Friday, 10 June 2016


Ahmad is a Syrian refugee who passed through the infamous Calais “migrant” camp in France and is now rebuilding his life in Britain. His portrait, painted by a young British artist named Hannah Rose Thomas, is just one of the compelling pieces of artwork in an exhibition now underway in London.

Titled Call me by my name: stories from Calais and beyond, the exhibition comes as countries prepare to observe World Refugee Day on June 20 and Refugee Week from June 20 to 26.

It features the inhabitants of the infamous Calais camp, which the show’s organisers say has become “a potent symbol of Europe’s migration crisis”.

In encampments around this port town in nornthern France, some 4,000 to 5,000 migrants have been living in squalid conditions as they try to reach Britain, although the French authorities this year set up shelters made from shipping containers to house about 1,500 people.

Regarding the “Portrait of Ahmad”, the artist Thomas has this message with the artwork: “I first visited the Calais ‘Jungle’ in December 2015, to volunteer as a translator. The inhumane treatment of the people stranded there shocked me profoundly, and I painted many portraits of the Calais refugees to share their stories. In my painting of Ahmad I wanted to portray his remarkable resilience and courage …”

Hannah Rose Thomas, Ahmad and the portrait.
Ahmad was one of the scheduled speakers at the exhibition’s celebratory launch on June 9. He previously said of the painting, “I think if I got a hundred thousand people listening to my story – and if the portrait succeeds in changing one person's attitude – then that’s a great achievement. And that’s it.”

The exhibition, which runs until June 22, is presented as a multi-media experience, aimed at exploring the “complexity and human stories behind the current migration crisis,” with a particular focus on Calais, according to the organisers.

“Public opinion on this ever-evolving shanty-town and its inhabitants is polarised: to some a threatening swarm seeking entry to our already overstretched island-nation, to others a shameful symbol of our failed foreign policy,” they state.

“Amid such debate, it is easy to lose sight of the thousands of individuals who have found themselves in limbo in Calais, each with their own story and reasons for wanting to reach Britain.”

Sophie Henderson
The exhibition is taking place in a “momentous month”, when there is both the EU referendum in Britain as well as Refugee Week. It follows the first-ever World Humanitarian Summit, which was held in May in Istanbul, and comes after the controversial agreement between the EU and Turkey on how to stem the flow of people fleeing war and poverty.

“Migration is probably one of the most talked-about issues of the day, but it’s often just seen as an issue or a problem,” says Sophie Henderson, director of an organisation called the Migration Museum Project, which has presented the exhibition and is working to have a permanent migration museum for the UK.

“Yet if you look back, there’s a great story of migration both to and from Britain, and it goes back hundreds of years. So a way of contextualizing and considering the current issue of migration, in an intelligent, calm, well-informed way, is just to take a step back and look at the big picture. And to consider that actually even the Angles and Saxons were immigrants. And so were the Vikings. And the Normans, and the Huguenots [French protestants who fled persecution in their homeland].”

(Photo by brandingbygarden)
Henderson, a former lawyer who now works with a group of part-time staff and volunteers on the Migration Museum Project, pointed out that Britain was itself a country of net emigration until 1982, with some 20 million citizens going to live abroad between 1650 and 1950.

Call me by my name features works by established and emerging artists, refugees, camp residents and volunteers. The installations include art by a group called ALPHA using materials from the camp.

There is also art and photography by camp residents, and an installation of lifejackets embedded with the stories of their wearers. The organizers say it will serve as a forum for discussions – involving poets, authors, academics and the public – while side events will comprise films and performances as well.

According to the curator Sue McAlpine, “Visitors will journey physically and emotionally through the space, seeing refugees and migrants emerging from a nameless bunch to named individuals, neither victims nor angels but each with their own story to tell.”

She hopes that “visitors will come away with a heightened sense of empathy for the individuals behind the headlines, an enhanced understanding of the history and evolution of the Calais camp and broader migration developments, and questioning their response and responsibilities towards current refugee and migration developments.”

In other events, artists will also be involved in Refugee Week in Britain, where cultural programmes are one means of celebrating the contribution of refugees and fostering greater understanding between communities.

Refugee Week started in 1998 as a “direct reaction to hostility in the media and society in general towards refugees and asylum seekers” and it is now one of the “leading national initiatives working to counter this negative climate, defending the importance of sanctuary and the benefits it can bring to both refugees and host communities,” say the British coordinators.

In France, Refugee Week events are being planned by a group called SINGA, formed in 2012 to “mobilise French society around projects developed by refugees – be they cultural, social, artistic, civic or entrepreneurial”.

They and other groups have lined up a series of concerts, exhibitions and debates to highlight both the contributions of refugees as well as the problems faced by the nearly 60 million people that the United Nations says are forcibly displaced in the world.

In Calais and elsewhere, however, long-term answers remain elusive.

Follow SWAN on Twitter: @mckenzie_ale