Review of Safe European Home?

With the current political climate, social movements have triggered concerns regarding forms of living. Art has not been the exception, and in fact artists have extended the limits of art itself to zones by replacing traditional art materials with social relationships. The realm of art has become a neutral space to think about and discuss the existing state of affairs. On this occasion, Art Exchange gives us the opportunity to reflect upon the unprecedented migrant and refugee movement across Europe by presenting Safe European Home?, an exhibition by the British artists Damian and Delaine Le Bas. Damian and Delaine Le Bas are a husband and wife artistic duo with different cultural backgrounds. Damian is an Irish Traveller and Delaine an English Romany; by taking distinct approaches in their work and combining their talent, they achieve a very decorative ‘folklorist’ aesthetic – thereby exploring society’s cultural stereotypes about the traveller communities.

As we enter into the gallery space to experience the uniqueness and diversity of each of their styles, we witness a certain harmony and coherence within their art. Damian Le Bas’s cartographic interventions are displayed on the left wall of the room. His works deal mainly with issues of borders and containment. Delaine’s textiles, banners and an ephemeral structure sit alongside Damian’s painted maps, creating an environment that allows us to consider the precariousness of life on the periphery. In the center of the room, the artists have provided a small library where we can sit down and acquire further information about the historical positioning of Roma within the European contexts.

The ongoing project Safe European Home? initially created in 2009 explores the following  themes what is a safe European home? Can we actually talk about a secure environment within the current political situation and existing migration and refugee crisis across Europe?  What would it take to create a truly safe European home? Is there actual safety for anybody? Can we actually consider a world without discrimination and racism? Is there such thing as equality? Named after the famous anti-racist song “Safe European Home” by The Clash, which was part of the Rock Against Racism campaign during the late 1970s in the UK, Safe European Home? is conceived as an artistic and educational platform where different conversations take place to reflect upon  the notion of the nation-state and the current migration and refugee crisis in Europe.  The project opens up a neutral space where people are invited to think about our social status in terms of mobility and voluntary or forced displacement within the continent and to ponder on the potential of new ways of living.

The project was first initiated outside the parliament in Vienna, and subsequently it has been travelling across different European cities such as Berlin, Copenhagen, Dublin and Thessaloniki. Adapting their work to each specific location, the artists create a very simple and unsophisticated structure assembled from whatever pre-existing materials they find there. Some of the main objectives of their endeavour are to inform the public by raising awareness on problems of racism and discrimination issues, to point out the ratification of borders, and to deconstruct the fiction of otherness in contemporary Europe. Personally, I believe that contemporary art should be socially engaged and it must address the current socio-political issues. Damian and Delaine Le Bas tackle a challenging subject matter; nonetheless, at a formal level their endeavour does not depict the importance and urgency of the problem in question. Damian’s technique might be perceived as accessible, naïve and simplistic, many of the symbols portrayed have relevant significations linked to their community –yet they remain hidden to our knowledge as spectators. Whereas Delaine’s approach appears to be more effective, without her performative presence the artwork loses its informative and educational potency – as a result we are confronted to a futile ramshackle installation.

The exhibition is associated with this year’s Essex Book Festival, whose writer-in-residence is Damian and Delaine’s son, Damian James Le Bas. As part of the Safe European Home? project Damian James will “occupy” a space at the University of Essex from the 16th to 18th of March. He will live in his blue van for three days and will interact with the campus community in order to invite them to take part in discussions about migration and marginality.

 

Ana Varra Ibarra

PhD candidate, School of Philosophy and Art History

March 2016

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