siributr said the only hints of what had happened were rubber gloves and the stench of disinfectant. He also saw burned Muslim houses next to homes flying Buddhist flags, which he presumed were being flown to keep the residents safe from arson, he said in a video interview.
Inspired by these flags that he saw as simultaneously symbolizing inclusion and exclusion, Mr. Siributr created “The Outlaw’s Flag.” The installation features 21 flags from imaginary nations where Rohingya might seek asylum.
“I was putting myself in their shoes and thinking, when their home is no longer a home, and they’re willing to risk their lives to go to a better place, what would that place be?” Mr. Siributr explained.
He wove the flags from debris he picked up on the beach in Sittwe, Buddhist monks’ robes, Burmese clothing and fishing nets. He incorporated patterns and religious symbols from the flags of Thailand, Bangladesh, Malaysia and other countries that have rejected many Rohingya and left them stateless, since Myanmar stripped most Rohingya of their citizenship in 1982.
In addition, he is scheduled to host a workshop on Thursday at Art Basel Hong Kong based on his visit to a refugee camp in northern Thailand, where he invited stateless children to embroider scenes from their lives onto fabric. Workshop participants will get a chance to sew patterns onto these fabrics, stitching together their own stories with the often-unseen stories of refugees.
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