Proud, exhausted figures stand dressed in vibrant, patterned fabrics against the vast expanse of a desert that seems to stretch endlessly into the horizon. This latest series of exquisitely rendered portraits by Ethiopian artist Tewodros Hagos continues his exploration of how the global migrant crisis is portrayed and understood, specifically reflecting on the illusory nature of media reportage. Mirage, the artist’s solo exhibition at Kristin Hjellegjerde Gallery Berlin, not only serves as a poignant homage to the migrant community, but also considers questions how our tendency to turn-away from discomfort might prevent us from seeing the truth of a situation.
Over the last couple of years, Hagos has dedicated his artistic practice to recording the migrant crisis by painting haunting portraits that stand in opposition to sensationalistic journalistic imagery and footage. While the works visualise a larger narrative of collective suffering, each painting, especially the close-up portraits, possesses a distinct personality and emotional atmosphere. In one painting,for example, a man sits slumped against a rocky wall while his gaze seems to directly address the viewer in an expression of profound exhaustion. It is as much a call for help as it is a challenge to not look away, to simultaneously acknowledge his pain and our culpability as passive observers. ‘Throughout the last decade, the whole world has witnessed the news and stories of migration atrocities on nearly a day-to-day basis, but as we are bombarded with imagery, it risks becoming normalised when, in fact, it remains one of the worst humanitarian crises of our time,’ commented the artist. ‘The question is: how long will we watch this human tragedy?’
While Hagos’ previous works focused on perilous sea crossings, this latest collection of paintings highlights a little recorded aspect of the migrants’ journey in which individuals and families are forced to walk for many miles in extreme weather conditions, with very limited resources. As a result, many pass away, undocumented, on the journey while those that make successful border crossings are often forced to change their identities – their names as well as their clothing and customs – in order to assimilate to a new culture. This overwhelming sense of loss is expressed both through the figures’ body language and the vast emptiness of the desert landscape. MIRAGE / crossing the desert / 05, for example, depicts a man looking down at a handful of sand as it runs through his fingers, connoting the passage of time and the fragility of human existence.
However, Hagos is keen to note that these are not works of tragedy, but rather a celebration of human strength and perseverance. Indeed, all of his figures, especially the women, possess a certain radiance and luminosity. They are dressed in brightly-coloured, patterned fabrics and headscarves while sunlight appears to almost shimmer off the surface of the canvas, enhancing both the beauty of the figures and the golden hues of the desert. At the same time, the intensity of the colours, the stillness of the portraits and the figures’ unwavering gaze create a slight air of the uncanny that unsettles our sense of perception. Meanwhile, the landscape, although recognisable as a desert, is non-specific, relating less to a geographical location and more to a wider feeling of disorientation. Although the division of land and sky provides some sense of grounding, in works such as MIRAGE / crossing the desert / 10 the sand literally overwhelms the canvas, casting the figure in a strange liminal space from which there appears to be no escape.
In this sense, the concept of a mirage reflects less on the disappointed expectations of the migrants and more on the wider illusions which we, as individuals and communities, have created and perpetuated throughout history. What will it take, the artist seems to be asking, for the world to pay attention?