LISBON — A dark, solemn space is illuminated by two glowing projections in On Exile, a documentary project by Portuguese intermedia artist José Carlos Teixeira, on display at the Museu de Arte, Arquitetura e Tecnologia (MAAT). The first throws light down from above onto a plinth, presenting pages from a book titled The Refugee, written in 1957 by a German-Lithuanian philosopher named K.C. Cirtautas.
Teixeira has long been interested in “issues of home, belonging or not belonging.” I spoke with him at MAAT, where he was celebrating the launch of a book on his work. “I had begun to develop this project on the theme of refugees, and I was looking for some reference materials, so I went to that section of the library. All of a sudden I found all this amazing literature, and this specific book, which was not a book of data or statistics, was not a book from an NGO, or from 2005 — it was written in 1957, mostly about Jewish immigrants post-World War II, and it was a sociological survey.”
The Refugee became a framing device for Teixeira’s film, which documents the stories of 14 refugees living in Cleveland, where he began to develop the project while in residence at SPACES. The refugees were displaced from their home countries, including Somalia, Iraq, Syria, and the Sudan; some have been in the United States for a decade or more, having established their own businesses and expanded their families, while others are much more recent transplants, still struggling to get a grasp on the language and the culture.
“It was challenging at first to narrow down the scope of my search,” said Teixeira. “When I started investigating communities of refugees, I realized, this is vast.” For the project, Teixeira worked closely with the US Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, just one of several NGOs that are active in Cleveland. According to statistics presented by Refugees Services Collaborative of Greater Cleveland, since 2008, Northeast Ohio has received more than 2,500 refugees, most from areas of conflict across the world, including Africa, Southeast Asia, and the Middle East. Most recent refugees are arriving from Bhutan, Burma, Iraq, and Somalia. Approximately 500 to 700 refugees now arrive in Cleveland annually.
Over the course of a year, Teixeira began to assemble his cohort and build a rapport with them. “Someone introduced me to this Syrian lawyer and Syrian doctor, who are not refugees, but live and work in Cleveland and are in contact with refugees,” said Teixeira, “and all of a sudden, around me, this network of love started growing, because they wanted me to meet the families.”
This work comprises the second aspect of the installation, and is the main focal point of the exhibition: a 70-minute documentary that cobbling together Teixeira’s interviews with the refugees. People speak of their homeland, as the film presents close, unwavering shots of their faces. A woman in a bright blue hijab sings a song from Somalia. A girl and her mother discuss the conditions that caused their family to flee Iraq. Subjects touch on topics that are, perhaps, to be expected in the context of a refugee story: persecution, fear, danger, lost family members, uncertainty, homesickness, longing, and disorientation. But just as often, there is hope, gratitude, and positivity about the new life they’ve found in the United States.
Throughout the film we return to ambiguous shots of a body of water, which is, in fact, the part of Lake Erie that connects with Cleveland, but serves as a proxy for any and all water passage, so often a component of refugee tales. While the work is very much grounded in these individuals’ current stories, On Exile makes clear that the history of refugees is a long one.
The status of refugees is obviously a very au currant topic in the United States and Europe, even though Portugal hasn’t been as hostile as some of its neighbors, like Greece and Italy, volunteering to resettle up to 10,000 people in 2015. For this reason, curator João Pinharanda, who initiated Teixeira’s involvement with MAAT and co-curated the exhibition with Ana Anacleto, thought that On Exile could present an important reminder that Lisbon’s ostensibly refugee-friendly culture is not the only refugee experience.
It is clear, in speaking with Teixeira, who has spent more than a decade divided between the United States and his place of birth, that he finds issues of immigration — whether voluntary or under extreme duress — to be exceedingly personal. “I feel that I share with them a vocabulary of loss, of distance, of difference, of integration or lack thereof, longing, self-doubt — even the difficulties of language,” said Teixeira. “I could feel so many of these things with them. Intellectualism is there, but my interest in refugees doesn’t come from a place of external investigation. It’s very much subjective, it’s very much personal for me.”
Teixeira eschews the traditional artifice of the distant documentarian, such as when he literally inserts The Refugee into the frame, asking his interview subjects to page through the book. The gesture is an act of solidarity. As much as this book represents a wider context for the state of the refugee, it is also clear that it struck a real chord with Teixeira, an encounter he wishes to share not only with his audience, but with his subjects.
On Exile continues at the Museu de Arte, Arquitetura e Tecnologia (MAAT) (Av. Brasília, 1300-598 Lisbon) through February 5. The project is also on view at Madison Museum of Contemporary Art (227 State St, Madison, Wisconsin) through May 20.
MAAT provided travel support and accommodations for the author.