“We were human beings once”; “Now he could start a new life”. These are two separate sentences from testimonials scrolling down on a large projection in Pi Artworks London’s back wall. The rest of the exhibition ‘in via incognita’ by Ipek Duben consists of what that semicolon represents: the in-between of having been human once and the possibility of starting a new life.
“Forced migration.” New York and Istanbul based artist Duben corrects me, “Not refugees yet, not migrants ... They are on land, on sea, through passages, border crossings. Walking on train tracks, walking day and night, waiting in camps. All these images are from that moment of hope and despair.”
Duben’s first work on the theme of forced migration was ‘Farewell my Homeland’, exhibited in New York in 2006. She’s been collecting images of human flow across borders since she first heard about the war in Kosovo. “The very beginning of this work goes back to 1998 with Kosovo, which upset me very much. Ethnic cleansing, religious cleansing in a way a few years after the holocaust in Europe ... I was just amazed that it could happen. The photographs in newspapers and journals were very powerful. Not knowing what I would do with them, I started to collect them and then it sort of grew on me.“
The published photographs she has collected are an archive of forced migration covering over one hundred years. Pictures of crowds walking in queues with babies, small bags in their arms, on boats squeezed shoulder to shoulder. In the 12.5 metre long installation ‘in via incognita’, the photographs are printed on synthetic silk, framed by barbed wire, mounted on wood one by one next to each other. At first glance, they are familiar images; who hasn’t seen a picture of people crossing a border by foot, or overcrowding a boat in the middle of a sea, or children behind barbed wire? For centuries now we have been living in a world where people go through such a trauma every day on at least two continents. The timeline of images feels a bit over-stylised at first, familiar but different. That’s the point, says Duben, the difference was made carefully to create some sort of distance.
“The material in this show is not really presenting itself as hard realistic photographic data. They are not presented chronologically, have no indication of place or time but there is some sort of continuity, flowing in a cinematic frieze. Where you don’t see the people, you just see crowds. Human beings and humanity really turned into just crowd. No identity, no individual presence.”
On the opposite side of the gallery there is another installation ‘Untitled Portraits’, where Duben tries to bring out the individuality of people in the photographs. These are portraits cropped from bigger, more crowded images where Duben has managed to find their names from newspaper articles or reports and embroidered them on the portraits. “I used the contrasting materials such as very fragile silk on which I print the portraits, on which I embroidered their names very carefully and patiently, then used barbed wire to frame these faces. Just like barbed wire framing all of the images in motion. It is a tactile experience.”
The works which are shown in Pi Artworks range from the exhibition in New York in 2006 to her very recent works. Two artist books and prints accompany the installations. Testimonials and images come from Haiti, Kosovo, Norway, Folkestone, Angola, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, France, Sudan, Iran, Pristina, Turkey, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Hungary …
This is Duben’s second exhibition in the UK in less than a year after her show in Fabrica Gallery as a part of the Brighton Festival which itself followed a 2014 exhibition in the British Museum. ‘They/Onlar’ also focused on empathy, she says. “Not specifically in London, but showing my work in the West is important to me. I wanted to show that the migrants seen here are not trash – as Donald Trump said – they are people. I want to show that people are very sad to leave their homeland and their homes. That has to be understood. There has got to be some empathy for that. What are they supposed to do? Stay and die? Who would do that? If anything, art can create empathy if you don’t just look at them but experience them.”
A similar picture to the ones seen in this exhibition was left on my table in the summer of 2016 in Manchester, when I was having a coffee in the sun. The picture was the central image of a EU Referendum leave campaign leaflet, and the text on the leaflet suggested that 80 million Turks were walking in queues towards the borders of the UK, and that voters should do something to close the borders to the free movement of the EU. I tell this to Duben and she stresses that she is hopeful, though not too much. She is trying to show the state of despair and hope in her works, the state of inbetweenness of the remains of home in memories and the prospect of having another chance, starting a new life. This is the moment of running away from conflict, before becoming a statistic of drowned people in the sea or the anonymous agonised face photographed when being beaten up by Hungarian police. Or perhaps appearing at the gates of Europe and seeking asylum … “Probably some of the people in the gallery are looking at my work and think that it is coming over their borders. I don’t try to give this message, but of course it might be understood as a warning by some.”
Once again Duben invites her viewer to empathise with the other. It is difficult, but highly timely and important. The same type of fear and sorrow brought the images of these people to a gallery in London; it is impossible not to wonder where they are now, whether they are happy and pursuing a ‘new life’. And they make you ask if this tragedy will ever end.