Landfall – creating an alternative for cross-cultural empathy

The word ‘migration’ is a highly visual one, evoking images of dark, suffocating ships, barb-wire borders and the harsh gaze of xenophobic populations. In contrast, the world ‘movement’ is highly kinesthetic, conjuring scenes of dance and rhythm, suggesting fluidity, freedom and creativity. This is not an aesthetic article, nor is it political; it will attempt, instead to watch and listen – through the Museum of London Docklands exhibition, LandFall – to the very real ways human beings remember, experience and dream about migration and movement.There are few things more empowering than telling a story; telling the story of those who cannot do so themselves is one of them. Slightly more than a month ago, Straits Times photojournalist Samuel Ho wrote about his experiencing living in and photographing migrant construction workers at the Kaki Bukit dormitory (http://blogs.straitstimes.com/2009/4/17/nothing-to-hide). There were a total of 3500 workers, Samuel wasn’t told what not to shoot. The entire experience was, in his words, “intimate”.

Similarly, Landfall, a thought-provoking exhibition of new work at the Museum of London Docklands “exploring the Atlantic Ocean as natural phenomenon, transporter of dreams and peoples”, is deeply empathetic. Curator Ingrid Pollard put together the series of mixed media work from a transatlantic collaboration of artists from London and Houston, as well as children living in Project Row Houses (Houston), where the artists stayed. Children were asked about their dreams and hopes for the future; the task of the artists was to translate and articulate both the childrens’ and their own: composer Dominique Le Gendre’s orchestral piece ‘Dreamwinds’ suggests shifting yet stable currents of an ocean flowing between places and cultures; Beth Secor’s embroidered cotton portraits of black and white women weave the history of African cotton slaves together with the material expressions of colonial reality; Godfried Donkor’s southern ‘Vogue’ collages of beautiful African women against the sleek elegance of a magazine cover are simultaneously fantasies of, and warnings against, the integration of African and Western culture.

Yet, this is only what I watched and heard. Were these really the messages the artists sought to convey? Were Pollard’s own ceramic paper-boats, which I admired as symbols of a once tumultous, now permanent transition of peoples across an ocean, perhaps merely the playful interpretation of a historical journey too often dramatized? From children and artists, through media, to me – with each attempted translation I seized the opportunity for re-intepretation, to bring these stories closer to my own experiences and dreams.

And this, in my opinion, is the real beauty and importance of Samuel Ho’s photographs and the Landfall project: Both are heartfelt attempts to express the politics of movement and aesthetics of migration in a public gallery for all to pick apart, watch and listen to. They are attempts, then, to create a real place and time for understanding outside the oppressive political rhetoric of tolerance, as well as the artistic seductions of ethnic performance. By conveying the stories of others, they make us interested to hear these stories ourselves. They inspire us to listen to those whose stories have now become part of our own.

For more information on Landfallhttp://www.museumoflondon.org.uk/English/AboutUs/Newsroom/LandFall+at+Museum+of+London+Docklands.htm

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