Article by Judith Vallette // July 10, 2020
For their ‘exp. 3,’ the 11th Berlin Biennale presents Sinthujan Varatharajah’s exhibition ‘Affect Archives’ (in collaboration with artist Osías Yanov). In Varatharajah’s installations, they document the Tamil refugee emigration within Berlin following riots and conflicts in Sri Lanka. As a researcher, essayist and academic in the field of political geography, Varatharajah has been a long-time spokesperson against the discrimination of refugees within Germany, as well as the EU more generally. Their work, essays and talks focus on expanding and revealing the politicization of race and geographies of power that leave certain groups disenfranchised.
Varatharajah’s work in the exhibition centralizes on ways in which the Berlin Wall was a fluid and permeable membrane for incoming Tamil refugees in East Germany, who crossed over to continue their journey in the West. On view at ExRotaprint by appointment until July 25th, the installation is organized following a map-like route starting with an introduction and then including extensive testimonies, interviews, travel articles and historical information. We spoke to Varatharajah about how their work aims to dismantle the dominant perception of divided Germany as well as its present-day refugees, and how white supremacy and capitalism work to dictate the confines of the institutionalized art world.
Judith Vallette: Your exhibition pieces for the 11th Berlin Biennale are concerned with the often underrepresented relationship of Tamil refugees with German history, particularly the Berlin Wall. What can you say about the lack of visibility of this tied history and its implications for incoming refugees?
Sinthujan Varatharajah: The history of German partition is mostly reduced to a history that only concerns ethnic Germans and, if anything, people within neighbouring regions. German partition narratives therefore exclude non-whites, whether people who have already been present in the country during partition, or those who were arriving during that period and as part of, or through this political division—as in the case of Eelam Tamil refugees. With this exhibition, my aim was to subvert this specific narrative around the Berlin Wall that we find all around the city and in its museums by showcasing how a wall that divides, excludes and imprisons some people—in other words, a wall that demobilises people—can at the very same time, by default or intent, enable the mobility of others. In the case of Eelam Tamils, the Berlin Wall and the overall German partition with all its intricacies, loopholes and contradictions became a gateway, an opportunity that enabled their survival, our survival. And that’s something that doesn’t sit well with the dominant narrative and its many narrators.
The political emergency that was designed around the presence of Eelam Tamil refugees was a precedent in the post-war country. And it was a litmus test for how to deal with such groups in the future. What was attempted in that period, at the expense of Eelam Tamil refugees, was later expanded by excluding more groups from the right to asylum, before becoming a common international practice to deter refugees from arriving; and to convince so-called third countries from allowing them to use them as transit points in their journeys to safety. Italy and Turkey today, for example, act no differently than East Germany did then, by using the (im)mobility of refugees and migrants for political gains while the EU, under the leadership of Germany, is doing precisely what West Germany learned to do in the mid 1980s: to outsource the border through financial means.
The amnesia around this history is tragic considering its relevance for the present and for our understanding that what happens today (or yesterday) isn’t an emergency or tragedy, nor anything new. It isn’t natural, it’s nothing that we have to idly watch but a result of political design and historic continuities that can only be critically analysed and challenged by being contextualised, locally and globally. For that, we need to understand the history behind different border regimes and contextualise discriminatory legislation.
JV: Your exhibited work contains very personal elements, including aspects of your own background and interviews with other Eelam Tamil refugees. What was your process in collecting these stories?
SV: I’ve been tracing stories of movements of Eelam Tamil refugees since 2013, when I launched a project called ‘Roots of Diaspora’. I interviewed dozens of Eelam Tamil refugees on their respective flight movements, which we then shared as narrative histories on Facebook. When I started my research for the exhibition, I used this archive to trace further relevant stories and potential witnesses through local community contacts. As a result, I was able to conduct several interviews with Eelam Tamils who remained in Berlin and some who left the city as part of Germany’s asylum redistribution process. I was also able to speak to people who have left the country “for greener pastures” elsewhere, which was important to understand that a local experience can equally shape transnational realities. What happened in divided Berlin wasn’t just confined to this city. It reflected how, for instance, the Danish and French government at the time responded to Eelam Tamil refugees. Some of the interviewees are included with their voices and narrations in the audio experiences.
Although most of my interviewees rejoiced about there being an interest in their experiences and histories, it wasn’t always easy to tease out the details of their experiences. Many of these memories have been pushed outside of their memorial landscape, since they have rarely ever been considered valuable or critical. That’s something I’m interested in and seek to explore more. I’ve always had a special interest for things considered banal; things considered uninteresting; things hidden; things that aren’t obviously political while they are deeply political; what’s domesticated; what happens in closed spaces rather than the public realm.
JV: A lot of your work focuses around the apprehension of refugee bodies, in particular the Eelam Tamil people. The exhibition features a number of articles such as suitcases, clothing, passports: how do these become symbolic?
SV: All of the included items belong to someone. They are everyday objects that have been worn, tossed, pulled and browsed through. They’ve been dusting away and sitting in people’s basements, placed in lockers or left disorganised in photo albums before being restored for this exhibition. Besides the passport, I had no interest in placing these items in a cabinet or showcase. That would have rendered them into a museum, something abstract and distant that it certainly isn’t. As a living archive, this didn’t make sense. I’m grateful to Maria Berrios, the main curator of my exhibition, to have always reminded me that what we are building is a living archive, something that we all possess, something that we hardly considered worthy to be in a museum while it is very much worthy of being understood, felt and valued. The items in the exhibition reflect precisely that. Its owners never considered these things to be worthy of being placed in a public space. Which then renders it interesting, when their owners then encounter these very items, their own possessions in a setting like this, reinterpreted and differently valued. Of course, their meanings depend on the viewers and whatever they come with and bring to the space. What they should remind us of, though, is that this isn’t some abstract history, but something very immediate, something so real that it can breathe, wither, sit next to us and touch us, just as we can touch it.
JV: In previous talks and essays, you warn against the “white savior mentality.” How can art work to dismantle this mentality?
SV: Artists are already radically challenging and dismantling the white saviour mentality and white supremacy as a whole. This isn’t confined to the present only. There are plenty of artists who do so, who have done so in the past, who subvert the grammar and very bourgeois conception of art. White supremacy and capitalism dictate the ideas around what is considered art, by whom it can be produced, where it can be produced and how it should be disseminated. This forces non-white artists to agree to terms that weren’t set by them and for them. And if they don’t submit to them, they’ll be excluded from agencies, galleries, publishers and so forth and won’t get the clout and recognition they ought to receive. They won’t be able to live off their artistry. And this is a racist and classist reality that still many non-white artists face and have to struggle against.
The internet, particularly social media, plays a huge role in challenging these dynamics, even in elevating older artists who may not have received the recognition they ought to in their lifetimes. The internet helps cutting boundaries and redefining what art can be, what distribution and access can mean. But the internet also has its limit and is governed. We need to look at the right places for the right people. And that’s, of course, not always easy, especially if you are attuned to searching for art in established institutions curated by the rich for the rich. And if you’re attuned to only see white people create “art” while the rest is reduced to practicing some form of “identity politics”.
The labour to dismantle white supremacy within the art world cannot rest on the artists themselves. The labour needs to happen elsewhere, too. It needs to shift towards the institutions, which, in the West, and even outside of it, are dominated by the white bourgeoisie and are often run like charity shops or ministries for development when it comes to poor people and non-whites. As long as these institutions do not change their own recruitment patterns, there will be no change. They’ll just see their significance alter, and hopefully for the worse. It is not enough to merely employ working class non-whites for outreach work or educational work. It is not enough to employ upper-middle class non-whites from the Global South to take a short cut and look more progressive, more “diverse” and get better funding opportunities when you are actually not more diverse, but tap into the same classist structures as you do locally. There’s a lot of introspection, recognition and labour that needs to be done here. And this also includes art magazines and other outlets that are part of the establishment.
JV: In one of these talks, you bring up the double standard of how Arab refugees must learn German to assimilate, whereas Germany readily accepts and welcomes Western migrants who do not know the national language. How does this focus on language translate in your exhibition for the 2020 Berlin Biennale, especially with regards to your audio pieces?
SV: The compulsion to learn German, of course, doesn’t just affect Arabs, but all non-German speaking refugees and has, of course, also impacted Eelam Tamil refugees in Germany. These inequalities underlie racist and capitalist assumptions. The language politics of my exhibition were, however, more oriented towards a global Tamil experience, rather than one that can be limited to Germany and the unequal, racist relationship between demands for assimilation or lack thereof.
Language discrimination sits at the core of how the Sri Lankan state has violated Eelam Tamils since 1956, when a law (“Sinhala Only Act”) was passed that robbed Tamil off its official status. Until the present, language parity is, despite being legally enshrined, not enforced in Sri Lanka. Tamil is standing, often literally, in the shadows of Sinhala supremacy and therefore in practice often intentionally sabotaged there. This also means that in Eelam—the Tamil homeland on the island where Tamils form the majority population—Tamil often gets a subordinate status; whether on road signs, in the courts or even on the internet, such as on Google Maps. And if Tamil has a public place as a language, it often comes with blunt errors and distortions. This, of course, is structural and designed. To experience Tamil is to then always be reminded of a lack of sovereignty, of being an oppressed minority and of your statelessness.
In other places, where Tamil people live, such as in Singapore and southern India, Tamil is an official language (as it is in Sri Lanka since 1984 again, too), and the language is also given subordinate roles. In Malaysia, where Tamils form the third biggest population, Tamil has—beyond being an educational language—officially no place at all. Tamil people are a minority people in every single country that have been formed around them and forcefully included them. And so is the status of Tamil one that is globally often debated, undermined and, in Sri Lanka, directly under attack.
In light of that, there was a clear intent in placing Tamil so visibly at the forefront of the exhibition and ensuring its presence is not just symbolic, but also with purpose. For that we made sure that the translations are immaculate and reflective of the history, people and place. I wanted Tamil to not be subordinate, but to be central in a place outside of our historic geographies, in a place where our new geographies have extended to through genocide. A lot of Eelam Tamils were deeply moved by seeing Tamil being given such a prominent role in this space. It reflected our pain of being deprived of a dignified place in this world.
For the audio experiences we considered it critical for listeners to engage with the sounds of Tamil, with the voices and emotions of the narrators outside of translations. For the enunciator to not be stuck, overwritten or overspoken with words enforced on them in a different language, but for the listener, who in their majority probably do not understand Tamil, to be forced to patiently listen, experience and feel the narration in a language that they may be unfamiliar with. It is a way of forcing non-Tamil listeners to confront themselves with what for many still remains unheard of: a sovereign speaker who is non-white.