As anyone who’s opened a British newspaper recently will be amply aware, the word ‘migrant’ has become an incredibly loaded one over the last few months. A worryingly large section of our society seem to revel in the idea that the UK is being invaded by every brand of crazed foreigner, all set on jumping council house queues and extorting sums large enough to fund a lavish lifestyle from the welfare coffers.
Polish artist Małgorzata Dawidek has stepped straight into the fray, challenging dehumanised portrayals of migrants in the press by engaging directly with individuals and presenting their personal experiences of migration using her distinctive visual language. In her current show at Centrala – a new space in the ever-buzzing Digbeth area of Birmingham run by the non-profit Polish Expats Association – she uses interviews and workshops with local migrant women conducted as part of her six week residency here as springboards for her visceral video works.
The most immediately attention-grabbing of these is ‘Conversio’, a riot of kaleidoscopic forms and morphing body parts set to a mish-mashed soundtrack of women’s voices recounting their stories, some original and accented, some translated. Floating, speaking lips, disembodied limbs arranged in bizarre flower shapes, and disconnected facial features all provide a strange and engaging accompaniment to these tales of dislocation, making surreally visual the sense of not knowing how to belong. “Even birds emigrate to another place for their safety, they cannot stay in a place where lions eat them, where tigers eat them,” says one especially poignant account, her words echoed by Dawidek’s projected bodily patterns.
The other two moving image pieces, ‘Kamilla’ and ‘Sylvia’, focus on the stories of their eponymous subjects. Told in Polish with subtitles, these tales are visually expressed with semi-abstracted static, tracking and intensely interrogative close-up shots of each narrator’s body – pores, outstretched arms, necks. These are reminiscent of early Surrealist investigations into bodies as forms, but with edges of dyed blonde hair and pierced belly buttons they are hopelessly contemporary and pleasingly awkward. The stories themselves could, however, have benefitted from a slightly harsher edit. There are some lovely sentences here but some of their potential power is lost in the pieces’ more pedestrian moments.
As well as the videos, Dawidek is also showing her photographic series, ‘Habitats’ in which she’s set up various letters of the alphabet in places she’s lived or stayed in (from Poznań and Wrocław to New York and London), charting her own process of migration with wit and playfulness. Each letter is constructed from whatever she could grab from her surroundings – a pile of art books, clothes on hangers in an unmistakably generic Ikea kitchen, draped fairy lights, lengths of wood joined with parcel tape in a scrotty attic – together spelling the phrase “Habitats On The Way”. She’s communicated the dual fun and fragility of travel, playing with the potential of her second language with lightness and humour.
Outsiders, I think, are often able to see different cultures in a way that’s impossible for those who are too entrenched in them. Małgorzata Dawidek has succeeded in casting her own, deeply sympathetic and idiosyncratic light on the UK’s migrant population, humanising and bringing their experiences to life in a way that a British artist could never have hoped to.