As part of the Migration exhibition, in which we combined journalistic photos by Piet den Blanken with painting by Stijn Peeters, we organized a debate on Sunday, September 26, 2021. The aim of the debate was to learn more about migration. We wanted to achieve this by approaching the theme from different perspectives, from the photographer, the artist, the scientist, the curator, the social worker and the expert by experience. The moderator of the afternoon was Renée Visschers.
First of all, the exhibitors were interviewed. For 25 years photojournalist Piet den Blanken (1951) from Breda has been photographing along the borders of Europe migrants who want to settle in Europe. An overview of this was presented for the first time, in fact an overview of 25 years of refugee problems. His photos were combined with painting by the Eindhoven based visual artist Stijn Peeters (1957), who often uses journalistic photos as inspiration for his works on the refugee problem.
Piet den Blanken
“The theme fascinates me. That's why I continue with it, but I never considered it a project. I regularly made reports. Now that everything is presented together as a whole, it turns out to be a kind of oeuvre and you can see a development in it.” Other photographers also photographed refugees, but none as consistently as Piet. In 1989 he photographed migrants on the US-Mexico border for the first time. In that year the Iron Curtain fell in Europe. The first refugees were welcome. During the 1990s, the situation changed and refugees were stopped at the Oder-Neisse border between Germany and Poland.
“I think it's important to record it. I want it to be seen. Migration is a human right. Therefore, no distinction should be made between people who flee from violence and people who migrate from poverty and hunger. We live on an island of prosperity in a sea of misery. They are not the exception, we are the exception.”
“I have always photographed migrants on my own initiative. The newspaper is my stage. I was lucky enough to work for newspapers and magazines at the right time and I was able to make a living from it. Still, I want my photos to last longer than tomorrow's newspaper. I hope that my work becomes a kind of visual historiography.”
“It is distressing that there is still no solution to the refugee issue at a political level. The situation for refugees is getting worse. Border security is becoming more and more militarized. Migrants are being stopped by more and more brutal violence. There are now more fences and walls on the borders around Europe than the communist countries built during the Cold War. There have been multiple deaths at those borders than there were at the Iron Curtain during the Cold War. And the job for photojournalists is getting harder and harder. This also applies to photographing in the Netherlands, asylum seekers' centers in the Netherlands are becoming increasingly difficult for photographers to access.”
Last summer he was able to work in Cyprus with permission from the authorities. Cyprus is faced with receiving too many refugees and the authorities welcome media attention.
His photos show that the refugees willingly allow themselves to be photographed. How does he manage that? “You need a kind of attitude that isn't threatening. Some are afraid, others like it when you take pictures, they experience journalistic attention as extra security. I photographed Shafiq, a refugee from Afghanistan, in Greece and later in Calais and Germany. He was pleased that someone was interested in him.”
“I try to capture a look, a facial expression that makes you wonder: What could be going on? The exhibition shows an overview of 25 years of misery. Yet it is also encouraging; you see the resilience of people.”
Piet den Blanken and Irma van Bommel are making a series of artist studio visits for Brabant Cultureel. During a visit to Stijn Peeters' studio, Stijn said that his painting is inspired by photographs of refugees that appear in the media. During that studio visit, the idea was born to exhibit together.
“Where Piet stops, I continue. The photographer documents, the artist interprets.”
“In 2016, refugees were in the news at the Greek-Macedonian border. They camped in the mud. I feld so powerless! When I paint I feel like I'm doing something. I especially want to portray my own feeling of powerlessness and share that with the public. The situations in which refugees find themselves are often inhumane. Political systems don't seem to work and problems are solved with military force.”
“I want to make 21st century history pieces. In terms of compositions and postures, I am inspired by old painting. As a result, I hold the viewer's attention longer, in the hope of starting a stream of thoughts.”
“I started with landscapes, but from 1997 I wanted to tell stories of today and show my social commitment. There is a layering in my work. I like to make large works, with people life-sized on the canvas. I want to hold up a mirror to people. Sometimes I also perform in my own work. It is very practical to choose yourself as a model if no other models are available. But it also reflects my involvement with the story.”
“It always amazes me that we see refugee flows coming, yet there are no solutions once they are at the borders of Europe.”
When asked whether he can put the misery of the refugees behind him, he answers: “That is difficult, but like Piet, I am also busy with other subjects. In addition, I teach young people at the art academy. And that gives energy.”
As a connection to the exhibition Migration, visual artist Marja Vink (1956) was asked to show her embroidery of Fighters. She also gets her inspiration from newspaper photos. Photos of aggressors, the soldiers from whom people flee, but also of refugees. After all, they are fighters too.
“I gave sewing lessons to migrant women in Eindhoven for a while, so I have a direct relationship with them. During the lessons I was told how they experience their life in the Netherlands. How difficult it is to build a life here.”She focuses on the faces of the refugees who are in the news. Literally to give the migrant woman a (personal) face. “They are people of flesh and blood who are affected and who are victims of social injustice and political abuse. Reasons to leave your own country.”
How have universities responded to the recent crisis in the reception of refugees in the Netherlands since 2016? In 2016 Henk van Houtum (professor of political geography and geopolitics at Radboud University, Nijmegen) and Leo Lucassen (professor of labor and migration history at Leiden University) published the book 'Voorbij Fort Europa’ (Beyond Fort Europe), which caused a lot of controversy. In the Netherlands alone several universities and several departments are conducting research into migration issues.
We have found social geographer Kolar Aparna willing to come and tell (in English) about her PhD research and activities for the Nijmegen Center for Border Research, Radboud University Nijmegen.
She obtained her PhD on research into national borders and how asylum seekers are received in Europe. She initiated Asylum University as an informal network that questions the unequal relationships between researchers and refugees.
“I started research for my PhD in 2016 when Heumensoord, the largest refugee camp in the Netherlands, was set up just outside Nijmegen.” She not only wanted to gain knowledge by interviewing the refugees, but also to conduct research and write publications with them. To this end, she started discussion groups and lectures, which were open to everyone. By making knowledge exchange more democratic, she questions the current role of the university, because officially she is not allowed to research and publish in this way.
Kolar regularly collaborates with poet Saba Hamzah, who obtained her master's degree in Gender Studies at the University of Utrecht. She was supposed to perform during the discussion afternoon but was unfortunately unable to attend. Kolar recited one of her poems. ‘Stranded’ is a powerful story that narrates in second person the condition of being stranded, not only as drowning but also all the obstacles of being seen and saved as a ‘refugee’.
Vluchtelingen in de knel (Refugees in a pinch) in Eindhoven is committed to rejected asylum seekers. We asked Anushka Gehring if she would like to come and tell us this afternoon what VIDK does. We also asked her if she knew a refugee who wanted to tell his or her story. There was, Azeez from Iraq. He wanted to be heard, but not 'on show'. Understandable. Therefore he was not present himself, but Anushka spoke on his behalf.
Azeez was a translator and fixer from 2004 to 2015, mainly for Americans. When he was threatened by militia, he fled. He reached Greece via Turkey and an overcrowded boat (where people drowned on the way). In 2015 he applied for asylum in the Netherlands. Two years later that was rejected; the IND did not believe him. He worked for a British company in Iraq for a few years and had to provide evidence of this (remotely). It did not work. He developed psychological problems, became homeless, and had an occasional job. Eventually he was taken care of by VIDK.
Anushka explains what VIDK do. First of all, they provide shelter, the so-called bed-bath-bread facility. But they are also committed to basic rights such as medical care, the right to family life, education up to the age of 18, food and clothing. In addition, they can provide social and legal guidance. For Azeez, this meant that he received trauma treatment, daytime activities were arranged (you are not allowed to work or study without a residence permit) and he received legal help with finding evidence for his work at the British company. That proof came, as a result of which Azeez received a residence permit. However, the future perspective can be discussed with people for whom the situation seems hopeless and they can be guided on their return.
Among the audience sits Rian Ederveen of the Stichting LOS (National Undocumented Support Center Foundation) in Rotterdam. The foundation offers help to people without a residence permit and is based on Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: every person has the right to food, clothing and shelter. She previously worked for Zusters van Liefde in Eindhoven, the predecessor of VIDK.
Finally, Rutger Doop gave a short lecture about FENIX, the Rotterdam migration museum in formation. Rutger is a history curator. The museum is expected to open in 2024. Work is now underway on the renovation and conversion of the the Fenixloods II, the historic monumental building from 1923, located in Katendrecht. From there, 'the emigrants' mainly left for the United States, Canada and Australia.
However, Rotterdam was also a place of arrival. Rotterdam now has about 175 different nationalities. Rutger showed an optimistic film about migration. The idea is that all these different nationalities enrich the city of Rotterdam. The museum focuses on individual stories and collects work in the fields of modern art, photography (iconic images) and objects (e.g. suitcases).
Someone from the audience asks whether the stories of contemporary migrants are also featured in the museum. We'll see in 2024.
The aim of the afternoon was to learn more about migration. The public, as well as the speakers, experienced this afternoon as instructive and inspiring. It is nice that this debate also contributed to networking. People and organizations that had not been in contact before started talking to each other. The fact that you can achieve that as an art institution is very satisfying.
During the debate, a trailer of the impressive film 'Shadow Game' (90 minutes) by Dutch filmmakers Eefje Blankevoort and Els van Driel was shown. The material for this film was provided by young refugees who made films with their mobile phones of their exciting journey on their way to and through Europe. Presented as a game. Do or die.
In addition to the debate, the following activities took place as part of the Migration exhibition:
Photo31 interviewed Piet den Blanken at Pennings Foundation. The webinar was broadcast as a pre-announcement to the exhibition on June 2, 2021.
The documentary Feitelijk maar niet objectief (Factual but not objective) that Wilbert Smit made in 2020 about photojournalist Piet den Blanken was presented twice during the exhibition at film house Natlab in Eindhoven.
In the media:
Frank van den Muijsenberg interviewed Piet den Blanken and Stijn Peeters. His story was published Brabant-wide: in the Eindhovens Dagblad (12 Sept 2021), De Stem and the Brabants Dagblad:
Joep Eijkens in Brabant Cultureel:
All that time, a beautifully set table was part of the exhibition. However, the chairs were missing, as a metaphor for the not really hospitable Europe.
On the last day of the exhibition, we symbolically moved the chairs and invited the exhibitors for a meal, as a thank you for their attention to migrants.