by Dilpreet BhullarMay 07, 2020
“What do you hold close? Where is your secret place of belonging? If you have to leave everything behind and begin again - who would you be?” These are a few of the questions that greet the audience through a female voice of a video installed at the photography exhibition, Between These Folded Walls, Utopia, by Sarah Cooper and Nina Gorfer, currently running at Fotografiska, New York. The exhibition by Cooper & Gorfer, as they are popularly known, once again builds on their shared interest in the personal stories of women: this time the women who hold centrestage of works were made to face the challenges of forced migration. The exhibition having a vibrant set of photographs with women draped in the textiles of rich hues is a negation of the impossibility of starting again after having to lose both tangible and intangible belongings. Cooper & Gorfer’s photographs insist upon creating an alternative visual language to the documentary style of representation on the refugees.
The protagonists of the photographs are hard to be disunited from the abundance of the natural motifs that populate the works. In an interview with STIR, Cooper & Gorfer talk about the focus of the project in the areas where nature’s impact on people is palpable. “From the high plateaus of Kyrgyzstan’s mountain range to the wide stretched deserts of Qatar and the outlandish volcanic landscapes of Iceland. In our work, we want to pay tribute to nature’s impact on us as human beings, its power to shape us. To show the abundance or absence of her, the darkness or the light she brings into our lives. We say ‘she’, because to us and for many, nature represents a female force: mother earth,” the artists mention. The seamless harmony of the works recreates the pleasures of utopian worlds that are otherwise difficult to find or achieve. With the current series, the photographer-duo pays emphasis on the aspect of nature that remains untouched from the pragmatisms of the built-architecture. The painted gardens, flower arrangements and hidden hideaways hint towards the untamed beauty of nature. Cooper and Gorder add, “In this series nature stands for aspects of ourselves, for our nature breaking through, taking over, interfering with our diligently planned lives, reminding us of the archetype of the wild woman, her independence, her strength, and her implicitness”.
The series Between These Folded Walls, Utopia, with portraits of 11 female protagonists, started in the year 2017 when an essay, written in the German newspaper Die Zei, which talked about the idea of the loss of utopia caught the attention of Cooper & Gorfer. “The essay raised an inquiry on,” as the artist-duo says, “why we, as a society, have stopped believing that a better and more just world is even a possibility, and what happens if we stop imagining and striving for something better than the status quo”. Furthermore, Cooper & Gorfer look into the etymology of the term utopia to blur the boundaries between physical and cerebral spaces of inhabitations. “The term utopia in Greek means ‘no place’. Like it does not (physically) exist, or it's a dream: maybe a state of mind. As we were thinking about utopia, we were influenced by another omnipresent and bewildering development of the time – migration crises that caught Europe”.
More often than not, the women bear the emotional brunt of the dislocation and migration but remain unheard in the scathing noise of disillusionment. The storytelling, oral or visual, turns into the cushion against the indifference meted out against the survivors. The anthropological approach of Cooper & Gorfer’s work is a way to navigate through the terrain of “memories, moods and wounds” experienced by the women. The photographs capture the women, hailing from different cultural backgrounds with a unique life experience, living in Sweden. Going against the tide of irreversible loss, the women in a new land are empowered to lead their life. The series made over the period of three years involved long hours spent with the female refugees in order to have an array of conversation with them and let them warm up to the photographers before the final step of visually documenting them through the art of staged-photography could be arranged. The artists give a peek into the tumultuous journey their protagonists undertook before reaching Sweden, “Parwana and Yohana travelled the smugglers' route as the underage girls all by themselves; Israa, a Swedish nurse with Syrian heritage, was on the other side – aiding the refugees that landed on the shores of Greece, later started the NGO Stand with Syria out of sheer despair and need to help”.
Interestingly, the portraits that carry the aura of a heavenly abode are created while giving crucial importance to the textiles that each of the women in the series wears. The cultural meaning embedded in the textile does not go unnoticed in the works. The duo expounds on this intimate relationship between the textile as a possession and community belonging. “We always ask our protagonists to bring their own garments and items that are meaningful to them – a cherished heirloom or representative possession. Oftentimes, these items are fabrics – the scarf of a grandmother, an inherited patchwork blanket. The textile craft in many cultures has been synonymous with women and often has a strong connection to heritage, and family, being passed down from generation to generation. In our work you will see the use of textiles as an expression of the personal, but also of the passed down collective memories – the fabric of the tribe we belong to. Just as different garments and snippets of patterns and textiles are mounted together, so are we made out of the different layers of reality and time: stacked on to each other, stitched or stapled together, folding out of or disrupting each other,” they inform.
The printed gardens and walls become a manifestation of the idea of “us being subjected to the personal, political, and societal walls of our projected realities”. With the exhibition, Cooper & Gorfer hope, “by encountering these young women, you may meet aspects of yourself, your own fears, prejudices, or beliefs. And that you may be reminded of your own longings and the inner sanctuary”.
As the launch of the exhibition coincided with the spread of the COVID-19, the critical issues of estrangement, loss, uncertainty, vulnerability that are addressed in the series sharply resonated with the state of the pandemic. The artists promise that the exhibition Between These Folded Walls, Utopia turns into a springboard to finding and sharing the path of commonality despite the faulty lines of difference.
The exhibition Between These Folded Walls, Utopia is on view at Fotografiska, New York, until March 28, 2021.