Documenting Migration in Contemporary Art: Bouchra Khalili’s The Mapping Journey Project

How to raise awareness of the most recent refugee crisis in the Mediterranean in a way that does not spectacularize human suffering? Beginning with Bouchra Khalili’sThe Mapping Journey Project, this essay addresses how the present crisis has manifested as image and has made its way, across a variety of methodological and ethical approaches, into works of art.

The Mediterranean Sea has long acted as the geographical embodiment of a paradox at the heart of Europe: On the one hand, Europe strives to separate itself politically and socially from its southern and eastern Mediterranean neighbors by using the sea as a border. On the other hand, Europe relies on the Mediterranean as a connector for much of what constitutes “European” cultural heritage. This double impulse is evident in the ongoing reactions to the most recent refugee crisis in Europe, which has cast refugee arrivals as both vulnerable individuals who the European Union is morally obliged to protect and as threats to the very existence of the European project. In today’s increasingly xenophobic political climate, it’s easy to forget that the Mediterranean, and Mediterranean migrations, are neither unprecedented nor extrinsic to Europe. They have, in fact, shaped European culture, history, and identity for centuries. 

For most people in Europe and the West, the most recent refugee crisis in the Mediterranean has unfolded primarily as moving image. Video footage of refugee boats in the Mediterranean has been circulated all over the world by the news media and individual witnesses. It is perhaps unsurprising then that the topic of Mediterranean migration has become a dominant theme in contemporary art in Europe and the West more broadly.1A host of exhibitions that focus on migration and Mediterranean migration specifically have been organized across Europe and the United States. Most recently, the Phillips Collection in Washington, DC, opened The Warmth of Other Suns: Stories of Global Displacement (June – September 2019). Others include documenta 14 (2017) in Athens and Kassel; the 58th Venice Biennale; and the Valencia Institute of Modern Art (IVAM) exhibit Entre el mito y el espanto (2016). To this may be added MoMA’s ongoing Citizens and Borders series (which showed Bouchra Khalili’s The Mapping Journey Project in 2016; as well as One-Way Ticket: Jacob Lawrence’s Migration Series and Other Visions of the Great MovementNorth in 2015); and Judith Barry’s 2018 mural untitled: (Global Displacement: nearly 1 in 100 people worldwide are displaced from their homes. Source: http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2016/10/05/key-facts-about-the-worlds-refugees/), which was exhibited on the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum facade in Boston. Works in film and video have especially taken the topic of migration and displacement in stride, with film critic Catherine Russell noting that movies “about people fleeing intolerable conditions, heading for promised lands of opportunity, have been flooding festival screens for at least the last ten years.”2Catherine Russell, “MIGRANT CINEMA: Scenes of Displacement,” Cineaste 43, no. 1 (Winter 2017): 17.

Fig. 1. Bouchra Khalili. The Mapping Journey Project. 2008–11. Eight-channel video (color, sound). Installation view, Bouchra Khalili: The Mapping Journey Project, The Museum of Modern Art, New York, April 9–August 28, 2016. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Fund for the Twenty First Century, 2014. © 2016 Bouchra Khalili. Digital image © 2016 The Museum of Modern Art. Photo: Jonathan Muzikar

One of the centerpieces of this “migratory turn”3I borrow this term from T. J. Demos’s seminal examination of moving image works in contemporary art and documentary. See T. J. Demos, The Migrant Image: The Art and Politics of Documentary during Global Crisis (Durham: Duke University Press, 2013). in contemporary visual art is Moroccan-French artist Bouchra Khalili’s The Mapping Journey Project (2008–11). The eight-channel video installation—part of The Museum of Modern Art’s collection—features the accounts of eight displaced persons, each of whom describes his or her journey (fig.1). The faces of the subjects are absent; what we see are their hands retracing their migration trajectories on a map using permanent marker. In the years since its completion, the installation has been exhibited in more than ten venues across four continents4Including, but not limited to the Jeu de Paume in Paris; MoMA and the New Museum in New York; the Centro Andaluz de Arte Contemporáneo in Seville; the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia in Sydney; the Färgfabriken in Stockholm; the Museo de Arte Moderno in Medellín; the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London; the Art Museum at the University of Toronto; and the Sharjah Art Museum in the United Arab Emirates.—undoubtedly helping propel its creator to worldwide recognition. Last year, Khalili was short-listed for the Hugo Boss Prize, the jury for which stressed the importance of each shortlisted artist’s “commitment to bringing art to the center of timely debates in society.”5“Guggenheim Announces Short List for Hugo Boss Prize 2018,” press release dated December 13, 2017, https://www.guggenheim.org/press-release/guggenheim-announces-short-list-for-the-hugo-boss-prize-2018.

When art committed to sociopolitical issues deals in the same media and images as news outlets, political campaigns, documentary films, humanitarian organizations, and fake news—like video works do—what are its responsibilities vis-à-vis its often-disenfranchised subjects? In an ever-expanding contemporary art field, what, if any, rules or expectations govern the ethics of representation? Using the stories of real-life migrants, but displaying them in galleries, art fairs, and museums around the world, Khalili’s installation offers a platform for discussing the complex issues to which the aestheticization of human hardship gives rise.

Fig. 2. Bouchra Khalili. The Mapping Journey Project. 2008–11. Eight-channel video (color, sound), duration variable. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Fund for the Twenty First Century, 2014. © 2016 Bouchra Khalili. Courtesy of the artist.

The Mapping Journey Project is as much about migration as it is about the way an artist’s formal choices contribute to or resist existing modes of representation in documentary visual art practices. This is evident from Khalili’s distinct use of geopolitical maps. An entrenched tool of power, bureaucracy, and control, the map serves two purposes in The Mapping Journey Project: it is the literal backdrop of the migrants’ trajectories as well as the symbol of a geopolitical and visual order that both produces the migrant condition and refuses to acknowledge it. The hyper-specific trajectories of displacement that comprise Khalili’s installation defy the map’s restrictive—and prescriptive—borders. In Mapping Journey #1, the narrator recounts his sea crossing from Annaba, Algeria, to the Italian island of Sardinia, which was planned so as to elude the often-invisible technologies, such as radar, that are used to police and enforce national and international borders in the Mediterranean basin (fig.2). Each singular itinerary of displacement in Khalili’s installation also offers a counterweight to the conventional representation of migration as a mass phenomenon, something that often forecloses the migrating individual. (Here, I am reminded of those ubiquitous, overly schematic diagrams that illustrate the mass flow of people using arrows, which get thicker or thinner depending on the quantitative data of migrating populations.) In the hand of each migrant narrator, the permanent markers in Khalili’s installation bear testament to the powerful fact that individual action is never totally reducible to the structures in which it occurs. By focusing on each narrator’s intervention on “the most normative drawing”6“The opposite of the voice-over: Conversation between Bouchra Khalili and Omar Berrada,” in Story Mapping (Dijon: Les presses du reél, 2010), 69. that exists, Khalili’s work produces a new cartography, one that points to the shortcomings of the geopolitical map as an all-encompassing, scientific view of the world. 

The Mapping Journey Project enacts a series of formal strategies that intend to give its audience a much more granular understanding of the migrant condition. According to Khalili, her project aims to give the subjects of her videos their agency back, and “to investigate how individuals with their own voices, with their own words try to resist arbitrary boundaries and restrictive conceptions of identity and nation-state.”7Bouchra Khalili, “The Mapping Journey Project. 2008–2011,” MoMA website, https://www.moma.org/audio/playlist/29/508. A few of the ways in which Khalili’s formal choices in The Mapping Journey Project push against mainstream representations of displacement include the noticeable absence of faces in her videos; the complete erasure of her own voice; and the choice of the still frame, unperturbed by camera movement and montage. 

Echoing Hal Foster’s assessment of the artist as ethnographer,8Hal Foster, “The Artist as Ethnographer?” in The Traffic in Culture: Refiguring Art and Anthropology(Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995) Khalili insists that her artistic process is “natural and simple in the sense that it’s all mixed up with real life.”9Bouchra Khalili, “The Mapping Journey Project. 2008–2011,” MoMA website, https://www.moma.org/audio/playlist/29/508. According to the artist, she came across the subjects of The Mapping Journey Project at various transportation hubs in European cities, and asked them to tell her their stories on camera after hours of off-the-record conversations. These claims seem at odds with documentary art practices that, from the 1990s onward, “offer skeptical and subversive readings of documentary jargons of authenticity,”10Maria Lind and Hito Steyerl, “Introduction: Reconsidering the Documentary and Contemporary Art,” in The Greenroom: Reconsidering the Documentary and Contemporary Art #1, eds. Maria Lind and Hito Steyerl (Annandale-on-Hudson, NY: Center for Curatorial Studies, Bard College; Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2008), 14. jargons that derive from “non-fiction filmmaking and ethnographic practices [and are] rooted in 19th-century colonial painting.”11Emma Chubb, “Differential Treatment: Migration in the Work of Yto Barrada and Bouchra Khalili,” Journal of Arabic Literature 46, nos. 2/3 (November 2015): 282. Chubb locates this mostly in the mismatch between the paratexts (description, interviews, artist statements) of Khalili’s installation, which make claims of undermining mainstream media representations of migration and other hegemonic narratives, and the work’s production process. So how do we reconcile the need for a robust documentary practice with a well-founded suspicion of naturalism and claims of authenticity? 

Indeed, as an example of “a more participatory cinema,”12David MacDougall and Lucien Castaing-Taylor, Transcultural Cinema (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1998, 156. yielding a certain level of control over her work’s content to migrant narrators is Khalili’s way of dealing with the ethical questions around the decontextualization and formalization of refugee or migrant stories. Her work presents these narratives in a dignified and non-sensationalized manner, contrasting sharply with representations prevalent in mainstream broadcast media. Nevertheless, this strategy remains open to the criticism of appropriation. Like the inclusion of indigenous narratives in ethnographic film, the use of the subject’s voice in documentary or nonfiction practices begs the question of whether a work is actually “making indigenous statements or merely absorbing a device into its own narrative strategies.”13Ibid., 154 In the words of documentary film theorist Bill Nichols, if filmmakers or artists “incorporate other voices, what textual independence do these voices actually have?”14Bill Nichols, Introduction to Documentary, 2nd ed. (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2010), 156. Whether one can go as far as saying that Khalili “empowers her speakers”15Diana Nawi, “Other Maps: On Bouchra Khalili’s Cartographies” in Ibraaz: Contemporary Visual Culture in North Africa and the Middle East online forum, January 22, 2015, www.ibraaz.org/essays/115#_ftnref2. Emphasis mine. by simply prioritizing and amplifying their voices is therefore debatable. Such a discussion would involve considering to what extent an artistic representation of a disenfranchised person or group intended for Western cultural forums can ever in fact “empower” its subject(s). It would also almost certainly revert to the age-old question of whether any aesthetically oriented work that seeks to be unique can ever transcend its own aesthetic ambition and successfully enter the realm of activism or politics “untainted” by the stamp of singular authorship. While there can be no definite answer, the question is nonetheless worth raising—and discussing. 

By far the most striking formal choice that Khalili makes in The Mapping Journey Project is to leave each narrator’s face out of the video frame. According to critic Quinn Latimer, this is part of Khalili’s subversion of “the ways in which her subjects are most often represented; instead of seen and voiceless, her subjects are articulate and decisively heard, but not seen (visibility being linked to surveillance, not agency).”16Quinn Latimer, “Disregard the Forms: Bouchra Khalili’s The Mapping Journey Project,” MoMA website, https://www.moma.org/d/pdfs/W1siZiIsIjIwMTYvMDcvMjkvNXBneW1zdHBwcV9ib3VjaHJha2hhbGlsaV9vbmxpbmVicm9jaHVyZV9maW5hbDYucGRmIl1d/bouchrakhalili_onlinebrochure_final6.pdf?sha=b8952f1e3232c553. A focus on the narrators’ faces would “betray” their identities, aiding policing technologies that rely on facial recognition. By keeping her narrators’ faces out of the frame, Bouchra Khalili turns the very marginality of her subjects into a central quality of a dignified representation of displacement. Khalili’s choice also serves to critique the abuse of emotionally charged imagery by the international community, which uses certain visual tropes to raise awareness of vulnerable populations such as refugees. In the past thirty years, certain representational strategies prevalent in the media and adopted by humanitarian campaigns have been denounced by critics such as Susan Sontag, Thomas Keenan, Sarah Sentilles, and Ariella Azoulay for overly relying on images of suffering without giving the viewer sufficient context or adequate critical distance. This genre of representation focuses on the personification of human hardship, mostly through the use of the close-up, which perpetuates the dynamics of the colonial gaze and depoliticizes the causes of each individual’s plight. The closeup framing of vulnerable people looking directly into the camera—a mainstay of humanitarian iconography—is one of many characteristics of what critics have dubbed “disaster pornography.”17Psychologist Erica Burman defines this as “the representation of children in humanitarian appeals where the child is fetishized and in which the underlying and broader causes of these circumstances do not appear.” Erica Burman, “Innocents Abroad: Western Fantasies of Childhood and the Iconography of Emergencies,” Disasters 18, no. 3 (September 1994): 246. This was the main charge hurled at Chinese artist Ai Weiwei after he posed as Alan Kurdi, the Syrian toddler whose lifeless body was found on the beach in Bodrum, Turkey, in a photograph for the newspaper India Today in early 2016 (fig. 3).

Fig. 3. Ai Weiwei’s photo for India Today. Photographed by Rohit Chawla. https://www.indiatoday.in/india/story/artist-ai-weiwei-poses-as-aylan-kurdi-for-india-today-magazine-306593-2016-02-01

Despite Khalili’s formally controlled, ethically preemptive representation of displacement, art historian and curator Emma Chubb has nonetheless accused her of “migratory orientalism.”18Chubb defines this as “the dominant frame for representing and analyzing migration in contemporary art today: migratory orientalism is proposed . . . to argue that contemporary art’s recent turn to the Europebound migrant as a way to critique globalization and to posit a new humanism, universalism, or global citizenship largely repeats a move familiar to scholars of Orientalism and colonialism. . . . This turn to the migrant to define the human or the universal relies on the construction of a visibly marked yet ahistorical and interchangeable Other from the global South.” Chubb, “Differential Treatment,” 272–73. Chubb argues that the installation’s strict formalism contributes to a politically problematic equivalence between all eight narrators, which goes against the artist’s stated intentions: “rather than depicting ‘singular lives’ . . . these videos emphasize the very interchangeability and generalizability of these lives and journeys.”19Ibid., 284. Chubb especially takes issue with Khalili’s representation of migration as comprised of subjects who are “always suffering, illegal, non-white, and Europe-bound.”20Ibid., 273. Such criticism illustrates the challenges artists face when choosing to take on sociopolitical topics. 

Art historian and cultural critic T. J. Demos writes that among other things, migration is a “transformative experience [that] may inspire both critical and creative energies, complicating the existential vulnerability and material destitution it otherwise may bring,”21Demos, The Migrant Image, 3. and by extension, the monolithic representation of migrants as just suffering victims. And while it is true that Khalili’s selection of migrants does not include white migrants, this may simply reflect the fact that a majority of recent migrants and refugees to Europe have visual features that differentiate them from a predominantly white European population. Chubb’s argument echoes the shortcomings of “All Lives Matter” as a response to “Black Lives Matter”; unless her expectation is that Khalili, or any artist grappling with migration, has to engage in an interminable project addressing every different type of migrant in the world.22Ai Weiwei’s 2017 feature-length documentary Human Flow, which attempts an all-encompassing overview of the “global refugee crisis,” is overly reductive and simplistic at points, precisely because it attempts to capture a global-scale phenomenon in two hours and twenty minutes. Variety’s Jay Weissberg refers to the film as “basically Refugees for Dummies.” See Jay Weissberg, “Venice Film Review: ‘Human Flow,’” Variety, United States edition, August 31, 2017, https://variety.com/2017/film/reviews/human-flow-review-ai-weiwei-1202543842/. Chubb’s claims seem to be more motivated by a prescriptive understanding of what she, a US national and a US-based scholar, thinks are certain “right ways” to represent migrants and other disenfranchised groups in Europe and the Middle East, which can itself be construed as a kind of orientalism.

Fig. 4. Bouchra Khalili. The Mapping Journey Project. 2008–11. Eight-channel video (color, sound), duration variable. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Fund for the Twenty First Century, 2014. © 2016 Bouchra Khalili. Courtesy of the artist.

One of Chubb’s recommendations for more responsible or ethical art is for artists to shift the attention to the lives that people migrating have left behind. Chubb poses the following question: “How might analyses of migration-themed art change if, instead of describing migration as a consequence of recent globalization, we . . . contextualized it within the longer arc of postcolonial nation building?”23Chubb, “Differential Treatment,” 293. As if the (often culturally specific) trajectories of displacement featured in Khalili’s work—especially the points of departure and desired destinations of each individual—do not themselves bear testament to the “longer,” and geographically broader, may I add, “arc of postcolonial nation building.” In Mapping Journey #4, a Somali woman recounts her journey from Mogadishu to Bari, Italy, in fluent Italian (fig. 4). Italy colonized parts of Somalia for more than fifty years in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Similarly, in Mapping Journey #2, a Tunisian man narrates his journey of displacement from the filming location in Marseille, France, a port city with a long history of receiving immigrants from former French colonies in Africa (fig. 5). 

Fig. 5. Bouchra Khalili. The Mapping Journey Project. 2008–11. Eight-channel video (color, sound), duration variable. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Fund for the Twenty First Century, 2014. © 2016 Bouchra Khalili. Courtesy of the artist.

If showing faces inappropriately aestheticizes, and documenting real-life migrants’ stories orientalizes, what tropes are left for the artist to represent migration? A prescriptive-heavy focus in art criticism risks hampering the production of visual art on politically charged topics such as migration, potentially resulting in a “condescending and moralistic strain of ethnocentrism.”24MacDougall and Castaing-Taylor, Transcultural Cinema, 150. Paradoxically then, the radical egalitarianism that exists on the theoretical level would only be achieved by restricting creative practices to narrowly conceived tactics of subversion.25Jason Miller, “Beyond the Middle Finger: Plato, Schiller and the Political Aesthetics of Ai Weiwei,” Critical Horizons 17, nos. 3/4 (2016): 317. Accepting that the formalization of migration, through artistic representation, will always draw criticism for one reason or another (be it aesthetic, ethical, political), it might be more productive to redefine the scope of what is “ethical” in representation, to shift from that which goes “beyond a reactive gesture” to that which “actively [seeks] to establish or redefine spaces of shared social experience.”26Ibid., 319.

The cinema’s capability to “establish [a] space of shared social experience” could be one of the reasons why the use of film and video dominates the representation of migration among contemporary artists today. In Khalili’s case, the formal restrictions of The Mapping Journey Project highlight the shared social experience between migrants of different nationalities and with different trajectories of displacement; but it also creates a space for viewers to immerse themselves—for the duration of each video—in the inevitably social experience of the work’s narrators.

Fig. 6. Bouchra Khalili. The Mapping Journey Project. 2008–11. Eight-channel video (color, sound), duration variable. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Fund for the Twenty First Century, 2014. © 2016 Bouchra Khalili. Courtesy of the artist.

One of the distinct advantages of art-making in times of crisis is precisely its capacity for formal experimentation. In the case of urgent, transnational sociopolitical phenomena, such as migration, that deal in real lives and lived experiences, formal experimentation can offer a platform for ethical inquiries that go beyond the formulas and stereotypes of mainstream media, paving the way for new collective imaginaries. In an era of fake news and deep fakes, with distrust in traditional documentary forms at record highs, film and media art are well positioned to respond to our desire for truth and inclusivity, so long as they continue to experiment with the political relationship between content and form. The compelling effect of each migrant trajectory recorded in permanent marker in The Mapping Journey Project suggests that ethically minded documentary representations may be moving away from straightforward observational strategies toward more abstracted forms, which perhaps counterintuitively, offer more intimate ways of knowing the world. 

More in this theme

Subscribe to our newsletter

Related Content

Rubem Valentim and Ibrahim El-Salahi: Strategies of Hybridization and Abstraction in the Global South

The essay analyzes the resonances between the Brazilian artist Rubem Valentim and the Sudanese artist Ibrahim El-Salahi by focusing on two paintings belonging to MoMA’s collection. Deploying hybridized semiotics and different strands of painterly abstraction, the artists critically express their stance towards race, nationhood, and universal human values.

Modern Art in the Arab World: Primary Documents – Art and Arab Life, a Questionnaire

“Where do our arts stand with regard to the consciousness that is blossoming in the Arab nation?” This question was posed in 1956 in a questionnaire on “Art and Arab Life” that was circulated to artists in Lebanon, Iraq, Egypt, and Syria in a special issue devoted to the arts of the Arab world of the Beirut-based, pan-Arab journal al-Adab, which was established in 1953 as an outlet for politically engaged thought and cultural analysis.

Modern Art in the Arab World: Primary Documents – On the Concept of Painting and the Plastic Language

In Morocco in the mid-1960s, the National School of Fine Arts in Casablanca offered a new cohort of avant-garde thinkers—including artists Farid Belkahia, Mohammed Chebaa, and Mohammed Melehi—a platform for developing new models of decolonized, integrated artistic practice. Such an agenda is set forth in this position statement written by Chebaa on the occasion of the three-person Belkahia, Chebaa, and Melehi exhibition at the Mohammed V Theatre gallery in Rabat.