Karen Dabrowska

Arab Weekly Article

Originally published: 2nd December 2018

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London Museum explores lives of immigrants in Britain

Visitors are greeted with a life-size print of an African immigrant sitting next to a heater.

A journey into memories. “Hope,” a photo from the Damascus Wall Exhibition.      (Dima Karout)

A journey into memories. “Hope,” a photo from the Damascus Wall Exhibition.
(Dima Karout)

LONDON - Dima Karout, a Syrian artist and curator of a “Room to Breathe” exhibition in south London’s Migration Museum, explores the experiences of generations of new arrivals in Britain.

Visitors are greeted with a life-size print of an African immigrant sitting next to a heater. On the walls of the corridor leading to the museum are large colour portraits of immigrants, each carrying a brief biographical note explaining why the person went to Britain.

Brown boxes of different sizes carry labels: repatriation, British Overseas Citizen, unaccompanied asylum seeking child and stateless person. The writing on the wall says: “Open the door, put down your suitcase, take off your coat and let the outside world fade away. This is where it begins, a room that you can start to call home – a room to breathe.”

The exhibition is showcased in different rooms. The first is a bedroom in which visitors can relax in an arm chair and listen to the recorded stories of immigrants. In the kitchen, jars and food packages tell the stories of new arrivals. There is a lunch box from Lebanese-born Naaman Azhari. “My mother would try to preserve the Lebanese in me – she would not let me have sandwiches for lunch and packed bamya (okra) and kibbeh (traditional Lebanese meal),” Azhari wrote on the label of one box.

Amel from Algeria displays a silver ornament, which is waiting for a time to return home. “We moved here – it was a matter of life and death. The ornament was hidden in a suitcase on the top shelf of my wardrobe. Putting it there was my way of moving on,” Amel wrote.

The creative space is taken up by Karout, the artist-in-residence. She is displaying art work from previous exhibitions, working on a new installation and conducting workshops. The introduction to her studio says: “There is no black and white in the Syrian conflict, only shades of grey and too much red.”

Karout is a visual artist and educator, working with mixed media to create images, texts and installations. She grew up in Damascus and spent the past 15 years travelling and working in Leipzig, Paris, Montreal and London where she has curated art exhibitions, organised cultural events and designed educational art programmes.

In the statement introducing her work, Karout says: “In 2011, my country and I entered a long dark tunnel with no visible end. The place I once called home vanished in a swamp of blood. Art gave me a space to reflect on conflicts bigger than me, reconcile with red and recognise myself.”

Insightful photographs from Karout’s “Damascus Wall” images represent two visions: those of a Syrian traveller and those of a Syrian refugee. She wants so badly to go back. He, having risked all to escape, cannot. “Damascus Walls” is a journey into their memories and a look back to Damascus through their eyes, combining photos and short texts.

“Human Bridges” is an art exhibition that assembles ten texts and artworks. It represents the bridges built between ten Syrian artists from different backgrounds who connected at the Fine Arts University of Damascus starting in 2000. Today, they have all lost their home and live in ten different cities around the world but a line of friendship built through art survived.

“They are all connected to me by an art object that they offered me at a different moment of our story,” Karout said. “These objects are related to our life in Syria, travelled with me and now landed in London.

“When I first started working I dealt with conflict. Now I want to tell the story of the people who survived. They are capable of love and creating beautiful things. People who create art deal better with conflict. All these artists are dispersed in different cities. They are trying to produce art and survive. The message is art is very important in coping with inner conflicts.”

Karout is working on an installation “We are Made of People and Places.” She said: “I work a lot with the idea of tracing people and places. Every day I am adding a person and a city to the installation. We are all a combination of the people we met and the places we visited. All these cities we visit leave a trace on our souls and contribute to our identity. Can we know who we are when we keep on evolving?”

Every month, until July 2019, a different emigre artist will have an open studio in the creative space. Karout will curate a final exhibition in the summer of 2019 displaying the works of all the artists-in-residence.

“Room to Breathe” is at the Migration Museum in south London until July 2019.