“Nations themselves are narrations,” observed Edward Said in Culture and Imperialism (1993), a statement that holds true in our current socio-political moment. As Said correctly observed during his time, while conflicts continue to be waged over the ownership of land (and resources), issues of who has the right to work, live, settle and travel, and indeed the question of a nation’s future are nevertheless echoed, challenged or even decided upon in narratives, both written and visual. Today we live in a world of representation, and representations – their history, production, circulation and interpretation are the very core of our culture. In recent debates, the problem of representation is deemed to be central, yet it is rarely put in its full political global context.
This exhibition brings together two artists who share the experience of growing up in Soviet Eastern Europe, as well as a personal and thematic interest in transcending borderlines, the constructed-ness of national identity, the entanglement of art and politics, and the im/mobility of migrants. To work against the grain, as Walter Benjamin famously suggested, is to ask what other stories are covered over and silenced by the representations and narratives that we already know. The global refugee reception crisis, as well as the dramatic political transformations in Europe during the pandemic, have been catalysts for these artists to create artistic narratives that go against the grain and engage with forms of being in-between geographies and the struggle over self.
With humour, wit and empathy, this project, the first collaboration between Alina Bliumis and Tanja Muravskaja, introduces forms of togetherness at the intersection of art, politics, and education. In her serial works, Bliumis usually relies on in-depth research into visual systems of classification, behavioural norms, stereotypes, statistical data and linguistic patterns to develop subjects that reveal deeply ingrained yet seldom criticised values around migration, national cultures and social bonds. Considering herself a “cultural misfit,” she uses her own subjectivity as an immigrant in-between cultures to reveal narratives of power coded in national idioms. Muravskaja also relies on a photographic series to take a closer, critical look at different types of borders, from the language of national ideologies to the enforced separation of the health pandemic. She shows how communities can be framed within a national narrative in ways which reveal more about that nation than relate to the actual experiences of those people. Her work is deeply personal and political, with a strong conceptual approach that juxtaposes her own observations of her family, the communities around her and her home milieu in Estonia, with official narratives and pre-existing prejudices.
This collaborative exhibition consists of newly commissioned and recent works by the artists, including a series of photographs and interviews of life under the pandemic with at-risk, vulnerable, resilient members of society taken by Muravskaja during her recent residency in Brussels, a film which stages a fictional conversation between family members living through an ideological and escalating war by the same artist; a series of flags emblazoned with big cats from passport covers presented in collaboration with partner cultural institutions, which highlights the intersection of nature and the national by Bliumis; and posters of different centres of Europe highlighting the shifting definitions of borders also by Bliumis. This fruitful collaboration between Bliumis and Muravskaja questions the immutability of borders, highlights stories of resilience from marginalised groups and proposes new modes of engaged citizenship.
Our exhibition sheds light on common and, at times, contradicting narratives of regions defined by international migrations and depopulation, tourism industries, precarious livelihoods and the recent health emergency, by creating an artistic platform for continued dialogues and new social imaginaries. While remaining critical of current economic and political power structures imbued with renewed neo-colonial aspirations during the pandemic, through this artistic presentations, we seek to collectively grapple with the possibilities that art and culture offer and respond to current struggles and reimaginings over citizenship and homelands.
Building upon the experiences of two artists who share a personal history of migration across cultures and borders that has greatly influenced their work, we also plan to facilitate exchanges and collaborations that we envision will have a lasting effect on public opinion. Using the physical exhibition as a base, we will also initiate a series of online and offline discussions between the artists and the public, on topical issues such as the consequences of the emergency state, growing intolerance, virulent nationalisms and violence against the Other, while reflecting on the challenges and opportunities of mutual aid and solidarity. Ultimately, “Narrating against the grain” aims to reflect upon the contingencies of our time, urging all of us to take an active role as agents bringing about change and social justice.
The exhibition will thus allow us to act in solidarity and politically, raising awareness about an increasing sense of global urgency regarding migration and borders today, looking not only at the effects but also the underlying causes behind the trauma and violence of exodus. By involving not only regional audiences but also engendering discussions across borders, this project will highlight the social imperative of art, and the responsibility of artists and viewers alike in the ongoing crisis and its after-effects.
Guided by a belief in the power of art to inspire civic engagement and catalyse social change, with this exhibition, we aim to continue to transform how artists are viewed in the world – not as drivers of an exclusionary market, but as participatory citizens creating lasting meaning and impactful change. Bliumis and Muravskaja’s keen skills of observation, analysis and communication have the power to build public understanding of and engagement with today’s urgent socio-political issues. Together, we can raise questions and tell narratives that will allow us to confront prejudices, go beyond borders and heal divisions in ways we have yet to imagine.