Bearing witness

How can the stories we tell about tragic experiences connect people and create cultures of bearing witness and responsibility rather than encouraging voyeurism or indifference?

Umut Erel
20 November 2017
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From a distance. Behjat Omer Abdulla. All rights reserved.Public participation poses challenges, in particular when addressing issues as harsh and emotive as the experiences of refugees. How can art contribute to acts of imagination which then lead to the building of new solidarities? How can the stories we tell about tragic experiences connect people and create acts of witnessing and responsibility rather than voyeurism or indifference? Behjat Omer Abdalla’s work interrogates these issues. Developing an interactive element to engage audiences in his large-scale drawings, which depict the tragic experiences of a refugee family, he asks audiences to place themselves in relation to refugees’ stories. By inviting them to write a response, he invites audiences, many of whom have not been refugees themselves, to examine their role as social and political actors who can take up responsibility. In the responses to his work, an interesting narrative emerges, whereby many reflect on their own family histories, which involved refugees. Others raise questions relating to a shared humanity and shared feelings and experiences of family, while others reflect on the difficulty of relating across hierarchies imposed by national borders and privileges of citizenship. 

How can art contribute to acts of imagination which then lead to the building of new solidarities?

In his work, From a Distance, Behjat Omer Abdulla asks: what would it mean to experience our own privileged lives as inextricably tied up with the exposed lives of less fortunate others elsewhere in the world? Under the fear of war, as thousands of families fled their homelands, a mother of twin infants started her journey to seek a safer place. During the journey, a tragedy occurred. Behjat explores these events through a series of drawings in order to reflect on their meaning and make connections to a wider audience.  

Behjat Omer Abdulla is an artist who was born and lived in Kurdistan until 1997 when war forced him to flee to England, where he faced an 11-year battle to gain recognition as a refugee; he currently lives in Sweden. Haunted by these experiences, his art explores concepts of identity, displacement, uncertainty and falsification. In conversation with sociologist Umut Erel, from The Open University, they reflect on how interactive artwork can act as interventions and create space for solidarities. 

Umut Erel (UE): Behjat, your piece ‘From a Distance’ was inspired by a story you heard about the tragedy that beset a refugee family during their journey. This is a powerful work, which draws in the viewer and opens up a very different way of relating to the subject. Oftentimes in media representations we see refugees during their journeys in an extremely vulnerable situation, we see their suffering and they are often fixed to a subject position as ‘victim’. This evokes a one-way gaze from ‘us’ (who are not – at this moment – refugees) who can decide to look at the suffering of refugees or indeed turn away and not look at them. This one-way gaze, especially if it fixes refugees in this role as ‘victims’ – or conversely as ‘threat’ to our borders and security allows for a very limited relationship with the people depicted. Your work seems to create a different, more complex and very intimate relationship between viewers and the people depicted. 

‘No, that mother is not there for me to be a subject of my artwork'

Behjat Omer Abdulla (BA): Choosing the people who are refugees as subjects for this project I had a big problem. Because I could have gone and found the mother (whose story inspired the drawings) but then I thought: ‘No, that mother is not there for me to be a subject of my artwork’.  But then I thought I want to go to the refugee camp in Sweden to talk with people to undertake some background research. But again I thought: ‘No, these people are not here for the sake of this project that I want to do.’ Then I thought about how I could make this – and then I looked at my daughter and I thought it’s my own child, completely connected and there was nothing more connected to me than my own child to talk about this whole experience. And I thought, maybe I could do that. And that’s what I did. I took her out of the bed at night and I just documented her as delicately as possible. She was asleep, she had no idea what happened. It was like a dream for her in some way.

UE: In telling or representing the stories of refugees there is a risk of re-inscribing the boundaries between the people who can look, who can watch and reflect and grapple with the ethical and political dilemmas as an ‘us’ as opposed to the refugees themselves who can be represented as simply posing these ethical and political issues, rather than being capable of engaging in reflection and action to address political and ethical issues. 

BA: One thing I wouldn’t want to show is refugees in their vulnerable situation. When you look at the work you haven’t got a clue what you are looking at. I want to make the work as beautiful as possible. I want people to come closer, to just see ‘Ok, what is this work about?’.

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From a distance. Behjat Omer Abdulla. All rights reserved.UE: Yes, I agree, the pictures are very beautiful and draw you in. 

'I want to make the work as beautiful as possible.'

BA: I quite like the idea of people being witnesses to something rather than looking at something. When you look you are far away, but when you witness you are too close to avoid it. When you are witnessing a situation you are responsible. You are responsible for a lot of things, you are responsible to help – I don’t know how you would help. But you are in a situation where you really have to think about where you are standing. You have a huge responsibility on your shoulders.

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From a distance. Behjat Omer Abdulla. All rights reserved.UE: As part of the work, you ask audiences to take an ID sized photograph as they are viewing the pictures to register their reaction to the story and the images. You mentioned that for many there is a strong immediate reaction of shock. You call this a ‘180 degree reversal of the gaze’, where the viewers become part of what is being looked at. Then you collect these ID sized photographs on a security blanket such as they are distributed to refugees by humanitarian helpers. On one side of the security blanket you collect these ID sized photographs of audiences, on the other you collect their short statements in reaction to your work. 

I think this is another way of creating a relationship, rather than a one-way gaze between the viewers and the people depicted in the story and the images. You are inviting the viewers to become part of the story and the images. Can you tell me what made you think of using the security blankets for this workshop?

BA: The blankets are in silver-coloured reflective material, so the audiences could see themselves reflected, refracted in the blankets. These blankets are products that have saved thousands of lives if people were able to receive them at the right moment. The blankets also follow the idea that there can be a 180 degree reversal of the gaze away from the images and towards the viewer. Indeed, usually it is the blanket that covers a person, but this time we cover the blanket with images of people. Putting the blanket on the floor, rather than hanging it on the wall, allows me to keep the project open ended. When it is on the floor you are not hundred percent certain what will happen.

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From a distance. Behjat Omer Abdulla. All rights reserved.

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From a distance. Behjat Omer Abdulla. All rights reserved.

This article is published as part of an editorial partnership between openDemocracy, The Open University and Counterpoints Arts to reanimate the Tate Exchange project in which academics and artists together ask who, during a time when the lines marking out citizens, borders and nations are being redrawn, or drawn more starkly – 'we' are, and who gets to decide.

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