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The Museum of Fine Arts Addresses the Refugee Crisis

By: Ann Cernek

In conjunction with the opening of the Michal and Renata Hornstein Pavilion for Peace, the Museum of Fine Arts is featuring two exhibits: Conflict by Adel Abdessemed and No Pasara by Leila Alaoui. Located in adjacent rooms, one installation features photographs while the other is made up of black chalk drawings. Both stimulate a consideration of the experiences of war refugees and those fighting to leave their homelands.

“No Pasara” by Leila Alaoui.

Leila Alaoui was a French-Moroccan photographer and video artist who travelled the world documenting the experiences of those displaced by war and attempting to leave their homes for a better life. She was killed during a trip to Burkina Faso in 2016, a casualty of an Al-Qaida attack on the capital city of Ouagadougou.

No Pasara was the product of her 2008 travels through Morocco, which saw her start inland and then make her way to the port cities of Tangier and Nador. The project gets its title from the popular anti-fascist phrase “¡No Pasarán!” (“they shall not pass”), dating back to the Spanish Civil War. Alaoui followed the journeys of those that hoped to leave northern Africa for Europe. She met with young Moroccans throughout the country and even boarded three harragas (the name given to makeshift boats attempting to travel from northern Africa to Europe illegally), none of which completed the journey. The 24 photographs at the MBAM feature children and young adults: those with the strongest hopes of escaping.

The characters in Alaoui’s photographs are at home. Young men are pictured shirtless, standing on ruins overlooking the sea or at the top of a pile of trash. There is surprisingly little movement in Alaoui’s images. What is most striking is the characters’ calm, dream-like trances despite their convictions to escape. One boy is pictured wearing a Spanish soccer jersey, another is looking out to the blue sea, “FRANCE” sprawled across the back of his shirt.

The French-Algerian Adel Abdessemed’s Conflict is right next door. This work is made up of 31 life size, black chalk drawings of military figures and one drawing of a naked, screaming figure. These drawings completely cover the four walls of the room, forcing any who enter to be completely surrounded.

The often repetitive, messy chalk strokes and handprints left on the drawings exude the graphic and gruesome reality of war. Despite a certain haziness in the figures, the background of each drawing remains blank, reminding the viewer just how alien military forces can be.

“Napalm Girl”, image courtesy of http://abcnews.go.com/blogs/headlines/2012/06/the-historic-napalm-girl-pulitzer-image-marks-its-40th-anniversary/ .

“Cri” by Adel Abdessemed.

Among these dozens of imposing soldiers is one, more poignant drawing entitled Cri. This small, naked figure’s visible screaming counters the soldiers’ inexpressiveness. The viewer is immediately reminded of Nick Ut’s “Napalm Girl”, a photograph taken during the Vietnam War. Abdessemed’s message becomes clear: unlike Alaoui’s subjects―through whom we discover the landscape―Abdessemed’s ghost-like soldiers overrun the room, their blank backgrounds proof of the destruction they have caused.

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