Harnessing Visibility and Invisibility through Arts Practices: Ethnographic Case Studies with Migrant Performers in Belgium
What matters in the determination of which is art is political, and indeed its meaning overall, is the intention of the artist, the reception of the audience, the sociocultural and historical context, and a host of other factors (Roy 2010; Becker 1982). This often makes it difficult to determine how/whether art is political.Rap in its infancy was considered to be ‘party music’ with no political significance or aim, but as it evolved it took forms that were explicitly/obviously political. […] to dismiss rappers who do not choose so-called ‘political’ subjects as ‘having no politically resistive meaning’ requires ignoring the complex web of institutional policing to which all rappers are subject.
3. Arts to Be Visible
3.1. Liege, A “Welcoming City”
3.2. La Voix des Sans-Papiers de Liège
“Sans-papiers were around ten […] we occupied the building, it is there [in Sclessin, a neighbourhood of Liege] that the occupation started […]. During the first days the soutiens10 managed to bring food, volunteers connected the water, they set electricity on, they took boilers, they did all that was needed to occupy the building”.(Salim, recorded on 30 January 2018)11
These words are similar to De Genova’s (2002) theory about the legal production of illegality, and how people begin to claim their rights by re-appropriating “illegal status”. Such rights consist of the authorization to live in Belgium and access to the civic liberties that are associated with this.“After a month […] because if we want to create an effective [social] movement we have to organize meetings, […] we made the meetings of the collective. […] we were united for a cause. […] [so that] the sans-papiers as such could assume their status and claim it high and loud and say: ‘I am a sans-papiers’, because it is not a crime. […] people hide themselves because they are sans-papiers. […] but it’s the system that makes you a sans-papiers, and if you really want to fight against this, you have first to start diagnosing [diagnostiquer in French] yourself”.(Salim, recorded on 30 January 2018)
3.3. Claiming Existence
“I was so upset when they said: ‘oh poor people, poor people’, it’s always us the ‘poor people’. When we are in need, we can ask for some help… for me, help is necessary, but help must lead to freedom. Help cannot be permanent, help can lead to do without help. […] they want us to be dependent. […] actually, the fight of the sans-papiers has been taken in pincers [prise en tenaille, in French]”.(Salim, recorded 30 January 2018)
Through narrating her migration experience, this woman describes the deception of the expectations that she had before leaving her country of origin as well as the motivations that push her to fight for her rights—the civic rights connected with receiving a residence permit through regularization.“I want to add something, some memories about Belgium, when I came, I was relieved, I thought I had found… […] where I had my rights, my freedom. But I was wrong, […] after the negative answer [about refugee status request] I found myself as someone who has no right, no freedom, but I learnt with my family that you need to fight to go forward, I always fight to go forward, and I still have good memories. When I will have my rights, my freedom of saying what I think, my freedom of doing what I want, […] I always fight to have this. With the problems of not having documents, we learn how to help each other, […] we always have the hope…”.(Fieldnotes, 20 May 2018)
In the garden, a tree was decorated with some “questions without answers” (Figure 3a), such as:“Life becomes for oneself as a globe that turns around itself. In this world, everyone must live without obstructing the life of the others. In this world, there are so many people that live in an incredible precariousness, and all this is caused by the others’ wickedness. In this world, and more precisely in Belgium, there exist people, migrants, men, women, children, in illegal situation, called sans-papiers, that struggle to find a vital space”.(Idem.)
“Why so little sharing of our richness? Why so little welcome to men and women that escape from their countries because they are hungry, because they are persecuted? Why Belgium does not give papers? Why isn’t there free circulation of people? Why seven years in Belgium without documents? Why I miss my family? Why and how will we put things in order in this unfair world? How can we live together? To whom asking help? To what all this is useful? How to get out of this suffering? Where do we go after this long struggle? When and how the end will come?”.(Idem.)
- Do you have something to say?
- I am tired.
- Why are you tired Toni?
- I am illegal in Belgium.
- Explain me.
- I am a sans-papiers.
- OK, so this [the nose] is the symbol of sans-papiers? (Fieldnotes, 30 March 2018).
Once on the stage, the new character (the clown) can reverse hierarchies and power dynamics through capitalizing on difference and stigma as evidence of existence. As Goffman puts it, the humor of the stigmatized makes him a “half-hero” who “is made to guilelessly outwit a normal of imposing status” (Goffman 2009, p. 108). Some individuals, who are legally excluded from the society, create places where they can perform their life and find their voice through artistic performance. Through humor in particular, the artist can express a social critique (Gilbert 2004), thus re-positioning her or himself as an active actor in the society. From this position, undocumented migrants re-acquire a degree of freedom in a social space where the borders of social categories fade. The performance of subordination and marginalization gives visibility to these processes and to the status that derives from them.“Breathe deeply from your nose, close your eyes, and as a puppet, we cut the threads [the actor sitting on a chair leaves his/her arms and bust fall to the floor]. When you are completely relaxed, you wear the nose […]. You lift your head with your eyes closed, and when you open your eyes, everything will be possible, except what is normal”.(Fieldnotes, 26 April 2018)15
4. Arts to Be Invisible
4.1. Superdiverse Brussels
4.2. Music Groups as Sanctuaries: The Case of Undocumented Migrants in a Brussels Church
4.3. Belonging without Politics? The Case of the Roma Music Group
Because members were often coming and going, it is impossible to say exactly how many members of the Brussels Balkan Review there actually were and from which backgrounds, but in addition to Roma members, there were people from many immigrant, non-immigrant, European and non-European backgrounds.With this project, [org. name] aims to generate more insight and understanding for the large Roma immigration from the Balkans to more economically successful countries like the Netherlands, Belgium and Germany. Only when you know why they came here and what the position of the Roma in their home countries is, can you properly understand the immigration of Roma. (…) The fact that this project is also supported and initiated by the Roma community, which heretofore was seen as a closed off community, makes this project remarkable.
In both the rehearsing and performing, it seemed that the participants felt a sense of security in their belonging to the group. Even for the researcher, who was not familiar with the songs and types of music the group performed, the practice of performing together in the group brought back memories of performing in choirs in the past. There was also no concern from the undocumented members of the group that the audiences might not be receptive or that there would be a lack of acceptance. The audiences who attended the concerts did appear to be quite mixed with many different languages being spoken, but a large portion of each audience were the friends and family of the performers, so it remains unclear if the organization reached its intended audience. In any case, the performances were always met with enthusiasm from the audience—the bigger concerts seeing people getting up and dancing to the music, some who knew the ‘traditional dances’ and some who clearly did not.…the primary effect of music is to give the listener a feeling of security, for it symbolizes the place where he was born, his earliest childhood satisfactions, his religious experience, his pleasure in community doings, his courtship and his work—any or all of these personality-shaping experiences.
This idea is significant when looking at immigrant artists who do not wish to be seen as ‘other’, and wish to ‘disappear’ into a group where their belonging is not questioned and they do not have to be part of a particular political aim.“I call this urban generation post-racial not because they have become colour-blind but because the traditional forms of categorization (racial, ethnic, gender, class, etc.) seem to lose salience in their daily peer group inter- actions. Their ethnic and racial identification do not orient the forms of inter-action and cooperation they develop with other urban youngsters. The shared artistic project is much more important than their alleged ethnic or racial identity”.
5. Concluding Remarks
Conflicts of Interest
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Or that are still undergoing, as far as asylum seekers are concerned.
Informed consent was always obtained prior to interviews and questions concerning participants’ past were not asked in order to avoid re-traumatization.
In fact, some members of the group also participated in preparing the researcher’s intervention in an artistic and scientific event by recording and editing a video showing some of their artistic workshops. See https://traverses.hypotheses.org/ (accessed on 17 January 2019), communication by Bertholet et al. (2018).
See the municipality official website at: https://www.liege.be/en/discover/tourism/discover-liege/history-of-liege (accessed on 16 March 2019).
See the Belgian government official statistics available at https://www.ibz.rrn.fgov.be/fileadmin/user_upload/fr/pop/statistiques/population-bevolking-20190101.pdf (accessed on 16 March 2019).
Such process is the object of a recent research project funded by the Belgian Federal Science Policy Office (BELSPO) and aimed at studying the “Public opinion, mobilisations and policies concerning asylum seekers and refugees in anti-immigrants times (Europe and Belgium)” (PUMOMIG). The ethnographic material presented in this paper and concerning migrants’ action in the city of Liege has been collected within the framework of this project.
See the website of the campaign at https://www.communehospitaliere.be/ (accessed on 17 January 2019).
Among them are the rights of “urgent medical care” (aide médicale urgente) and education.
Literarily meaning “supports”, this term is used by the members of the VSP to name those Belgian citizens who mobilize to help with the actions implemented by the VSP and that gather in what is called the “support committee”. This group also mediate with institutional and other local actors when direct interlocution with undocumented migrants is precluded for several—logistic, strategic or constraining—reasons.
All names used for research participants are aliases.
However, the city later sold the buildings to a private owner. The occupants were not evicted, but relocation is needed urgently and is being negotiated as we write this article.
Le parcours d’artistes à Cointe.
These words are from the professional actor guiding the theatre workshops.
Theo Francken, Nieuw-Vlaamse Alliantie (N-VA). No relevant changes, as far as the approach to migration issues is concerned, occurred in spite of his recent resignation and his replacement by Maggie De Block, Open VLD, already mentioned above in this article.
© 2019 by the authors. Licensee MDPI, Basel, Switzerland. This article is an open access article distributed under the terms and conditions of the Creative Commons Attribution (CC BY) license (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/).
Damery, S.; Mescoli, E. Harnessing Visibility and Invisibility through Arts Practices: Ethnographic Case Studies with Migrant Performers in Belgium. Arts 2019, 8, 49. https://doi.org/10.3390/arts8020049
Damery S, Mescoli E. Harnessing Visibility and Invisibility through Arts Practices: Ethnographic Case Studies with Migrant Performers in Belgium. Arts. 2019; 8(2):49. https://doi.org/10.3390/arts8020049Chicago/Turabian Style
Damery, Shannon, and Elsa Mescoli. 2019. "Harnessing Visibility and Invisibility through Arts Practices: Ethnographic Case Studies with Migrant Performers in Belgium" Arts 8, no. 2: 49. https://doi.org/10.3390/arts8020049