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Points of Departure: Photography of African Migrations

Points of Departure: Photography of African Migrations

21 October - 1 February 2015

Looking at the transatlantic slave trade and contemporary migration, photographers Hélène Amouzou, Mamadou Gomis and Judith Quax examine migration from West Africa.

Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts

How can a still image capture the movement of migration? How can the still image reflect the problems of (dis)connection, experienced by the migrants and the families they have left behind?

Migration is a major political concern of our time. More people than ever are on the move in search of a better future – but migrants who travel in pursuit of employment are sometimes seen by their hosts with ambiguity, accused of ‘stealing' jobs. It is a matter on every politician's mind.

But whilst we are increasingly concerned with policing our borders, rarely do we examine the complexities involved in the migration of people from low-income countries to high-income countries. We know little about the lives these migrants have given up, the hardships they have experienced on the move, the families they have left behind.  In the media, images of economic refugees risking their lives in small vessels convey their determination to reach fortress Europe. But where have their journeys started? For whom do they make this sacrifice?

Whilst most African migrants migrate to other African countries, many youth in pursuit of a future are tempted by the riches of Europe and take their chances. Embarking on hazardous journeys across the Mediterranean, some die at sea, others make it and live. The families left behind do not always know the fate of the dear ones who left. Quax's photographs record their absences – as experienced by the families they have left behind in Senegal, a country from which many men have migrated to France, Italy, and the United States.

Even when migrants make it to Europe many will live in conditions of social, legal and economic uncertainty for years to come. They will make ends meet, operating in a shadow economy. And whilst they increasingly manage to secure a new future, their past will start to slip away. Migrants are disconnected from their homeland, and may experience a crisis of identity. In her series of photography, Amouzou reflects on a condition she knows herself all too well.

Historically, migration helped African societies cope with drought, economic misfortune, and the political devastation of the slave trade. Today, many Africans view the social and economic upheavals this trade produced as an important reason for Africa's under-development. To commemorate the slave trade, tourists – including the descendants of slaves – visit the House of Slaves at Gorée Island (Senegal), which was for centuries a departure point for slave ships. In his work, Gomis observes how visitors explore this place, haunted by the spirits of the departed.

Exhibition curated by Ferdinand de Jong. Supported by the British Academy

Mamadou Gomis started his career as a studio photographer in a small Senegalese town. Establishing himself in the national capital Dakar, he began documenting everyday life in the big city. The newspaper le Journal published his series of daily snapshots, and he has photographed for AFP and Reuters. His work was included in the international exhibition Snap Judgements (2006), and has been shown in New York, Lagos, Cape Town, Johannesburg and Berlin. Gomis continues to document life in the cosmopolis of Dakar.

Judith Quax studied at the Photo Academy of Amsterdam. After several other projects, she chose to work on international migration from Senegal. Her work was published in Presence in Absence (2014) and the journals African Arts and Nka: Journal of Contemporary African Art. She has exhibited in Dakar, Lagos, Berlin and Amsterdam. Her current work focuses on the role of photograph albums in sustaining relations between migrants and their families back home. Working for Amnesty International, she continues to document international migration.

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