VENICE — There is a nation of the dispossessed. The inhabitants are both exiled and among us, in temporary cities on others’ lands, and in our cities living in shadows. Their common national traits are fear, uncertainty, seemingly permanent impermanence. Taken collectively these individuals, families and communities who live as refugees or internally displaced people number more than 51.5 million. If they gathered together and were recognized by the world, they would represent the 25th largest nation on Earth.
The Venice Biennale, opening this weekend, celebrates the art of other nations in the most stunning and remarkable way imaginable. And yet it is important also to focus attention on the living creativity of those who represent the failure of nations, the failure of politics and the failure of diplomacy.
The citizens of Nation25 perish invisibly on the high seas. They live for years, sometimes decades in refugee camps, often with very little hope of returning home. They arrive from unspeakable landscapes of violence. The nature and scope of this violence is akin to a cancer that is metastasizing. The conditions they endure test the limits of human understanding. Their lives matter.
Why should we be concerned about art as it relates to refugees and migrants? Because their history and experience always seems to exist as a kind of world beneath the world. That is to say, people who endure war and deprivation often have an understanding of events that contrasts dramatically with mediated and sometimes sanitized versions of the past. It means having the ability to render a story or a gesture that would otherwise be hidden. It means discovering ways to address a hemorrhage in society that goes beyond the ephemeral nature of our news cycle.
The word “displaced” is not innocuous. For those who must endure it, displacement is most often not a singular event but a multiple uprooting repeatedly enacted. The displaced may end up crossing a border to become refugees but the geography of fear and loss lingers with them. A border may provide the possibility of certain protections – food, shelter, and physical safety. But borders cannot inure the victims of massive and repeated violence from the burden of their experience.
As the Venice Biennale begins, Nation25.org is working to create a “pavilion” for the art and testimony of migrants, internally displaced and refugees. The pavilion is not official but that does not mean it lacks relevance. It comes from testimony about survival. We heard the story of a doctor from Aleppo who spent his days saving lives until he was forced to flee with the arrival of ISIS. During his journey to Europe the boat he traveled on sank in the Eastern Aegean. All of his medical skill was useless as he watched a family slip under the waves trapped in the cabin.
We have heard the testimony of Don Mussie Zerai, founder and president of the agency Habeshia, who is among the candidates for this year’s Nobel Prize for Peace. A refugee himself, he speaks of the torturous journeys of Eritreans and Ethiopians to Europe.
I have met people in the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan who have created fountains which recall the places where they once lived. I meet refugee teachers from South Sudan to Syria who gather children to create art because to do so inspires hope.
Nation25.org is calling for contributions from refugees, migrants and the artists and humanitarians who work with them to form the pavilion in Venice which will be constructed during the final months of the Venice Biennale at Sale Docks artspace. The hope is that the pavilion will be more than a collection of photos, oral histories, writing and other forms of art. The idea is to begin to conceive of a people whose existence lives at the margins as a part of an existence that transcends dispossession.