At first sight, it might seem futile to research the manifold links between migration, arts, and culture for at least two reasons. First, for the past 20 years, and even more so since the refugee reception crisis of 2015 (Rea et al., 2019), a lot of academic attention has focused on two issues. There is a focus on the growing number of migrants losing their lives in the crossing to Europe because of restrictive European migration policies. There is also growing attention for the inhuman conditions in the encampment of asylum seekers and migrants at points of entry to Europe, like Lesvos, or in the middle of Europe, like Calais. The dramatic human consequences of immigration and asylum policies have been a priority in migration research. One could say that studying the relations between arts and migration while people die at sea or freeze in camps is not only useless but may also be morally and ethically flawed. Second, most cultural, and artistic activities have been totally frozen since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. It would therefore not be the appropriate moment to explore the links between arts, culture, and migration.
Despite these considerations, I claim that it is as important as ever to research the links between arts, culture, and migration. Even though the artistic and cultural world have suffered immensely since the beginning of the pandemic, artistic and cultural activities have totally stopped only for a short period of time. In a recent ethnographic study on cultural participation in five districts of the canal zone in central Brussels, it has been shown that, after a short period of total cessation, some socio-cultural workers and artists have invented new ways to pursue activities, both on-line and sometimes outdoors. These activities have proven to be very important in combatting social isolation and in fostering solidarity between the inhabitants, migrants or not, living in the research area (Mescoli & Martiniello, 2021).
Furthermore, since March 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic has largely replaced migration and asylum at the top of the media agenda and as the most prominent issue in European political debates. Migrants and refugees are among those forgotten in the management of the global health crisis, which has further increased their precariousness and, all too often, their suffering. The solidarity practices developed by parts of the local populations in European countries have been hampered by the many measures taken to fight the spread of the virus (Martiniello & Mazzola, 2020). On the one hand, migrants and refugees on European territory must try to survive with very limited rights in a state of forced immobility on the fringes of the society. On the other hand, regular access routes to Europe are still restricted, forcing many candidates for asylum and migration to attempt the near-impossible. This means they try to reach Europe by sea via increasingly dangerous routes, for instance between the coast of Senegal and the Canary Islands. Clearly, the health crisis has not put an end to either the reception crisis of migrants in Europe, or to the migratory movements whose underlying causes (social, economic, political, etc.) remain. How, in this socially and economically difficult and politically tense context, does art allow us to talk about migration and migrants? Is there an art to talking about migration? The following two case-studies drawn from my research respond concretely to these questions and demonstrate the importance of paying attention to arts in migration studies. The first presents the work and commitment of a Senegalese painter and plastic artist in Brussels. The second presents the work and commitment of an action-theatre company in the Liège region of Belgium (Martiniello, 2021).Footnote 2
Taaw,Footnote 3 the eldest in the Wolof language, is a Senegalese painter and plastic artist who has been living in Europe for several years. He lived in Germany and France before moving to Belgium. The son of a filmmaker and documentarian, Taaw closely follows the evolution of African societies and, in particular, the Senegalese society. We came into contact by chance, in the middle of the second lockdown in 2020. A mutual virtual acquaintance once sent me photos of about forty of Taaw’s paintings that he was trying to sell. During this period, the cultural world was once again at an almost complete standstill. The galleries were closed, and the exhibitions were interrupted, but the bills still had to be paid. Taaw, or someone close to him, thought that social networks could be used to advertise his work and maybe find some buyers. My migration sociologist eye was particularly interested in many of the superbly colourful works that I felt had a strong focus on the realities of migration. This was the origin of a strange but very rich encounter, which took place in my open garage to respect the health rules. The exchange was between two men, one a Senegalese painter and the other an Italian–Belgian sociologist, both with specific migration histories, both interested in migration and migrants, and both concerned about human rights and the glaring inequalities in the world.
We discussed the difficulties of life in these troubled times. I told him about my research in the field of migration and the multiple relationships between art and migration that I was trying to understand. I briefly presented him some of the papers, research, and collaborative projects I was developing. We also talked about his paintings, particularly those that depict an aspect of migratory realities. I remembered a short, but crucial sentence Taaw said to me during our first conversation. "I write with my painting". And in fact, Taw’s art tells the story of the often tragic, epic migration of young Senegalese migrants and travellers. Some paintings tell of the preparation for departure, others evoke the risky journey to Europe on makeshift boats. The art of Taaw speaks of migration in colour, with strength and without concessions.
At the time of our first meeting in November 2020, the press sometimes timidly reported the reopening of the clandestine maritime migration route between the Senegalese coast and the Canary Islands, the gateway to Europe. Taaw was touched in the depths of his heart by the reality of hundreds, even thousands, of deaths of young Senegalese and other Africans at sea in their quest for the European Eldorado, their mirage. For Taaw, this deadly exodus must come to an end as quickly as possible. It must be explained to the young candidates for departure that the European Eldorado does not exist and that responding to sufferings in Senegal by risking death at sea is not a good solution. As an artist and a citizen, Taaw has set himself the task of raising awareness both in Senegal and in Europe. He also considers this as an obligation of the eldest child towards his younger brothers and sisters. Furthermore, it is important to make European governments aware of the importance of putting in place win–win migration policies that would facilitate trips between African and European countries for training and work. Is this message being heard? Will it be heard? The question remains open to this day. What is clear, however, is that his paintings can be a powerful tool to raise awareness about the tragedy of migration, which he accurately depicts while also respecting human dignity.
The second case-study deals with En Cie du Sud,Footnote 4 an action-theatre company that produces plays linking the history of migration with contemporary migration situations. The region of Liège in French-speaking Belgium has a migratory history linked to its industrial past, reminiscent of the mining basins of the Ruhr region in Germany and of Northern France. Unlike the latter, Liège has so far been spared from a strong presence of extreme right-wing political formations. One of the reasons for this is the existence of a dense and committed network of associations and civil society organizations. In Belgium, Liège, a mid-size superdiverse city of about 200,000 people (Vertovec, 2007), remains an antifascist bastion despite the visible impoverishment of a part of the population which is, moreover, highly diverse and multicultural.
French-speaking Belgium in general, and Liège in particular, also has a strong tradition of action-theatre, which is part of the policies of cultural democracy and permanent education promoted by the government authorities responsible for culture. Themes related to migration have been dealt with by action-theatre groups since the 1970s and 1980s. In 1996, the Théâtre de la Renaissance de Seraing, a city of 60.000 inhabitants adjacent to Liège, staged a show with the mysterious title, at least for spectators from outside of Liège, Hasard, Espérance et Bonne Fortune (Chance, Hope and Good Fortune). These are in fact the names of three collieries in the region where Italian miners arrived as early as 1946. This was the period when the Belgian and Italian governments signed a bilateral agreement for temporary migration between the two countries in exchange for a lower price on coal exported from Belgium to Italy. This agreement is still regularly referred to as the 'arms against coal deal' (Morelli, 1988). The agreement stipulated that Belgium would send coal to Italy at a competitive price in exchange for workers that would come from Italy and stay in Belgium for a limited period of 5 years. These workers extracted coal from mines that had been abandoned by Belgian workers because they were perceived as being too dangerous and because the salaries were too low.
The play, which was imagined and designed by young amateur actors, most of them of Italian origin, told the story of this migratory “adventure”, which was largely forgotten at the time. Based on precise documentary research in collaboration with historians and social scientists, the play was produced on a very original stage configuration made of a railway track. The track crosses the room and evokes the arrival of immigrant workers in railway convoys. The main roles were held by four former miners of Italian origin. They played themselves and presented a narrative and anecdotes of their migratory journey in a twirling atmosphere that went from joy to tears in an instant.
Two decades later, the troupe En Cie du Sud and its director, Martine De Michele, who was part of the first play as an actress, decided to revive it, updating the play while respecting the spirit of the original work. Les fils de Hasard, Espérance et Bonne Fortune (The Sons of Chance, Hope and Good Fortune) opened in autumn 2016 in Liège, 70 years after the signing of the Belgian-Italian agreement of 1946 on temporary migration. The four miners from the original play had died, so they were replaced by actors. The Sons of Chance, Hope and Good Fortune faithfully reproduces the approach of the first play. The strength of the testimonials remains impressive, while the link between the migration stories of the immediate post-war period and today’s migrations is very clearly established. The 2018 and 2019 editions of the play offered an exhibition for spectators to view before the performance. It included both historical documents relating to past migrations and photos of today's migrants. The troupe is also more diverse than in 1996. The actors are far from being entirely of Italian origin. A young refugee recently arrived in Belgium from Afghanistan plays the role of a young Italian immigrant in the 1950s. Other actors are Belgian, Portuguese and from Yugoslavian descent. The play evokes migration and its ruptures, reception, work, relations with local populations, life, and death. One of the final scenes of the play is particularly icy. It talks about the tragedy of Marcinelle, a colliery near Charleroi in which more than 200 miners perished in 1956, most of them Italians, due to a gas blast. The spectator, through the magic of the theatre, is led to make the link with today's tragedies in the Mediterranean Sea, in which thousands of young migrants have died.
The play was performed in Liège in 2016, 2017, 2018 and 2019 for three weeks in November of each year. The 2020 session was cancelled due to the pandemic, but the 2021 has taken take place in November. The play has also be produced in two other cities of immigration (La Louvière and Mons). So far it has been seen by more than 23,000 people. It is a moment eagerly anticipated by many each year. Because of its historical and commemorative aspects, it attracts many Italian-origin spectators from the region. However, the play is far from being an annual nostalgic rendez-vous for the Italian–Belgian community. With its profoundly contemporary elements, it attracts a public interested in the dynamics of current migrations. Finally, due to its purely theatrical and aesthetic aspects, it attracts regulars of the theatre stages who are as much interested in the professional qualities of the show as they are in its theme.
In 2018, 2019 and 2021, En Cie du Sud and the Centre for Ethnic and Migration Studies of the University of Liège [CEDEM] organized post-show discussions with the actors, the spectators, and researchers. The spectators could express their feelings about the play, offer their testimony, ask questions about the historical dimensions or current aspects of migration or just comment as they wished. These discussions were always very rich. Everybody felt safe to speak from her/his point of view (artistic, academic, activist, citizen, etc.). Together we showed that an informed and respectful debate on migration is still possible, even in a period often characterized by a stigmatization of migration and migrants in the media and in political arenas.
These two case-studies show that some artists have become masters in the art of talking about migration but also that scholars cannot ignore or neglect these artistic narratives on migration. Often, artists who have personally experienced the migratory process or who are descendants of migrants, draw on their personal experience and expertise to build and convey a sensitive, true and credible discourse on migration. This discourse may be easier to decipher than, for example, our scientific books and articles. Studying their work as part of migration studies is not only crucial because of the content of their expression and discourse, but also because researching the links between arts, culture and migration helps us to look at the multidimensional and complex character of migration. It highlights that migration is not only an economic, demographic, and political phenomenon, but also a cultural one. Migrants are not only muscles and arms, workers, and factors of production, but also agents of artistic and cultural change. They can have a strong social and cultural impact, both on the countries of origin and on the countries of transit and arrival. Let’s now turn to the second question addressed in this article.