The lady in Tate’s van
Alketa has a steady stream of visitors to her van parked in front of Tate Modern – well, it does say “Welcome” in large letters inside.
They step in to have a cup of tea with Alketa and chat, then write something in her book. It’s filling up fast. Bill Nighy the actor has been, thought she was lovely and doing a wonderful thing; there’s someone from Albania who said sitting there made her feel peculiar because this was exactly the same kind of van she was smuggled from Albania in; one fellow with “Andy” on his baseball jacket wrote that she shouldn’t let emotion get in the way of a serious business, “just look at the facts”. Did she try to persuade him? “No, that’s not what I’m here for. I just want people to talk and write down their thoughts, it's neutral ground inside my van” she says.
Because the subject is migrants and refugees, and Alketa, a former Kosovan refugee, and her van are the vanguard of what is happening on the fifth floor of the Switch House, designated for Tate Exchange where artists can explore how art can make a difference in society. Who Are We? is about identity, belonging, citizenship, and chiefly the migration that sets all those questions going.
This Friday afternoon it was thronging. Many of the visitors seemed to be immigrants of one sort or another, and many have left comments on the boards available for the purpose. Some are sad, some frivolous, some pithy, some outrageous, and there are lots.
There are twenty or so platforms each looking at the huge subject from a different angle. The most poignant is the five pieces of art assembled by Behjat Omer Abdulla around the story of a migrant mother who took her twin babies on a smugglers’ boat, but one died and the smugglers harangued her to dump the corpse over the side; she refused and while she slept they did it for her, but took the wrong twin.
There’s polemic, of course – “Citzenshop” is about how you can buy passport status; there’s a confessional in which you can talk to another individual in a booth and exchange fears; one platform explains how to write “Robert” in Chinese; there’s a gallimaufry of union flags, made from the colours of immigrants’ source nations; and you can trace the path of migrants across the world.
But the whole thing is looking at probably the most acute human problem since the Second World War through the eyes and thoughts of artists, so there is no anger, very little condemnation of the egregious behaviour of governments and the media, more a gentle questioning of the human effects.
Gentle they may be, these earnest but effective artists, but at the top of the event the organisers leave you in no doubt with a quote from Auden’s In Memory of WB Yeats:
In the nightmare of the dark
All the dogs of Europe bark,
And the living nations wait,
Each sequestered in its hate
It’s on until Sunday evening, go if you can, and don’t forget to stop for tea with Alketa, Bill Nighy says it’s excellent.