With thousands of refugees and asylum seekers rushing to reach the borders of Europe daily, the questions of migrations have been increasingly moving from political and media discourse to the artistic one. The struggle to cope with the migrant crisis on a governmental level, resulting in rising xenophobia and restoration of centuries-long tensions between the Middle East and the West have inspired many artists to take the matter into their own hands, contemplating on the humanitarian crisis from the cultural point of view. Although the response from the art community has been rather slow, it is encouraging to see that some artists were able to recognize the social anxieties triggered by migration early on. Strongly believing in art’s social mission, Turin-based artist BR1 has dedicated his various projects to the subject of migration in the past two years, reflecting on numerous paradoxes that arise from this contested phenomenon. With his new exhibition inspired by the idea of cultural difference approaching, we will revisit some of his works dedicated to the subject of migration to put the latest installation into a wider context of BR1’s socially engaged body of work.
Critique of Ethnocentrism and Questions of Identity in the Works of BR1
Fascinated with post-postmodern paradoxes, BR1 has dedicated his work to the exploration of contradictory phenomena that emerged in the late capitalism, with questions of cultural and gender identities being pivotal to his oeuvre. Through billboard takeovers, street art installations, and numerous public interventions, BR1 has been addressing various social and political issues, with his primary focus being the deconstruction of Eurocentric values and hegemonic discourses. The collision of cultures and the downfall of multicultural ideals in contemporary times have served as a major source of inspiration to the Italian artist who began to reflect on the ambiguities of globalized society, which instead of erasing borders creates new levels of cultural exclusion. Graduating in Islamic law, with the thesis on the veil, BR1 is particularly interested in the questions of female identities in Middle Eastern and Mediterranean societies. A large part of his work is dedicated to the idea of deconstruction of female Muslim identity and it boldly approaches the acute debate on the veil. Nonetheless, in recent times, BR1 has expanded his social agenda, dealing increasingly with the theme of migration, incapability of governments to handle the issue, along with the indifferent, discriminatory and racist attitudes that came to dominate and influence public opinions.
Raising Awareness of Migration Hardships
Over the last couple of years, BR1 presented several projects that tackle the issue of illegal migrations, mistreatment of refugees and tragedies that follow their path to Europe. In the series of public billboards titled Visa Denied he reflects on the phenomenon of visa denials to the applicants who reside in the countries with high immigration rates. The discriminatory policy present in several European states doesn’t, however, solve the problem, but contributes to the increase of illegal migrations and it directly opposes the idea of social mobility in rich states, the idea embodied through BR1’s imagery of non-Western men and women holding Visa credit cards in their hands. The refusal to secure safe passageways and accept asylum applications has resulted in the increase of illegal routes where the fate of thousands of people fleeing from the horrors of war is left in the hands of human traffickers, often with tragic results. In a billboard intervention General Indifference, BR1 presents a disquieting image of a young man drowning, referencing the numerous cases of migrant shipwrecks and deaths on sea, commentating on the apathy and heartless demeanor maintained by the governments and the public. BR1 discusses the same theme of hardships and suffering migrants endure on their way to freedom in the installation Finish from 2014. By placing a finish sign on the coast of Sardinia, BR1 imagines the migrants’ journey to mainland as a long marathon full of obstacles, where the finish sign stands for hope and the new beginning for survivors, also remembering those who lost their lives before they reached the coast of Italy in 2014 when Italian government failed in organizing rescue missions.
From Xenophobia to Cultural Dialogue
BR1 does not only criticize the shameful treatment of immigrants, but also the cultural tensions that emanate from the migration phenomenon like prejudices, xenophobia and lack of compassion from the European citizens. A strong believer in democracy and civil society, BR1 promotes cultural dialogue and speaks about the necessity of intercultural approach and mutual respect between two conflicted sides. On that trail, we can interpret his recent performances The Giant of Melilla and Dialogue, which aim to diminish xenophobia and intolerant behavior. In his street art performance The Giant of Melilla, BR1 created a large handmade figure of a Giant, grotesque character found in many traditions in Mediterranean cultures. By situating his performance in the streets of Melilla, a Spanish city in Morocco’s area, a cultural crossroad infamous for the illegal border crossings, BR1 symbolically juxtaposes fear of the unknown embodied in the figure of a Giant with pleasure coming from his cumbersome dance. As the artist states: My Giant’s dance is nothing more than a moment of fun in the streets of Melilla and it should suggest the story of a man from the nomadic Issawa community, that jumped the border fence and symbolically came to Europe to dance and to demolish xenophobia. That fear that today torments so many Europeans, probably because they are afraid to experience the same misery and humiliation that migrants feel every day. The path toward understanding and cultural dialogue is also a subject of BR1’s video performance fittingly titled Dialogue. In this project, the artist addresses the other aspect of migration – the exclusion of political refugees from the society that has granted their plea for help, yet ignored their existence and made them invisible, silently showing they are not welcome. Amidst four young Africans adorned with life jackets, the artist stands in his polo shirt with his ears plugged, unwilling to hear the noise of the whistles, metaphorically capturing the spirit that pervades among European natives who are refusing to enter the conversations with foreigners living among them.
The Stranger Arrives with a New Dress
The importance of cultural dialogue and acceptance of others is the central part in BR1’s forthcoming exhibition hosted by OPEN WALLS Gallery. Starting from the end of April 2016, BR1 will tell the story of his encounter with the Stranger coming from the Mediterranean basin or inner Africa through a series of sculptures, paintings, photographs, and videos. Drawing from the theoretical concept of Otherness, BR1 will present us with the Stranger, contemplating on the questions of cultural identity, similarities, and differences between individuals of distinct cultures. By looking for the analogies between his own culture and the culture of the Stranger, the artist focuses on the universalities of human condition in order to diminish fear and prejudice originating from the encounter with those unfamiliar to us. The exhibition The Stranger Arrives with a New Dress, featuring BR1’s new works will be on view from April 28th to May 28th, 2016.