Refugees confront the past through art, at a pop-up museum

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AMSTERDAM—In 2010 Latif Mukasa, an artist and gay-rights activist from Uganda, was forced into hiding after his name and photograph were printed in a newspaper’s list of  “Uganda’s 100 Top Homos” with the words “Hang Them”. When the police issued a warrant for his arrest, he escaped.

The artist Jan Hoek (center) with asylum seekers, Bacardi Zouberou (left) from Camaroon and Abdelaziz Americani Mamon with their project, Scooters Will Never Die, at the Temporary Museum in Amsterdam.

He managed to make his way to the Netherlands, where he was offered asylum-seeker housing—in a former prison complex. It was not ideal, but he was happy to be safe.

Last week Mukasa, 33, who is both an artist and a refugee, was guiding a group of visitors through the Temporary Museum, a pop-up exhibition inside the Bijlmerbajes in Amsterdam, another former prison that is now a center for asylum seekers, and where those who fled are presenting works that help the public understand their migrant experience.

The Temporary Museum, which opened on June 28 and will remain inside the building until January 1, 2018, aims to present new perspectives on migrants, an effort to break the isolation that newcomers often feel.  “This whole migrant situation—what they call a crisis—is for me much more than an article in a newspaper or an item on television,” said Nathalie Faber, director and curator of the Temporary Museum. “It’s all about people, and when you talk to people it’s so completely different. We have learned so much from doing it about how just to talk to each other and work with each other.”

Latif Mukasa, an artist and refugee from Uganda, sits with a visitor during a tour of the museum.

In a corner of a 4,300-square-foot exhibition space inside the former prison visitors’ center, Mukasa stopped in front of his own painting, The Gods of Africa, depicting a large clownesque figure hovering over a small group of stick figures, painted in hues of green. His work is one of a half dozen that are part of the installation APKAR (Artist Previously Known as Refugee) from 2017, all made by former refugees and curated by local Dutch artist Maze de Boer.

Surprised that the tour guide was also a painter, Saskia Leefsma, one of the visitors in the group, asked, “Do you have a studio now?” Mukasa admitted that no, this was the very first painting he’d made in a very long while because he had been suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.

“As time goes on, I hope I will find a voice again, and this is just a beginning,” he said.

The guide continued on to the next installation in the exhibition, a work called The Maquette of Dreams, by Lebanese-born artist Mounira Al Solh, a metal bed topped with a foam mattress taken from an asylum-seeker’s bedroom. Pasted onto the wall next to the bed were cards that visitors could open to read about the migrants’ dreams—and nightmares.  Mukasa sat down on the bed. “Please, have a seat,” he said, motioning to Leefsma to join him. Leefsma, who works as head of documentation for a museum in the nearby Dutch city of Utrecht, sat down and read one of the texts inside the cards: “My father is pregnant.”

“It felt curiously intimate, in a way, and I was very honored,” Leefsma said later. “What I found incredibly touching was that he was an artist from Uganda who hadn’t been able to work ever since his flight. It made me think about what it is to have no home.”

Their tour included about a dozen art installations. Teun Castelein, a traditional Syrian-style hammam (bathhouse) by artist Moe Al Masri, was being built inside a windowless isolation cellblock. A Brazilian artist, Mayra Sérgio, has filled the main exhibition hall with the scent of rose petals and chamomile for her work, To Break Ground (2017), which consists of dried herbal teas from Syria piled in heaps on large mountain-like ramps, then collected and boiled and served ritually to visitors in the main hall, as a way to remind asylum seekers of home.

Mukasa said he spent three years in a Utrecht facility that was very similar to the one at Bijlmerbajes, sleeping on a bed just like the one in Al Solh’s installation.

“In all that time I had no sense of how long it would be,” he told the tour group. “It would have been nice to have had a date, to be able to say: ‘In a year, I’ll be in a different place.’ But it’s hard, because every day you go outside and see everyone getting up and going to work and parents pushing strollers, and all you have is the hard walls of a cell. It’s about living for another day, and every day becomes the same day.”

But he said that bed became a haven for him, a place that gave him a great sense of security and peace. “I’d wake up from a nightmare and I’d find myself on that bed, and it was so relaxing,” he said. “It’s a single bed, a nice bed, and I can’t say it’s a bad bed. I’m still here.”

Mukasa was finally granted residency papers in the Netherlands, and he now has an apartment of his own in Amsterdam’s western Bos en Lommer neighborhood. He said being a tour guide at the Temporary Museum had given him a sense of purpose, but it sometimes stirred up those ghosts from his past.

“At first it was kind of hard,” he said. “But the more you do it, the more the ghosts run away.”

 

Image Credits: Ilvy Njiokiktjien/The New York Times



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