On 28 October 2017, a colourful and artistic protest walked through the streets of Amsterdam The Carnival of the Oppressed Feelings. This performative demonstration was initiated by the Russian artist Gluklya (Natalia Pershina-Jakimanskaya) and produced by TAAK (NL).
The event marked the culmination of ten months research with refugees, academics, artists, social workers and students and was intended to give a voice and a face to the refugees in De Bijlmerbajes. Tessa Smorenburg, our editor and member of TAAK, worked on the project. Recently, she interviewed Gluklya and TAAK-colleague Bernie Deekens on how the Arts can contribute in making the invisible visible, in this case specifically, the narrative of refugees.
A prison as an asylum seekers centre
In 2016, The municipal council of Amsterdam housed around six hundred asylum seekers in a makeshift asylum seekers centre (ASC) located in an empty building. Unfortunately, this building was also known as De Bijlmerbajes; Bijlmer being the name given to the area in Amsterdam and Bajes, being Dutch slang for prison. Next to it was a creative hub called Lola Lik, where some small creative and engaged companies were located and where Gluklya also had her studio. The policy of Lola Lik was to integrate with these newcomers (asylum seekers). Amongst the participants in Gluklya’s project was the writer and activist Murad, who was imprisoned in Turkey for seven years for his support of the Kurdish community. “When he arrived in the Netherlands he found himself warmly welcomed into a building that in every respect resembled a prison -right down the last detail- where even the windows still had bars! Every sound in the building, every door that closed, every bell he heard, reminded him of the ‘real prison’ he had just left behind”. Bernie Deekens poses the questions: “Is this how we welcome newcomers? What does this say about hospitality in Dutch society?”
The collaboration: Gluklya & TAAK
Gluklya’s project, Utopian Unemployment Union (UUU) was begun in 2010 in Russia and focused on the plight of minorities and the power mechanics relating to social structures and public space. In this case she used textile as her medium. Theo Tegelaers, curator at TAAK, discovered Gluklya’s work and a collaboration for this project was born. TAAK is a funded cooperative who initiate and produce engaged art projects in public space collaborating with artists, thinkers, scientists and social organisations. He introduced her work to colleague Bernie Deekens who is fascinated by the theme of migration, and she became involved as project manager. “I am intrigued by the question: how can the movement of refugees lead to conflict? For example: a migrant needs to leave his home country because of oppression but finds himself in a new country again marginalised and excluded from society, it is an immense problem for the us-them polarisation which dominates the migrant debate”.
Interaction with the refugees
Right from the onset of the project, Gluklya found it challenging to make contact with the refugees. The doors between Lola Lik and the ASC where the refugees lived were not open, and the regulations where strict. Gluklya explains, “And why would they come to my studio, when they have never met me? Collaborating in an art project was not always high on their list of priorities, I had to go to them”. After a time, the interest in Gluklya’s project began to grow. Some people were eager to share their stories, some had other more pressing issues at stake and others wanted to stay in, waiting for news from home. For example ‘maybe my family, who are still in Aleppo, call me’. “It is a very delicate situation.” Deekens comments, “At that time, the refugee crisis was still at the centre of media attention and was an embraced topic within the Arts. Out of the varied responses to the myriad of likeminded projects that sprang up in 2017 arose ethical questions regarding the underlying motivation of the organisers : who’s concern is at stake? And exactly who‘s interests are being served?”.
The refugees’ experiences translated
Through the many workshops that Gluklya organised with the refugees she became aware of their fears, pains and emotions. She translated these experiences metaphorically into five hypothetical political parties. The first being The Monsters party. It was a representation of the refugees’ feelings: “feeling like I am a piece of furniture”. The second: The Potato Eaters Party, stood for the sense of being consumed by the system and also quite literally as food being an experience of sharing; The Recycling Prison Party, concentrated on the found objects in De Bijlmerbajes. This building will be demolished after their stay, to will make space for a new modern apartment complex; The project follows with: The Spirits of History Party, marking 100 years since The Great October Socialists Revolution in Russia, and lastly, The Language of Fragility Party. Concerning itself with the somewhat daunting task placed upon these people during the integration process of learning the Dutch language. To illustrate the difficulties involved Gluklya playfully draws attention to false linguistic cognates between the Dutch language and their mother tongue of the newcomers. For example, the Dutch word ‘Geld’ (English: Money) sounds in the Arabic language as ‘A Mole’. In a joyful and ironic way, this became The Language of Fragility.
A carnival for the oppressed
Approximate 150 people participated in The Carnival of the Oppressed Feelings: refugees, thinkers, social organisation members, students and others who felt involved or moved by the plight of the newcomers, all dressed in costumes and masks inspired by the five parties. Gluklya draws her inspiration for the carnival from the Russian philosopher Michail Bakhtin (1895-1975). He argues that a carnival is a social institution, associated with a feeling of collectively and community. “Carnival is a pageant without footlights and without a division into performers and spectators. In a carnival everyone is an active participant, everyone communes in the carnival act”, Gluklua explained.
Mostly, the bystanders of this event where curious, but sometimes the comments where harsh, such as, ‘Go back to your own country!’. It made clear the divisions of opinion regarding our hospitality for refugees. “Contemporary debate is dominated by fear”, Deekens argues.
The ongoing refugee debate
Now, a year later, (running until the 28th of April 2019) the project is presented publicly in the exposition Positions # 4, at Van Abbe Museum in Eindhoven (NL). Presented now as recent history and as public interest in the migrate crisis weens, reaching a different public and continuing the dialogue regarding the plight of asylum seekers remains of paramount importance, albeit no longer in the limelight of public debate.
Here is a video about her present work in the Van Abbe Museum.
Note: This project was financed by two major funds within the Arts in the Netherlands: Mondriaan & Amsterdamse Fonds voor de Kunsten (AFK).
All pictures are an impression of The Carnival of the Oppressed Feelings. Photocredits: Vika Ushkanova