1993, 34,361, 3,915; three numbers that represent stark and odorous truths about our society. The first, 1993, tells us when the refugee boats trips began; the second, 34,361, is the number of people that have perished on those journeys; and the third, 3,915, is the total that died only last year. Thousands drowning at sea whilst trying to escape war and turmoil is a sickening thought, and yet the chaos continues. Boats are still left trapped and isolated, far away from shores, as diplomats and world leaders grind into a political block, too busy fighting over who should do what and who should help who.
It is safe to say that the recent migrant crisis is a disaster; an event caused and left unsolved by major powers; a social issue whose public support skirts between altruism and prejudice-driven fear. As the years go by, and the west’s short-attention span dwindles, we fall dangerous close to thinking of this matter purely as a political or economic puzzle, rather than as a crisis involving real and individual human beings. In this way, we veer towards an attitude which helps our enemy, the far-right, whose ideology relies upon portraying refugees as a wave of dangerous, identical bodies bent on destroying western civilisation. Such an attitude, such dehuminisation, is the tool that allows people and nations to be carved into the image of the close-minded. We only need to look back to history, and particularly to british history, to understand this.
The Indian Partition was one of modern history’s most drastic migratory crises, where the designation of the still standing India and Pakistan displaced approximately 14 million people, leading to violence, destabilisation and lifelong trauma. Quite like our modern situation, this event was not the work of some random event, but a calculated and institutional decision made by those in power. Nowadays the drawn boundaries (which have not changed greatly in their 71 year existence), are known as the Radcliffe Life, named after their architect, Sir Cyril Radcliffe, whose decisions were based on purely religious lines. The man had never traveled further east than Paris, and yet, by the nature of his position, was allowed to decide upon the fates of millions of people he probably could not understand. It is no surprise that a man born in Wales, and who belongs to the structure of Empire, would take so many varied people and cast them in a single-coloured, nation-sized mould.
There is nobody that encapsulates this chaotic diversity better than Jimmy Engineer, a Zoroastrian artist and social worker from Pakistan. His famous canvas works, three of which you have already seen, portray similar scenes of ordinary humanity matched amongst militaristic disaster. The flames of war stand behind a myriad of individual people and faces, carting their goods or sitting amongst family members in consolation. What is clear, and especially so in the last two, is the pure mass of individuals in these paintings, whose bodies take dominance over the countryside and the background fires. A connection can be made here with many of the images of current migrations, where you may see great “waves” of people pouring over the land like a overflowing, living river. But, unlike those bigoted amongst us who use such imagery negatively, Jimmy pays extra attention to detailing every person in the crowd, cementing them as individuals with lives just like our own.
Never is this more the case than with the third, In honour of the men, women and children who laid down their lives in the struggle of 1947 for the creation of Pakistan. Just as the name is elongated with words, so is the canvas elongated with a jumble of human beings and their creations. No one person looks the same, or wears the same clothes, or is doing exactly the same thing. They are together, moved and molded by their struggle; but ultimately very different, divided by their differences as individuals. We could all do well to remember the lives of these historic people, and carry the image of such paintings in our minds when we think about refugees.
The works of Jimmy Engineer, and his collection Partition 1947, are incredible and eye-opening. You can find them all at his website here. I would recommend paying attention to the cut-out sections of the above paintings, where the attention to detail can be seen more clearly.