Yesterday I went on a mad rush to get to the Call Me By My Name: Stories from Calais and Beyond exhibition before it closed. Working in West London and living in South, taking a trip to East London is never a simple quest. But it was so, so worth it.
It was a first for me. Never before have I been moved to tears by an exhibition.
Call Me By My Name is an exhibition from the Migration Museum Project, which, as said in the brochure “delves beneath the headlines to examine the complexity and humanity behind the current migration crisis.”
Visiting the exhibition days before the EU referendum was deeply moving. Seeing the same “Jungle” that has been used for scaremongering and scapegoating by politicians and the press, represented in such a dramatically opposite way. The exhibition is deeply humanising, fully addressing that every refugee has a vastly unique story.
In a census taken by Help Refugees and L’Abugerge des Migrants in May 2106, there was a population of 5,178 living in the Calais ‘Jungle’. To the press, and therefore the common public, myself included, this is phenomenal figure. A vast mass of nameless and faceless. Call Me By My Name changes that. The vast mass of the nameless and faceless 5,178 are given a name and given a face. The exhibition is deeply humanising.
This struck me most through the fine-tuned interpretation methods used. I had naively expected a dull, traditional gallery of photographs and art. It was so much more than that. Video, audio, sculpture. Two pieces in particular I found powerfully engaging. The piece ‘Home for Winter’ by Joe Friday, Lee Eyre and Mark Arrigo was an installation of a typical shelter. The every day normality of the objects that scattered around the shelter resonated with me. Toothbrushes and bottles of water reminded me of what is often forgotten in the media, refugees are human beings.
A poignant piece in the exhibition were the lifejackets. Visually striking at first, but when you read why they’re there, because they were fake ‘life’ jackets that wouldn’t save a life at all, the gross mistreatment of refugees becomes abundantly clear.
That said, the exhibition was not a sob story, the narrative avoided presenting the refugees as helpless victims. Equal parts evoking compassion and sympathy, and evoking a element of hope and respect. I was surprised by the extent the Calais ‘jungle’ isn’t really a jungle at all. Without undermining the horrendous conditions the refugees face every day, there are glimmers of hope. The ‘jungle’ has become closer to that of a small town.
I would love to read the visitor demographics of this exhibition. Who visited and what they thought. Perhaps only people who already have a compassion for the refugee crisis visited, and saw and felt what they already thought and felt. I wonder if any who previously held the ‘they’re coming over here and stealing our jobs’ views had come to the exhibition out of curiosity and had their perceptions completely altered. Time will tell as the Migration Museum progresses and develops.