The violence of Western borders has been highly visible and well-documented in the second decade of the 21st century. We have witnessed, for instance, families being separated and children being caged at the U.S./Mexico border. Pictures of refugee victims in the context of the so-called European refugee ‘crisis’ also flooded the news.
Images of the Lampedusa shipwreck in 2013 (are supposed to) have shaken the Western world, while the spectacle of death, as embodied through the photograph of the three-year-old toddler Alan Kurdi, who was washed ashore in Bodrum, Turkey in 2015 is believed to have eerily embodied the horrific consequences of European deterrence policies.
But while spectacles of refugee victimhood flooded the news and the social media, information about diachronic and contemporary Western complicities in causing this phenomenon have been neatly relegated outside the frame of representation.
And then COVID happened, and a veil of silence was also cast over the accounts of suffering and victimhood at the borders of the U.S., Europe, and Australia. Other stories then flooded the news and the social media; stories of people suffering and dying in isolation, of not having access to medical care, images of mass graves and morgues filled with bodies, families who were separated, people who were isolated and deprived of the ability to move freely and to properly mourn their dead. Suffering within created a shadow of silence and invisibility regarding suffering outside, and at the borders of the West.
Contra to this veil of silence, a significant number of authors and artists have taken up the refugee and migration ‘crisis’ in artistic attempts aiming to trigger empathic and ethical responses in Western audiences about refugees and their plights. One of these artists is Ai Weiwei, who recreated the photograph depicting the toddler’s death in a controversial act that caused both praise and criticism.
In this recreation, he was lying at the shores of Lesbos in a position similar to that of the dead toddler. I want to pause for a moment to discuss this act alongside other artistic and humanitarian attempts to raise Western people’s awareness about Syrian refugees. Kurdi’s photograph embodies the quintessential innocent victim of European deterrence policies.* Ai Weiwei went to Lesbos to re-enact this scene in order to ambivalently re-expose this death and to thus shock his audiences.
Note how, the attention here is on Western sensibilities. It is indeed the aim of this ‘artwork’ to shake up its Western spectators; to place them in uncomfortable positions by attempting to visually recreate the consequences of Europe’s deterrence policies. In the spirit of Western liberalism, the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo, which became globally renown after the terrorist attack of 2015 that occurred in response to its publication of the Mohammed cartoons, also chose to make a statement in response to Kurdi’s death through a cartoon.
The cartoon, entitled ‘Que serait devenu le petit Aylan s’il avait grandi?’ (What would have happened to little Aylan if he had grown up?), includes a small round inset that shows a remediation of what has actually happened; that is, the death of the toddler as embodied in his excessively used and misused photograph.
Underneath this small inset, the cartoon shows what would hypothetically have happened if he escaped death, and the boy is shown as a grown man, with animalized facial attributes chasing a woman to sexually harass her. Another caption, at the bottom of this image, reads ‘tripoteur de fesses en Allemagne’ (ass-groper in Germany), thus responding to the title/question.
In a different setting, in December 2018, the Dutch arm of Amnesty International published a glossy under the title Glamoria to raise awareness about Syrian refugees living in the now destroyed Moria refugee reception and identification center of Lesbos. The cover shows the Syrian refugee actress Jouman Fattal re-enacting the iconic scene from American Beauty, whereby Mena Suvari (Angela) lies nude with rose petals covering parts of her body as she alluringly looks at the spectator.
In Glamoria, the rose petals became substituted by life jackets in a spectacle similarly disturbing to the ‘artistic’ negotiations of Kurdi’s death. The glossy was immediately withdrawn after public outrage. However, importantly, the Dutch Amnesty chose to publish this cover just after the Oxfam scandal broke out, whereby Oxfam humanitarians in Haiti coerced female earthquake survivors into sex in exchange for humanitarian support as accounted for by the whistle-blower Helen Evans, the organization’s former head of safeguarding.
This cover illustrates a complete disregard of the particularities of gendered suffering in contexts of violence, conflict, and irregular migration in its sexualization of the female refugee.
Ai Weiwei’s re-enactment of Kurdi’s death picture, the Charlie Hebdo cartoon, and Dutch Amnesty’s withdrawn Glamoria cover seem to illustrate a common preoccupation with (shocking) Western sensibilities. Causing shock seems to have been both an intended and an unintended outcome in these three instances.
But what is the meaning of this shock? Isn’t the violence of borders shocking enough? Have we really reached a point where we need such artistic, humanitarian, and satirical visual interventions in order for our sensibilities to be disturbed? And to what end? Should artistic interventions about the refugee ‘crisis’ exhaust their potential in merely making their Western audiences uncomfortable? And why should our feelings matter in the face of mass death that occurs daily at our (literal or proverbial) doorstep? Shouldn’t art and literature be preoccupied with much more than triggering emotional responses? Why is my being shocked more important than, say, showing respect for those suffering, the dead and their families?
Respecting the dead and enacting this respect through different rituals have been of core importance in different religions and cultures, across time and space. The families of those who have died in deserts and at sea while attempting to cross into the West in the hopes of a better life become deprived of the opportunity to mourn and to show respect for their dead, who remain invisible at the bottoms of seas or in the hostile environments of deserts. How are the dead, like Kurdi, then, and many others who have not gained such visibility, respected by Western liberal and ‘tolerant’ artists, humanitarians, journalists, and readers/spectators?
Precarity, and vulnerability to death are not equally distributed across the globe. Some people have been consistently sacrificed, so that others can live with privilege through centuries of (neo-)colonial Western interventions elsewhere. Art would be political and ethical if it shed light on these complicities and responsibilities. Shame, discomfort, and shock would make sense if they were caused by our admitting to our inaction in the face of the ‘humanitarian spectacle’ of the global refugee ‘crisis,’ as well as to the Western complicities that have been systematically leading to and sustaining it.
Contra to the three instances mentioned above, due to their sequential nature and their visual/verbal hybridity, print, and digital comics accounting for human rights violations and death at the border can critically embed the contemporary ‘crisis’ within longer histories of (neo-)colonialism at the same time as illustrating those responsible for violence enacted during detention and deportation, for instance.
Such texts include Alpha: Abidjan to Gare du Nord by Bessora and Barroux (2016), Vanni: A Family’s Struggle through the Sri Lankan Conflict by Benjamin Dix and Lindsey Pollock (2019) in book format, and “Villawood: Notes from an Immigration Detention Centre” by Safdar Ahmed (2015), as well as the comics of the Iranian refugee known by the pseudonym Eaten Fish, who was imprisoned in Australia’s offshore detention center of Manus Island.
Without precluding the possibility of affective engagement with the content that becomes narrated through the comics form, these texts importantly contextualize what the above three instances present as sensationalized spectacles, and they ask that we turn our gaze to what otherwise remains largely invisible.
* The reference to European deterrence policies draws from Miriam Ticktin’s 2016 publication, ‘Thinking Beyond Humanitarianism,’ Social Research: An International Quarterly 83(2): 255–71.