Bouchra Khalili is a talented and politically engaged Moroccan-French video artist who currently has an exhibition at the MOMA in New York. A former student of mine alerted me of her Mapping Journey Project because it touches upon a variety of things and topics we discussed in our Political Geography lectures. The project, which involves video footage taken from 2008 to 2011,
details the stories of eight individuals who have been forced by political and economic circumstances to travel illegally and whose covert journeys have taken them throughout the Mediterranean basin… The stories are presented on individual screens positioned throughout MoMA… Shown together, the videos function as an alternative geopolitical map defined by the precarious lives of stateless people. (MOMA)
The cartographic remapping is interesting but what I found even more fascinating is the way Khalili uses the elements as a critique. I am not the first one to have noticed how her respondents redraw state lines but also renegotiate their relationship with earth and water. One astute critic, Quinn Latimer, observes in a creative paper on the exhibition:
The ideological language and geopolitical narrative in which Khalili’s subjects are cast by Western… politicians and in media stories of illegal migration and mass displacement is most often “channeled” through metaphors of water. In any politician’s speech on a given day, in any nationalist’s, in any American or European newspaper screed, hear or read of the “floods” of refugees “swamping” some state and its “porous” border. See that border’s ‘floodgates’ suddenly open, suddenly shut.. Khalili’s subjects are not a tide, not a flood, not some soaked lexicon. They are individuals with voices and bodies, through which their desire, fear, ambition, anxiety, vulnerability, strength, and autonomy is related. Hear them as they plainly describe, watch as they precisely trace their impossible journeys across our shared map.
What interests me here are the politicised elemental metaphors. The way that the relationship between the refugees and the water of the sea is conceptualised as a biblical force (“flood”, “floodgates”) threatening to breach through the “porous” border of a virgin and fertile Europe. But also how the refugees long for the stability, fixity and reliability of the soil underneath. Soil to grow ambitions and prosper. Khalili allows this elemental struggle to take place on the map. Questions of race, gender, class are all played-out through the elements as metaphors but also as experience. They provide us with a narrative from which identities and histories are produced.
Khalili spoke about another video project in 2010 which she presented as part of a larger Iniva art collaboration with the appropriate title “Whose Map is it? new mapping by artists.”