The new season of exhibitions at the University Gallery, University of Leeds will be launched by a major international exhibition of contemporary artists called together to explore the theme of migratory aesthetics. This concept has been the focus of a two-part, two-institution international collaboration in cultural analysis that was initiated by Professor Mieke Bal of the University of Amsterdam and Leeds’ AHRC Centre for Cultural Analysis, Theory and History 2005-06.
Migration, asylum-seeking, refugees are much in the news usually for the wrong reasons. The constant movement of peoples over history fleeing political persecution, forced into exile as well as seeking economic resources is easily made into a new source of anxiety and terror that fosters xenophobic and racist responses. Migration is normal, painful, creative, transformative. So what’s new?
Do the arts and humanities have anything to offer to this debate? ‘The aesthetic dimension of the social phenomenon of migration has not been studied in its own right’ writes Mieke Bal in her original outline of the project. So we are asking: What are the cultural effects of migration? How do people experience the process of movement, losing a home, making a new life, mixing with new and other cultures, raising children who have never known what remains a lost home(land)? What do migrating cultures add to the ones they enter? How important is it for all cultures to have constant renewal, challenge, innovation and above all to celebrate rather than fear difference?
Some contemporary art inspires ridicule from the public as it seems fanciful or self-indulgent, just a lot of metropolitan spin. Some art, however, is deeply engaged with the major traumas, tragedies and experiences of our time, unable to turn its face away from making art of the utmost seriousness, bound in honour to look history in the face, to remain faithful even to painful memory and to use art practice as moment of re-encounter and as a moment of transformation.
Migratory Aesthetics, curated by AHRC CentreCATH’s Director Griselda Pollock is an international exhibition of artists using a variety of media from drawing, to painting, found objects, photography and film, video and new digital media who in diverse ways confront aesthetically – by making reflective art works –the multi-layered issues of migration of people, of ideas, of customs, of cultures and of trauma. This does not mean the show has pictures or documents of social movements of peoples. The artists selected are concerned to bring into visibility the subjective dimensions of movement and arrival, displacement and location, being at home and being away, memory with its burdens of loss and consolations of remembrance and recreation, many of which are formulated in relation to the major forces in migration: the legacy of Shoah ( Holocaust) and all its ramifications internationally and the continuing legacies of colonialism that shapes the cultures of the inter-relating postcolonial worlds.
There are the aesthetics of the everyday ( food, clothing, sounds, music) that becomes signs we can read to understand the experiences and transformations of migration, exile, relocation, and the transmission of memories and pains down generations. There are the aesthetics of the transformation of ideas and intellectual traditions when they migrate with peoples forced to change location. There is the aesthetics of difference, of otherness that can held at a distance as foreign, alien, invasive or embraced as transformative, necessary, invigorating and productive. There is also a register in the aesthetics of film, writing, mark-making of a certain violence, a rupture and a loss involved in exile, displacement or movement into a new and unfamiliar culture. How is that registered and worked through by the aesthetic experience? How are the traumas that lie behind the movement and migrations to be processed and reworked as memory? Does this make us ask about what we understand the aesthetic experience to be beyond traditional ideas about beauty and pleasure in looking. How does art now face up to history? What are its ethical responsibilities – that as art, are presented to each viewer through the singular voice of the artist seeking to know his or her world through art making that is always both propositional – asking its viewer to find out what is being proposed by the art work – and a kind of encounter – a subject to subject experience?
This exhibition is thus both an exploration of the way leading contemporary postcolonial artists explore their own historical situations in a migratory and diasporic world and an exploration of the role of aesthetic practices in helping us to engage with the challenging questions and experiences created for us all by recent histories that set so many peoples in motion and remapped world space as diasporic and postcolonial.
All the artists exhibiting here have international recognition for their projects. Some have had special relations with Leeds over the years. We are honoured to present exhibition and its related screenings of related works that make a decisive contribution to showing how artistic practice is part of the highest and most ethically undertaken research into major issues of our time.
The artists are Martine Attile, Mieke Bal, Sutapa Biswas, Bracha Ettinger, Lubaina Himid, Isaac Julien, Lily Markiewicz, Fanozi Chickenman Mhlize, Roger Palmer, Ingrid Pollard, Judith Tucker.