Western Sahara is a disputed territory in the Maghreb region of North Africa, bordered by Morocco to the north, Algeria to the northeast, Mauritania to the east and south, and the Atlantic Ocean to the west. It was a Spanish colony till 1975, when Morocco occupied the land in a civil-military operation called the Green March and Spain left the country in an illegal (non recognised by the UN) agreement with Mauritania and Morocco. Since then, Western Sahara has been the subject of a long-running territorial dispute between Morocco and its indigenous Saharawi people, led by the Frente Polisario. A 16-year-long insurgency ended with a UN- brokered truce in 1991 and the promise of a referendum on independence which has yet to take place. Currently, the population lives divided by a wall of 2720 km built by the Morroco army during war; in the west, the Saharawis live in a situation of violent occupation, while the east of the wall is a dangerous desert land with minefields placed by Morocco which have produced numerous damages in civilians. In this side of the wall the Saharauis survive as refugees in the camps of Tindouf (Algeria). These refugee camps started as a temporary solution, but time has passed and a full generation has be born and grew up there, knowing just the life in a saline desert.
Since 1975, the Saharawis have fought to recover their original land and their History, hijacked by the Moroccan government and its allied countries (as Spain or France) which refuse the sovereignty and past of Western Sahara people. What started as a military fight as evolved as a complex media, diplomatic and cultural war for the hegemony of History and ground in a globalised context. For this goal, the Saharawi people have developed several institutions to build a nation-state with presence in an international sphere: UNMS (National Union of Sahrawi Women), Polisario Front (Popular Front for the Liberation of Saquia el-Hamra and Río de Oro) or the RASD (Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic) are the main institutions with the goal to regroup and organise the Western Sahara people. Beyond this political organisation there are other institutions which have used an artistic and museological language to define a Saharawi identity, like the Museo de la Resistencia and ARTifariti (International Art and Human Rights Meeting of Western Sahara).
The Museo de la Resistencia (Museum of Resistance) is the biggest apparatus of Western Sahara Government to defend (and write) the History of Western Sahara people, between the exile and the occupation. Previously called Museo de la Guerra (Museum of War), Museo de la Resistencia was initiated in the refugee camps of Tindouf in 1991, after the ceasefire of the war with Morocco. The first display it used was the weapons and munition showed on the ground, opened boxes with war material and guns in line. One old picture shows the Moroccan prisoners on their knees as part of the display.
The Museo was born from the necessity of speech after the trauma of war, as a direct sample of the past horrors throughout their material legacy.
The name changing (from War to Resistance) happened in a very different situation 11 years later: permanent refugee camps in a perpetual waiting. What was once an active war is now a long resistance against the oblivion. The Saharawi population is bigger, they have food, medicines and the camps have grown up; anyway the situation remains very similar than in the 90’s: a land divided and with very little possibility of action. The Museo de la Resistencia is now a big building, a long warehouse around a wide courtyard where the rest of a Moroccan derived plane is showed as an abstract sculpture. The display is more complex, it presents documentation of the war, photographs, mural paintings, images of the martyrs and, of course, weapons. There is a first room dedicated to mines and grenades, which includes some drawings of the occupied territory by Saharawi children. A second room shows portable weapons: guns, machine guns, rifles, bazookas… The following room is the biggest in the museum, it is occupied by tanks and other vehicles. The museum finishes with a small hall dedicated to Saharawi intelligence. It contains maps, strategy plans, letters and other “confidential“ documents.
The museum presents a modern history of Western Sahara, where its identity is defined through a permanent resistance, almost always by means of militaries. In fact, the museum is directed from the Defence Ministry and placed next to the military installations. It is very interesting how the military zones are full of the same objects presented in the museum, both untouched since 1991. Arriving to the museum there is a line of forgotten tanks in the middle of the desert. These are military objects, the ones in the museum (same model, no differences) are historic artefacts.
The building is very well conserved despite the poor conditions of the refugee camps, it is the place where the important visitors are invited to read the history of Western Sahara. But the place is fully covered with dust; certainly, this is inevitable in the desert. With a thin layer of sand, the tanks look like remote rests of a forgotten museum. The Spanish conceptual artist Isidoro Valcarcel Medina (a defender of the non-written subjective memory) designed a Museo de la Ruina (Ruin Museum), a museum which would fall down in any moment, so the access should be forbidden and the building would be behind a glass wall.
The Museo de la Resistencia is a museum of ruins and a ruin as museum. It does not present the rest of a past, the building “performs” that past, it is part of the content as the rest of the camp (the exterior of the building) is. Even through the efforts of the museum director, seeing a clear border between what is the museum and what is not is very difficult. The museum provoques the effect of perceiving any material of modern Saharawi culture as an archeological rest. There are no differences between what is inside a vitrine (the museum as the biggest vitrine) and what is outside; after visiting the Museo de la Resistencia, the eye erases every border.
There is an interesting parallelism between the western museums (an ideal example of Foucault’s heterotopias) and the refugee camps. Both are spaces out of time: as well the classical museum keeps objets in a non-temporal space, the refugee camps are a place of waiting, where everything “should” be kept in a temporal impasse. This contraction of time finds extreme limits in a situation as the one in Western Sahara, where the camps have been more than 40 years in a perpetual state of waiting.
The Museo de la Resistencia started as a way to create a historical narration inside the camps, both as a link with a “global” history and as an alternative postcolonial narration. They are literally fighting against time, fighting to enter again in the flux of time. The museum is writing a temporal history, but it is a history which tries to talk from a “neutral” space: the museum. It talks always about the past.
ARTifariti is a different institution started to connect the situation of Western Sahara with a global context, to talk about the present and about the future. It takes place in the refugee camps every year. Its goal is to bring artists from all over the world and to work with local artists in a two week workshop. It is a project developed between a Spanish ONG-like organisation (AAPSS) and the Saharawi Culture Ministry, it moves in a thin and fragile line between an artistic proposal and a project of international cooperation, two spheres that are clash sometimes. The last edition (where I worked as part of the curatorial team, formed by the Saharawis Moudnleila Bujari and Waalad Mohamed and the Spanish Charo Romero Donaire) was dedicated to the Saharawi youth born after 1991, a generation that has always lived as refugees. We subtitled ARTifariti 2016, the 10th edition of the project, as “Después del Futuro/ بعد المستقبل/ After the Future”, a reference to Franco “Bifo”
Berardi’s book and an exercise to think beyond the traditional idea of a lineal production of time. One of the problems of this generation that has lived only as refugees is that their only possible future perspective is the total annulation of their situation, of what they know. During our previous visits to the camps, we did some interviews with young Saharawis. One of the question was a simple “how do you imagine the future?”, the answers always talked about the liberation from the Morocco occupation, but it was impossible to go beyond, to the creation of another possible world. The critical situation of living in the conditions of a refugee camp limits any possibility to create a process of living and development in the camps or beyond them. The camps as an enclosed place out-of-time, delete any option of action.
At the beginning of the ARTifariti 2016 process, when we were starting to understand where we have just entered and what we could do, I made a video where I said we were not ready for ARTifariti because of two reasons. Firstly, because we were (and we are) too young and inexperienced for a project like this one. We decided to work from this perspective, as young and inexperience curators; it made us ask for advice to other people, who finally got involved, it became a positive point. Secondly, because nobody is ready for this. Nobody is ready for ARTifariti as nobody is ready for a project dedicated to art in refugee camps. There are no tools or skills which define how you are supposed to do art in this context, neither for foreigners who arrive to a refugee camp, not for refugees who live there. We are moving in an undiscovered land, without concepts to understand what are the possibilities of action here. Its not just a problem that concerns the art field, the issue is in the camps. Currently, the only things that are done in refugee camps are dedicated to the organisation of survival and the action of ONGs which help to survive. There is not a step beyond refugee camps, there is no such thing as a refugee camp becoming something different. There are camps and actions to perpetuate or delete them. The camps are spaces of exception, following Giorgio Agamben in his analysis of the “bare life” (Giorgio Agamben, Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and the Bare Life, 1995). We can say that any radical change here needs to go through a reinvention beyond what refugee camps represents. It could be very complicated to enter in to this question right now, but we could briefly say that the figure of the refugee presents our last border for the constitution of new possibilities of imagination, what we need is to think a new existential subject beyond previous categories. We are in front of what Tiqqun calls “the crisis of presence” (Tiqqun, Theory of Bloom, 2004).
The heterotopia is “otherness”, separated from hegemonic conditions. We can separate heterotopias in to two types: heterotopias which create places of liberation and empowerment (a classic example could be a free boat that can go anywhere in the middle of the sea) and heterotopias as enclosed places, where the body loses the rights it has in a non-heterotopic space (the prison is a good example). The refugee camps are an enclosing heterotopia, a place where the civil rights are limited. But in it’s isolation we can find certain transformative potency in the field of imagination. Between the tensions of an enclosed heterotopia and a liberating one, artistic practices can activate a political imagination necessary to produce changes, not only in the refugee camps, but in a critical present.
In 2011, after the Arab Spring and the Occupy movements in diverse European and American squares, the sufi-anarchist-theorist and poet Hakim Bey was invited to participate in ARTifariti. He answered that, as an anarchist, to support any notion of State or hierarchical power was impossible, but an exception with the Saharawi people was necessary. He sent a collage.
How can an exception such as this one be supported? Is the exception the art sphere or the political Saharawi situation? I do not believe we should make any kind of exception working in the Western Sahara context. Confusing specific context with exceptional context is very dangerous. The relationship between political strategy and art is very visible in ARTifariti, the film between art and politics is transparent in the camps, but any other artistic project in any other part of the world has political connotations and relationships with state or private interests too. Any specific context provokes specific political stances.
Hakim Bey’s exception was to understand the specific context of ARTifariti as a exceptional context. He was doing a “specific context” exception. He was putting the refugee camps in a separated sphere, outside of the world as an invisibilised heterotopia.
The refugees camps are not necessary a “specific exceptional context”, but an artistic participation in a project as Artifariti could produces it. The Hakim Bey approach is an example of how art practices (usually unconsciously) can build dark heterotopias.
Usually, the narratives about the refugee camps of Western Sahara present themselves as an “exceptional context”, a “mistake” in the global history. For ARTifariti 2016 we wanted to take distance from these interpretations and to read the links that attach the camps situation with the rest of the world: to understand how this problem has been caused in relation with other nations and private companies with interests in the occupation of Western Sahara land. An attempt to run away from the identity readings of Western Sahara, which was an important focus in the previous editions of ARTifariti. Following the philosopher Paul B. Preciado: What happen if we question the identity as a possible fundament for the political action? (https://www.youtube.com/watch? v=V73MNOob_BU&feature=youtu.be&t=6m27s)
For Después del Futuro/ب”””””””””عد ا س”””””””””تقبل/After the Future we invited some artist and proposed them to create contra-hegemonic narratives which could offer a reading of modern Western Sahara history as an heterotopic but globally entangled space.
We need to go back to Foucault’s notes in heterotopias: the heterotopias are places out of “normality” (they are non-hegemonic spaces) but they are needed for the “normal” performance of the world, heterotopias are necessary for the production of “normal” spaces. The refugee camps, as totally extreme spaces, are a fundamental tool for the “normal” production of reality. Our “normal” hegemonic world needs the refugee camps. Changing the situation of refugee camps (and, of course, of refugees) does not need to attend that space as an enclosed world, but with connections with the rest of the world. Any change in “their” situation will happen because of a change in “our” situation. Questioning our privileges is radical for the solution of the refugee problem.
The discourse about the “current refugee crisis” thinks the arrival of refugee to Europe as a problem of borders and movements, but the situation of Western Sahara can show us a different approach: what happen when a “temporal solution” becomes permanent? It is no more a problem of movements, but a problem of statism.
As with Hakim Bey, every artist invited to participate in ARTifariti has to deal with this problem: how to connect with the time of the camps? Doing something specific for the camps or evolving a previous process in this new place? developing a project which connects the camps with other times? Being too specific has the risk of enclosing the camps even more, but in the other side there is the danger of forget the subject.
Some of the projects I curated during ARTifariti 10 tried to think this complexity. In the second part of this article I would like to present different cases which have tried to connect the situation of the camps with a global narration.
Jose Iglesias Gª-Arenal (Madrid, 1991) is a curator and artist based in London. He is currently studying the MA Curating the Contemporary (London Metropolitan University and Whitechapel Gallery, London) and he is part of the curatorial team of Artifariti 2016, International Art and Human Rights Meeting in Western Sahara. He runs the experimental editorial noPRESENT, focused on synergies among curatorial praxis, feminism and performativity.