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Artistic practice and (labour) migration

Migration, which sees people relocate across national borders, frequently involves a new language, different societal norms and values, and in some cases a change in political system.

By Burcu Dogramaci

Migration, which sees people relocate across national borders, frequently involves a new language, different societal norms and values, and in some cases a change in political system. All of this newness can initially give rise to feelings of alienation, just as migrants themselves can be perceived as alien. Art, in the sense of "migratory aesthetics"[1] shaped by and through migration, can reflect upon this and help make actors of migration more visible and audible.

This is true not only of works created by migrants, but also of those that address the subject of migration. Accordingly, migration describes the actors’ experience of changing places, and the act of migration itself, but also a cultural or artistic practice – serving thus as a resource for societies. As cultural theorist Mieke Bal writes on the subject: "Migratory, in this sense, does foreground the fact that migrants (as subjects) and migration (as an act to perform as well as a state to be or live in) are part of any society today, and that their presence is an incontestable source of cultural transformation."[2]

Migration changes societies and leaves an immediate imprint on urban spaces, as for example new neighbourhoods form with their own infrastructures and social spaces. Doug Saunders describes these neighbourhoods as cities within the city, dubbing them "arrival cities" – residential areas that emerge through cumulation and segregation and are often specific to one migrant community: what their residents are looking for is proximity to one another, familiarity and exchange. Such neighbourhoods are often perceived by the general public as problem areas and as evidence of an alleged lack of ability to adapt to new life concepts.[3] As if under a magnifying glass, these arrival cities allow societal and cultural change to be observed: the first signs of a society of immigration are to be found in the urban contexts of the arrival cities.

Hardly anywhere else in the world is the ratio between migrants (approx. 87% of the population) and the local population as asymmetrical as it is in the United Arab Emirates.[4] The UAE attracts a large number of migrant workers from countries such as the Philippines, India, Pakistan, Tanzania and Kenya, most of whom work in the construction industry, as domestic workers or in tourism. Even today, the living standards of many migrant workers are extremely low, and a dualistic and rather non-transparent society exists between wealthy locals and migrant workers living in precarious conditions.[5] 

The latter have brought different languages, religions, social codes and cultural practices to the UAE. The works in the exhibition Migration & Culture shine a spotlight on the processes of negotiation between the past, present and future of migration to the UAE: singing and painting, dance, photography and film are the forms of expression used in the quest for the familiar amid the ongoing evolution of the new.

Routes of migration are sometimes the focus, such as in Saba Qizilbash’s work Jabal Ali to Gwadar, which explores the connection between Dubai and Pakistan and makes reference to Pakistani (re-)migration. Her detailed graphite drawing brings the port of Jabal Ali (UAE) and the Pakistani port of Gwadar together by depicting the land route in an imaginary landscape. Gwadar is seen as the new Dubai of the future and – financed by Chinese money – is an important transshipment hub and link to China. In this sense, Qizilbash uses the traditional medium of drawing to address the current and future circulation of workers and capital within a broad geographical corridor.[6]

Philippine migrant workers are another large community in the UAE; the choreographer Eisa Jocson showcases their leisure needs through references to the popular entertainments of karaoke and videoke. Karaoke and videoke are an expression in text, audible and visual form of their linguistic and musical connectedness to their home country. At the same time, they symbolize forms of imagination and community-building in their present and future life contexts. In her works, Eisa Jocson explores time and again the gender-related codes of dance in the entertainment industry and in leisure activities, focusing particularly on the Philippines. Jocon reflects on the contexts and social conditions that allow physical forms of expression to emerge and become established, including in migration.[7]

Mohamed Somji’s contribution to Migration & Culture is devoted to the leisure activities of Southeast Asian migrants in Dubai. Somji, who was born in Tanzania and grew up and lives in Dubai, works with photography, a technique in motion that is carried close to the body. Photography is the extension of the photographer’s view and a medium of translation between the photographed subject and the photographer, between photo and audience. Photography in this context is also a medium used widely in daily life by the community that the photographer is portraying. Photographs on a smartphone are a record of experiences and thus serve as a digital album of memories. At the same time, engaging with one’s immediate environment through photography is a way of pinpointing one’s own position in the current reality.

In other words, migration as an aesthetic practice is not limited solely to artistic external views of migrant contexts or artistic actors with their own migration experiences, but is also expressed continuously in the digital photographic practice of the migrants themselves.[8]

[1] Cf. Sam Durrant and Catherine M. Lord: "The formulation migratory aesthetics draws attention to the ways in which aesthetic practice might be constituted by and through acts of migration." Sam Durrant and Catherine M. Lord: Introduction: Essays in Migratory Aesthetics, in: (Ed.): Essays in Migratory Aesthetics. Cultural Practices between Migration and Art-making (Thamyris/Intersecting Place, Sex and Race, 17), Amsterdam/New York: Rodopi 2007, p. 11-19, here p. 12.
[2] Mieke Bal: Lost in Space, Lost in Library, in: Durrant/Lord 2007 (as Note 1), p. 23-35, here p. 23.
[3] Cf. Doug Saunders: An der Schwelle: Migrantenquartiere und die Architektur der Inklusion, in: Peter Cachola Schmal, Oliver Elser and Anna Scheuermann (Ed.): Making Heimat. Germany, Arrival Country. German pavilion at the 15th International Architecture Exhibition 2016 – La Biennale di Venezia, Ostfildern: Hatja Cantz 2016, p. 23-39.
[4] Cf. https://www.migrationpolicy.org/country-resource/united-arab-emirates. Accessed: 25.2.2021.
[5] Vittorio Longhi: The Immigrant War. A global movement against discrimination and exploitation, Bristol: The Policy Press, 2013, p. 8; see also Viola Lucas and Thomas Richter: Arbeitsmarktpolitik am Golf: Herrschaftssicherung nach dem "Arabischen Frühling", in: GIGA Focus, Issue 12, 2012, p. 3.
[6] For Saba Qizilbash’s drawings, see Shah Numair Ahmed Abbasi: Phantom Libs, [2020], https://www.sabaqizilbash.com. Accessed: 26.2.2021.
[7] For Eisa Jocson see Stephen Wilson: The body politics of Eisa Jocson, 7 November 2019, ArtReview, https://artreview.com/ara-winter-2019-feature-eisa-jocson/. Accessed: 26.2.2021.
[8] Zum Verhältnis von Migration und Fotografie siehe Burcu Dogramaci und Helene Roth: Nomadic Camera. Fotografie, Exil und Migration. Editorial, in: dies. (Hg.): Fotogeschichte, H. 151, 2019, Themenheft: Nomadic Camera. Fotografie, Exil und Migration, S. 3–8.


Burcu Dogramaci 

Burcu Dogramaci is Professor of 20th Century and Contemporary Art History at the Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität Munich (LMU). She received fellowships of the Aby M. Warburg Prize and was awarded the Kurt-Hartwig-Siemers Research Prize by the Hamburg Scientific Foundation (HWS) and the Teaching Prize 2014 by the Bavarian State Ministry.

In 2016 she was awarded an ERC Consolidator Grant by the European Research Council for her five year ERC project Relocating Modernism: Global Metropolises, Modern Art and Exile (METROMOD). Her research focuses on the areas of: modern and contemporary art; exile, migration and flight; urbanity and architecture; the history and theory of photography; fashion history and theory; sculpture.

Her main monographs and edited books include: Fotografie der Performance. Live Art im Zeitalter ihrer Reproduzierbarkeit (Paderborn: Wilhelm Fink, 2018); Passagen des Exils/Passages of Exile (Munich: edition text + kritik, 2017, ed. with E. Otto); Heimat. Eine künstlerische Spurensuche (Cologne: Böhlau, 2016); Fotografieren und Forschen. Wissenschaftliche Expeditionen mit der Kamera im türkischen Exil nach 1933 (Marburg: Jonas, 2013); Migration und künstlerische Produktion. Aktuelle Perspektiven(Bielefeld: transcript, 2013); Netzwerke des Exils. Künstlerische Verflechtungen, Austausch und Patronage nach 1933 (Berlin: Gebr. Mann, 2011, ed. with K. Wimmer); Kulturtransfer und nationale Identität.Deutschsprachige Architekten, Stadtplaner und Bildhauer in der Türkei nach 1927 (Berlin: Gebr. Mann, 2008).