Tabacalera Cantera 2019: Migrant Bodies

In August, many people abandon Madrid because of the heat. Those who stay, however, find themselves in a quieter city with more space and more time – especially during the morning. It is as if the summer in Madrid allows for a different kind of reflection. Many art places stay open and wait for those lost wanderers. Or, at least, that is how I would describe myself, when I ended up in Tabacalera’s Cantera 2019 exhibition. This annual exhibition shows the work of six selected young artists. Two of them, Luisa Ordóñez and Felipe Romero Beltrán, chose to investigate the topic of migration. Or should I say ‘migrations’ in plural? It was one of the questions stuck in my head, while wandering the multi-cultural streets of Lavapiés again.

Luisa Ordóñez – Uno se despide y no se va: geografías migrantes

The work ‘One says goodbye and does not leave: migrant geographies’ (my translation) consists of a collection of recordings. On three screens, you see three woman sleeping: in a forest, on a sand hill and near a lake. The films display their sleep in real-time. On the opposite wall, a collection of pictures of the very same sleeping women are shown. They are presented in a modest way: in standard 4×6 inch format, directly attached to the wall. A neat pile of pictures is presented as a sculpture behind glass in the middle of the room. Perhaps those pictures did not make it to the selection on the wall. Nevertheless, their hidden presence seems to reveal that not every moment can be accessed. In the back of the room, three pencil drawings are connected to three headphones. They allow you to listen to the stories of the sleeping women. They appear to be Latin-American migrants in Germany, who were asked by the artist to sleep at a place where they felt connected with nature. The conversation is about the experience of being a migrant. ‘Only in Germany I felt the need to shape my Latin-American identity, because people looked at me that way’ notices one of the women. Songs of birds, twigs rustling in the wind and streaming water can be heard in the background – sounds that bring you back to the landscapes on the photographs.

The idea to research the topic of migration through the affection for natural landscapes is immediately refreshing. Nature is a strange place for such reflections. It is far from the city where the women have moved to and where the encounter between different cultures usually takes shape. Nevertheless, this strangeness seems to work here metaphorically. As the artist writes, ‘the search for an appropriate place to rest, can be understood as a metaphor for the process of inhabiting the territory to which one migrates. It stands for building a place and life to which we surrender our body and consciousness’ (my translation). The challenge to sleep in nature mimics the daring step to connect the private self to a new environment. When moving to another country, dreams about life abroad might be interrupted and altered by the actual experience. The body constantly needs to adapt to those changes and shape new places of comfort. At the same time, the body remains the same body that slept, ate and was raised thousands of miles away. In the poetic images of Ordóñez, both this physical struggle and the rootedness in actual space and memory are beautifully depicted.

Felipe Romero Beltrán – Reducción: políticas de escape

At the centre of the work ‘Reduction: escape policies’ (my translation) are studio portraits of two tall African men, strangled in different headlock positions. The high quality photographs are printed in black and white on large pieces of paper. Just as the pictures of Ordóñez, the exhibition style is modest, which means no frames, no luxurious finish. Three mysterious folders on a table called ‘Reduction I’, ‘Reduction II’, and ‘Reduction III’ are even printed on standard A4-paper format and casually stapled in the corner. The folders give an insight of the process behind the pictures. They show the calls for the African models (180+ cm, payment of 15,- per hour) and the invisible Spanish policeman who had to instruct them on how to perform the headlocks (‘you will not appear on the images’). In the folder ‘reduction III’ only pictures of empty streets of Lavapiés can be found.

© Felipe Romero Beltrán

The word ‘reduction’ is key in the work. The defence method often applied by the police against African migrants, ‘reduces their bodies’ in the words of the artist. It neutralises their power, their will and their actions and ultimately removes them from public space as on the pictures of the empty streets. The criticism of the work is clear: these bodies are in danger. They constantly risk being made invisible; being left out of society. In the setting of the artwork, however, the situation is different. It is the policeman (or woman) who is left out of the frame. The migrants themselves are exposed to the camera. Their presence is ambivalent: they are bare-chested, like wrestlers, but also wear neat trousers and polished shoes. The self defensive positions could be interpreted as fighting, but also allow them to pose in highly aesthetic postures. The setting, created by Romero Beltrán, involves a power situation for which there are no conventions yet. It is a strange encounter between the artist, police and migrants that fights the status quo by making those seemingly irrelevant details – payment for the models, police instructions or desolate corners of streets – visible.

It is striking how the topic of migration in both artworks raises quite different questions. It reminded me of one day, when my Libyan neighbour invited me to take Spanish classes with her. Only at the place, we discovered that the classes were strictly for refugees and that I was not allowed to blend in. This situation was completely understandable – it was organised by volunteers and only meant for those that could not afford regular classes. At the same time, it was quite confronting for me and my neighbour. Our comparable struggle of dealing with a new language suddenly seemed incomparable. What was obvious from the start, was now emphasized explicitly. She was the “migrant” and I was the “expat” – words that are technically interchangeable, but that are commonly used to distinguish between the unprivileged and privileged. The investigations of migrant bodies in the works of Ordóñez and Romero Beltrán are insightful. They both show how such bodies are defined both externally – as ‘Latin-American’, ‘African’, ‘black’ or ‘white’, but also how they are lived from “within”. Both sides can of course not be separated. The cultural labels often work as acts of violence or privilege that effect experiences and even the possibilities one has in the new country. This makes it inevitable to speak of ‘migrations’ in plural – of different cultural experiences. At the same time this focus on something we all have – a body – also makes it possible to connect to the situations in a more intuitive way. The difference in the experience of searching for comfort in a strange place might be a beautiful starting point for an encounter between migrants; whether in a conversation, a dance or simply when eyes meet.

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