Bodies in diaspora: Mere Phantoms’ shadow art highlights the refugee crisis

Playing with light and shadow, Surrey Art Gallery’s new exhibition Mere Phantoms: Shadows Without Borders is an interactive show that explores human displacement and memories of home.

“One of the installations in the exhibition invites visitors to pick up custom flashlights and shine the light against tableaus of handmade paper-cut-out sculptures. The shadows from these projections are then cast onto the semi-opaque tents for other visitors both inside and outside the tent to experience,” says Jordan Strom, curator at the Surrey Art Gallery.

Years ago, says Strom, the gallery received a proposal by the Montreal art collective Mere Phantoms (the art duo Maya Ersan and Jaimie Robson), for a moving artwork about the refugee crisis. But the COVID-19 pandemic delayed the invitation. Finally an updated version of the show invites viewers to discuss one of the most urgent issues of this century – displacement – in a way that is multilayered, collaborative with the audience, and open-ended.

“Here in Surrey, these artists are creating a space for dialogue, to share stories and build understanding in a city where many of the residents have moved from elsewhere (in some cases by force),” Strom points out.

Memory and interactive spaces: collapsing boundaries between the work and the audience

The exhibition uses shadowplay, a shadow projection tent, and custom-made flashlights to explore the relationship between memory and architecture, people and place. It showcases some of the works created collectively by Mere Phantoms during a journey through Athens and Istanbul in 2018.

Mere Phantoms uses shadowplay to explore the relationship between memory and architecture, people and place, showcasing some of the works created collectively during a journey through Athens and Istanbul in 2018. | Photo by Leila Shifteh and Harun Yasin Tuna

According to Strom, in many ways the results of this interaction with the audience are a kind of low-tech cinema, harkening back to shadow play on the walls of caves of early humankind right through to the many world traditions of shadow theater and contemporary new media animation.

Shadows Without Borders, he says, stands apart from most other approaches to refugee crises. It invites the visitors to engage physically with and think through the experience of others-in-flight from their home countries. At the same time, they might consider their own experiences of movement or the experiences of their ancestors – whether forced or otherwise – from homes and homelands.

“The Surrey Art Gallery has a long-running and deep-seated interest in interactivity and artworks that invite collaboration with visitors to the gallery. We find that play and hands-on participation in artmaking can make for very engaging ways for thinking through ideas and stories,” Strom explains. “It can collapse the boundaries between the artwork, the artist, and the audience.”

Diaspora and human displacement: arts as politics

By exploring the results of an artistic field research conducted with refugees in Greece and Turkey, and showcasing it in Canada, Shadows without Borders encompases a number of distinct cultural and political statements about bodies in diaspora.

Several key sections of the exhibition include creations that are derived from workshops with refugee communities in Athens and Istanbul, including a diverse array of Syrian, Afghan, Pakistani, Iranian, and Kurdish family members.

“By co-producing the experience of displacement through shadow-play, the exhibition can potentially create space for Lower Mainland to open up a window onto the gravity of events and journeys that many peoples have experienced,” says Strom. “For others, it might help them think through the complex issues behind many of these families’ struggles, and reveal the strength of the imagination and memory to assist in dealing with the often-traumatic experience of having to leave one’s home and homeland”.

Strom believes that all works of art are political – some dealing with more politically charged subjects of their times while others less so. In his opinion, although the exhibition certainly provokes the audience politically, it is not exclusively a show about the refugee crisis, but a relatable invitation to think about being displaced from homes and homelands.

Mere Phantoms: Shadows Without Borders runs June 3–Aug. 14, 2022.

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