Migrant Type British Colonial Empire and Migrant Type French Colonial Empire, 2018
All too often, the ramblings of politicians and the media contribute to the demonisation of the ‘other’, of their identity and culture, by viewing them merely as potential criminals. But when someone leaves their home with their family and embarks on a long, perilous journey to an as-yet unknown world, with their own survival and that of their kin as their sole motivation, do they not rather fulfil the profile of a potential hero? It took some of the people photographed in these images more than three years to reach Italy from the place they left behind. They all travelled through Libya and witnessed the horrific conditions there with their own eyes. They live in homes, they hold down jobs and, from one day to the next, they try to scale the unending ladder of upward social mobility. Realising these portraits, I was inspired by the process of composite photography, a technique invented by Francis Galton in the 19th century to help define the physical characteristics of the criminal. Composite portraiture was later used by Arthur Batut, who claimed that the process could be used to identify characteristic types of particular tribes or races. In denying individuality, this photographic technique had a clear influence on further fuelling the racial discourse. By reviving the process to make portraits of two types of “migrants” – one from the former British Empire, the other from former French West Africa – I wanted to emphasise the dehumanisation that the ‘other’ has been subject to for far too long and remind the ex-colonisers of their moral responsibility.
The story of humankind is a story of movement and dissemination between cultures. In the 8th century, the Moors crossed the Strait of Gibraltar and within a few years had occupied almost all of the Iberian Peninsula. This was followed by eight centuries of coexistence and mutual exchange between orient and occident. As Christians and Jews were viewed a “people of scripture”, they were awarded the status of dhimmis: protected people whose religious practice was respected. Consequently, they were able to work together on new transcriptions of ancient texts that Muslim scholars had translated into Arabic, a task made easier by the paper production techniques Islamic culture had introduced to the Western world. As a result, Europe (re)discovered many ancient treatises on philosophy, medicine and mathematics that otherwise would have been lost. How can it be that despite this long, lively and fruitful exchange, the disappearance of over 17,000 refugees in the Mediterranean Sea since 2014 (according to the IOM) has left behind just one image and one name: Aylan, the young Syrian boy found dead on a beach in Turkey. The others, the thousands of others, are just anonymous black and orange shadows drifting between the waves.
While exploring the magnificent city of Florence during an artist residency at Villa Romana in 2018, I couldn’t get the story of the diplomat and explorer Al-Hasan al-Wazzan, known as Leo Africanus, out of my head. He was born in around 1494 in the city of Granada and fled to Morocco with his parents after the Reconquista. In 1518, on his return from a pilgrimage to Mecca, he was kidnapped by Sicilian corsairs in the Mediterranean Sea and was presented to Pope Leo X, who was residing in Florence. Pope Leo X baptised him (a second time) and gave him the name Johannes Leo von Medici. During his time in Italy, under the byname Leo Africanus, he studied Italian and Latin and taught Arabic in Bologna. At the pope’s behest, he wrote his famous Cosmographia de l’Affrica, the first book about the geography of Africa to be published in the Western world, one that served as a reference to explorers in this region of the world for years to come. During my residency, something happened that on the surface had the semblance of local news, but which illustrated the devastating consequences of divesting people of their identity. On 5 March 2018, Roberto Pirrone, a 65-year-old, highly indebted Florentine man, left his home with the intention of ending his life. At the last minute, however, he decided not to turn the gun on himself but instead on Idy Diène, an unknown Senegalese street vendor, who had the misfortune of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Idy Diène was shot six times and fatally wounded. Comparing the story of Leo Africanus with the tragic odyssey of the nameless thousands who disappear in the Mediterranean in search of a better life points to the sad realisation that intercultural exchange has actually regressed. The walls between people are becoming ever higher in the name of a system that devours itself in the refutation of the other.
Idy, the African, 2018
The History of Humanity is a history of openness and passage between cultures. At the 8th century the Moors crossed the Steet of Gibraltar and in 711 they occupied the entire Iberian Peninsula. Eight centuries of cohabitation and of exchange between East and West. Considering that Christians and Jews are people of the Book, they benefit as such from the quality of “Dhimmis”, the protected, whose religious practice is respected. So they’re going to work together. to transcribe the ancient texts that had been translated into Arabic by the Muslims. The importation of the papermaking technique by the latter, in the Western world facilitated its realization. Thus Europe (re)discovers philosophy, medicine or mathematics, which, without this intervention, would have been lost. How, despite this long and lively abundance of exchanges, can we explain that the disappearance of more than 17,000 refugees in the Mediterranean since 2014 (source: IOM) only leaves us for our collective memory one image and a first name: the one of Aylan, a little Syrian boy found drowned on a beach in Turkey? All the others, the thousands of others, are just anonymous shadows, black and orange floating between two waters. Discovering the magnificent city of Florence during an artistic residency in Villa Romana in 2018, I learned about the story of Hassan al-Wazzan, known as Leon the African, diplomat and explorer, born in Granada, Spain, around 1494, then took refuge in Morocco with his parents after the Reconquista. In 1518, from return from a pilgrimage to Mecca, Hassan al-Wazzan was kidnapped by Sicilian pirates in the Mediterranean and offered to Pope Leo X, based in Florence. He was (re)baptized by him and given his own first and last names, Johannes Leo de Medici. During his stay in Italy, the one known as Leo Africanus learns Italian, Latin and teaches Arabic in Bologna. At the Pope’s request, he wrote his famous “Cosmographia de Affrica”, the first book of geography dedicated to Africa published in the West, which will long serve as a reference for explorers of this part of the world. During my residency, there was an event, which says a lot about the devastating effects of this identity deprivation and its consequences. On March 5, 2018, Roberto Pirrone, a 65-year-old Florentine, comes out of his house with the intention of committing suicide. He decides at the last moment to turn his weapon against Idy Diène, a Senegalese street vendor, which had the misfortune to go through there, shooting him down with six bullets. Confront the story of Leo Africanus with the tragic epic of these thousands of anonymous people who have disappeared in the Mediterranean in search of a better life, is to do the It is a sad fact that intercultural dialogue has regressed. Walls always rise up higher among men in the name of a system that devours itself in the negation of the other.