Mapping Migrant Journeys

– by Sumita Chakravarty

There is a kind of matter-of-factness in the voices we hear in Bouchra Khalili’s The Mapping Journey Project, a series of eight videos that is currently installed in an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Each video is projected on a screen and as we move from screen to screen, we hear the accompanying story in the migrant’s own voice. The videos were shot between 2008 and 2011, and depict via lines on a map the journeys undertaken by various individuals as they cross borders and head towards Europe and north America in hopes of employment and “a better life.” The clandestine nature of these crossings is reflected in the stylistic choice made by Khalili to show only a hand holding a marker and a voice in monotone recollecting each stage of the journey. From Bangladesh and Afghanistan, Morocco, Algeria and Libya, Sudan and Somalia these migrants have made their way to Greece and Italy, Spain, France, and beyond. By now it is a familiar story – of danger, desperation, sometimes death. Yet the very simplicity of the conception and format of this project (a static map, a hand moving a pen, a voice) brings each detail of the narration into high relief. We shudder as we wonder what it means to take one’s life into one’s own hands in quite this way!7.21.16-Khalili3


The journey has long been a topos for the experience of migrants as they move across space and time. Countless novels and stories take us on exciting, dangerous, and life-changing journeys. The visual media of film and television have quickened the tempo and content of such journeys, though not necessarily enlarging the language of the form itself. The “European migration crisis” of 2015-16 has settled into a predictable set of images in which the boat, the sea, the brown and black bodies, the orange outfits of coastguards, and barbed wire enclosures quickly tell the story. However, in the age of social media, migrants themselves now have the means to document their own journeys, and to be the bearers of their own voice. What Khalili’s project does is to bring some of these anonymous voices into the museum space, to explore migration as art, perhaps of a new kind.

The relationship of artistic work to migration is a complicated one, for it involves striking a balance, for the viewer, between the familiar and the distant, the local and the global. There seem to be two choices available to the visual artist: the first is documentary in impulse, the desire or need to document migration as a process through actual or recreated journeys; the second takes a more personal and reflective approach, as in Mona Hatoum’s Measures of Distance (1988), or uses the concepts of exile and displacement as universal states of being that can affect anyone anywhere (as in her later works of sculpture and installation). Regardless of the choice an artist makes, the most provocative works make us think more deeply about our own times and the everyday objects and discourses that surround us.

Khalili uses the familiar tourist map on which the migrants’ simple act of tracing a line becomes emblematic of tectonic shifts of culture and politics in the contemporary world. As Quinn Latimer notes, “To trace one’s own displacement and steady dispossession, to make sense of it, to find its form— and thus to disregard the forms and limits, cartographic or other, that were allotted to you by place of birth, color of skin, social class and wealth, gender or sexual orientation—is to lay claim to basic rights of agency, autonomy, desire, labor, and, most definitively, movement.” She also notes that Khalili eschews the migrant’s face in favor of the voice, for facial visibility is linked to (state) surveillance. Thus the artist focuses on the hand and the voice, both of which have long been used as symbols of autonomy and empowerment.

But what of the map? How does the map, presented as literal and aesthetic “ground,” feature in the triad of relationships (map, hand, voice) that these videos represent? Maps and mapping have become ubiquitous in everyday life in the digital age; they are also increasingly key forms of inquiry into our ways of understanding the world. One interesting fact that has emerged in recent discussions is the tendency of mapping techniques to enable certain kinds of information and not others. For instance, movement is easily depicted, but other forms of less tangible information are harder to map. There is an inevitable flattening out of context, a diminution of nuance. I am wondering how this affects our apprehension of the migrant journeys. Against the “inertness” of the maps is set the dynamism of movement, the overcoming of obstacles. The heroic individual occupies the foreground while the map, as both static and solidly in place, looms in the background.

But if maps are to be meaningful, they must evoke some of the emotions that we attach to places, familiar and unfamiliar. The mapping journey project, while inspiring, is incomplete. It lacks the reciprocity of place, the bustling sense of human presence and immediacy. More than movement and journey, those isomorphic tropes of the migration story, we are now in need of other kinds of mappings, marked not by contingency but by expanded notions of community and identity.

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