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PARIS — Just outside the gates of the National Museum of the History of Immigration, an enormous, dreamy-faced, freestyle swimmer surges from the ground. Diadji Diop’s sculpture, “Dans le bonheur” (2009), plays on the expression “swimming in happiness,” or the very image of happiness. Such happiness, and the political, geographic, and mortal challenges to it — in a year when an estimated 3,771 immigrants died crossing the Mediterranean — generated the exhibition Frontières (till July 3, part of the nationwide Autour de Frontières series, which continues through October).
“Borders are imaginary lines,” explains Shahab Rassouli in a video interview, one of many with immigrants of recent and long standing. Frontières explores the elusive, forbidding, promising zones called borders, not to entrench them, but to shatter the illusion of their inevitability. Even walls — Hadrian’s Wall, the Berlin Wall, and the 50 national border walls now existent — are only temporary, porous provisions against migration. The show collapses geographic and temporal distances, uniting the World War II cartoons drawn by Tomi Ungerer as a boy in Alsace (a region contested for centuries by France and Germany) with an illustration (2011, ink on amate paper) from José Manuel Mateo and Javier Martínez Pedro’s children’s book Migrant, which maps a young man’s journey from Mexico to the US, its style evoking comic books and 18th-century Mexican votive paintings. Like Simona Koch’s video “Borders” (2010), whose pencil drawings and erasures animate Europe’s outlines, these works present borders as cartographic, legal projections onto land and water — and also onto paper, in the form of artworks, maps, passports, applications, and cardboard shelters.
Barthélémy Toguo’s prints made with the nearby wooden visa stamps in the shapes of human busts, “Carte de séjour, Mamadou, France, Clandestin” (2010), introduce an archive of border documents: from the French Revolution’s abolition of domestic passports, to the recruitment of African and Asian immigrant workers and soldiers during the World Wars, to the deportation of Jewish citizens, to the dissolution of barriers within Europe’s Schengen Zone. There’s a circa-1900 photo postcard of Serbian Romani people expelled from France but stopped at the German border, and the Cold War visa welcoming Rudolf Nureyev to France. Frontières historicizes the drawing, traversing, and demolition of boundaries, locating contemporary pro- and anti-immigrant “Fortress Europe” rhetoric within its original context, the Nazi occupation of continental Europe. (Heinrich Himmler said in 1943, “The fortress of Europe with its frontiers must be held and will be held too, as long as it is necessary.”) History itself challenges the nostalgia for closed borders.
Laetitia Tura’s photos of Tunisian beaches, Disparitions (2012), memorialize travelers whose bodies wash ashore and are buried in communal graves. If borders have always been geopolitical fictions, the selective deployment of capital and arms still menaces certain people seeking to cross them. The Mediterranean exemplifies the paradox of borders’ ephemerality and violence: here, boundaries are at their most fluid, yet more surveillance forces guard this sea than any other body of water on earth. Castaways clutch a lifesaver in the Quai 36 collective’s mural “Mare
Nostrum Mortuum” (2015), which references the sea’s Latin name and the Italian navy’s 2013 to 2014 search-and-rescue operation. Charles Heller and Lorenzo Pezzani’s video “Liquid Traces” (2014), with animations by Samaneh Moafi and Manuel Jimenez Garcia, documents the 2011 case of the “left-to-die boat”: after departing Libya with 72 passengers, the boat drifted for 14 days in the NATO surveillance area, monitored by ships, military aircraft, radar, and satellites; all but nine passengers died. The film combines interviews with survivors with surveillance data “repurposed as evidence of guilt,” focusing its gaze upon the watchers. And upon museum visitors: the film plays in a niche eerily reminiscent of the EU surveillance post shown in Julian Röder’s Mission and Task (2012) photos. Databases and tracking devices are the increasingly virtual, but no less deadly, weapons of contemporary border defense. Against that exercise of massive, invisible power, the exhibition offers Bruno Boudjelal’s “Harragas” (2011), which compiles recordings by North African immigrants crossing the sea by boat, using only their phones for GPS navigation — and as witnesses to their passage.
Photographs reveal how both authorities and detainees redraw borders as liminal, literally marginalizing zones, where people are stopped and forced to wait — as at European airports, often located deep inside national borders, yet legally exempted from the barrier-free Schengen Area. Martine Derain and Dalila Mahdjoub’s poster, “Numéro 9, Toujours la même histoire” (1999), maps the immigrant detention centers in France. For Modern Odyssey (2001–04), Sarah Caron photographed immigrants arriving on Mediterranean islands whose economies relied on welcoming travelers of a different sort: tourists. Bruno Serralongue’s photos of Calais after the 2002 closure of the Red Cross camp there show the tarp and scrap shelters built by refugees (“Abris #3, #5, #7,” 2006–08), like those newly arising after March’s camp razing.
Frontières opened two months before the November terror attacks in Paris, after which France reinstated border controls. The exhibition connects the urgency of current events to the long view of force, fear, welcome, and selection at borders; the history’s implicit even in the setting. The Museum, which was founded in 2007, occupies the Palais de la Porte Dorée, a grand, colonnaded, Art Deco hall built for the Paris Colonial Exhibition of 1931. To celebrate the colonial breaching of international borders, Alfred Janniot’s exterior bas reliefs depicted French ships hauling in the wealth extracted by African, Asian, and Caribbean laborers: sugar, chocolate, rubber, lumber, copper, and gold. One wall of the Palais salutes explorers and conquerors, including the Crusader Raymond IV of Toulouse, who rampaged through present-day Turkey, Lebanon, and Syria. The museum repurposes all this imperial triumphalism to celebrate immigrants. One poignant intervention is the collaged map drawn by Mathieu Pernot on school notebooks (“Les cahiers afghans,” 2012). It’s a collaborative work charting the voyage from Afghanistan to Turkey, Germany, and finally Paris of Jawad, a young refugee, who said, “I want to stay in France, because it’s the country of liberty and human rights.”