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'Persona Grata': Paris contemporary art expo shines a light on migrants' welcome

Ludovic Marin, AFP | A man visits the ‘Persona Grata’ exhibit at the National Museum of the History of Immigration on October 15, 2018, in Paris.

Amid the drumbeat of headlines on the migrant crisis, a new joint contemporary art expo at two museums astride Paris's perimeter ring road is a refreshing step back, a moody meditation on migrants’ experience and the notion of hospitality.


Dynamic, vibrant, and ambitious in scope, Persona Grata is the first collaborative expo between the Musée national de l'histoire de l'immigration, just inside Paris’s eastern edge, and the MAC VAL contemporary art museum in Vitry-sur-Seine, 7.5 km south of the French capital. It brings together the work of more than 70 artists in pieces monumental and tiny, unsettling or droll, in a vivid inquiry on departures and, in particular, arrivals. Persona Grata runs through January 20.

More than the upheaval of the journey, with its dreamy hopes and raw fears that mark a human being indelibly, Persona Grata reflects on the welcome that contemporary migrants are apt to receive. "You just have to open the newspaper, turn on the TV [to find stories of migration]," says Hélène Orain, Director General of the Palais de la Porte Dorée, which houses Paris’s immigration history museum. "But they are mainly treated as drama, or as dramas: Of the Mediterranean, of exile, etc. And they must be treated that way because it is sometimes very difficult," Orain tells FRANCE 24. "But what we observe are the questions migration issues pose about our fundamental values in Western societies, and in particular this issue of hospitality."

In Ancient Times, Persona Grata argues, newcomers enjoyed hospitality as a matter of custom. But the contemporary artists featured in the expo highlight a marked slide toward inhospitality, even outright hostility. Some of the most affecting pieces featured seem at first benign, even welcoming or joyful, only to prove disquieting on closer scrutiny.

Take the Claire Fontaine collective’s "Untitled (French Monochrome Black/Grey/Red"): An imposing take on the French tricolour in security paint “that never dries", a tool of dissuasion meant to mark people scaling walls or fences as intruders. Then there is “Hospitalité”, Latifa Echakhch's poetic re-purposing of the boiler plate in French immigration paperwork. Based in France and Switzerland, the Moroccan-born Echakhch has carved "Space to be filled by the foreigner" into an otherwise blank, white gallery wall, giving the administrative phrase a surreal poignancy out of context. Romanian-born Mircea Cantor's monumental "Rainbow", meanwhile, elicits joy from a distance with its seven familiar colours gracing glass panels. But draw closer and it becomes clear the bands of colour, impressed with fingerprints, are meant to look like barbed wire.

Persona Grata touches, too, on migrants' own ambivalence in the face of their ambivalent eldorados, their uncertain new homes. Chinese-born, Paris-based Xie Lei's dual self-portrait "Me and I" shows one foggy figure alongside a second one, nearly erased. Emily Jacir's "Embrace", for its part, is a circular airport baggage carrousel, a self-portrait of its own since its diameter exactly matches the artist's height (1m79cm). The closed-circuit carrousel turns round and round on itself, no on-ramp or off-ramp, in a sober comment on the plight of the Palestinian Jacir’s refugee compatriots.

The two museums insist that Persona Grata is not meant to “take a stance in favour or against the welcome of migrants". But in the age of Trump, migrant-wary Brexiteers, far-right electoral gains in Europe and the sight of the migrant rescue ship Aquarius desperately seeking a port of call for its vulnerable human cargo, asking the question of hospitality towards migrants is, in some sense, to begin to answer it.

Of course, the same can be said of the Musée national de l'histoire de l'immigration itself. Housed in the Palais de la Porte Dorée, the museum turned the initial rationale for the site on its head. Built for the massive Colonial Exposition of 1931 -- for which 33 million tickets were sold over the course of the six-month event -- the Art Deco building was meant to glorify French colonial conquest at its height. Bas-reliefs on the building’s façade and frescoes inside reflect that original purpose. But while the polemical artwork remains today, the Musée national de l’histoire de l’immigration opened in 2007 with a radically different raison d'être: “To assemble, preserve, showcase and make accessible the history of immigration in France” and recognize the “role of immigration in the construction of France by showing migrants' contribution to the economic development, societal progress and cultural life of the country."

Perhaps predictably, the museum’s short history has been punctuated by politics. A Jacques Chirac campaign promise during his presidential re-election bid in 2002, the project seemed all the more pertinent after Chirac saw off his surprise opponent, anti-immigrant rabble-rouser Jean-Marie Le Pen, in that election’s shock finale. But by the time the museum opened five years later, Nicolas Sarkozy had succeeded Chirac, winning France’s highest office with tough talk on immigration. When Sarkozy made good on a campaign promise to create a Ministry of Immigration and National Identity, a pairing that sat poorly with progressives and scholars, many of the historians associated with the freshly opened immigration museum quit in protest. In that context, the museum would have to wait until 2014 for a French president to officially inaugurate it. Sarkozy’s Socialist successor François Hollande did the honours seven years after its opening.

The MAC VAL, for its part, is a space with an entirely different feeling, a 21st century construction with vast, bright spaces open on a lush sculpture garden. Built to showcase the suburban Val-de-Marne department’s significant contemporary art collection, it sits in Vitry-sur-Seine, a Paris suburb replete with housing projects and a rich history of migration, making it an altogether pertinent co-setting for Persona Grata.

Mona Hatoum's 'Suspendu'
Mona Hatoum's 'Suspendu' A woman takes a picture of the artwork ‘Suspendu’ by artist Mona Hatoum during the ‘Persona Grata’ expo at MAC VAL on October 15, 2018, Vitry-sur-Seine, France. Ludovic Marin, AFP

A case in point: Mona Hatoum’s “Suspendu”, an installation made up of 40 playground swings created while the Beirut-born Palestinian was an artist in residence at the MAC VAL in 2009 and 2010. Each swing’s seat is etched with a city map gleaned from the hometowns of newcomers Hatoum crossed paths with in Vitry-sur-Seine. Also featured in the MAC VAL portion of Persona Grata are legendary humanist photographer Sabine Weiss’s 1986 images of smiling children, asylum seekers in an NGO shelter not far from the site, that give the exhibit a sense of place.

Indeed, lending a sense of place to sometimes literally uncharted locations, like Calais’s so-called Jungle, or acknowledging migrants’ existences despite their transient realities is an underlying theme of Persona Grata. On a wall of the MAC VAL, Richard Bacquié’s 1989 sculpture “Nulle part est un endroit” proclaims in large lettering “Nowhere is a place”. Upstairs, Julien Discrit’s 2008 work “What is Not Visible is Not Invisible” makes that initially imperceptible phrase, written in invisible ink, appear when a motion sensor triggers an array of black lights against a white wall.

"It's obviously an engaged expo with a point of view: That it is better to be hospitable than inhospitable. But at the same time, it isn't an exhibit that is clear cut. It poses questions", Orain tells FRANCE 24. "What does hospitality mean? What does it imply from us? How do our societies as a whole commit, or not, on this issue? What questions does it stir up for migrants themselves? Will they stay? Will they settle? Will they leave?" she says. "The expo means to suggest that we must each ask ourselves these questions and ponder them collectively."

Persona Grata, jointly presented by the Musée national de l’histoire de l’immigration, 293 avenue Daumesnil in Paris’s 12th arrondissement, and the MAC VAL – Musée d’art contemporain du Val-de-Marne, Place de la Libération in Vitry-sur-Seine, runs from October 16 to January 20.

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