Bouchra Khalili: The Mapping Journey Project

Museum of Modern Art, New York

Maps have long been used by artists as a basis for their work. From Alighiero Boetti’s embroidered maps of flags, to Rirkrit Tiravanija’s charts of his peripatetic childhood, and Grayson Perry’s markings of social norms in Great Britain, objective maps are used as the originating points from which subjective interpretations of strife, relocation, identity, and cultural affinities are drawn. But rarely does one see a pristine map sullied only by a single line. In the French-Moroccan artist Bouchra Khalili’s The Mapping Journey Project (2008–11), on view at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, six maps displayed on flat screens, accompanied by six different voiceovers, chart the harrowing journeys of illegal immigrants from the Eastern Hemisphere to Europe.

Suspended from the ceiling in the open atrium section on the first floor of the Museum, six flat screens depict circuitous immigrant routes from the Middle East, Africa, and South Asia to Europe. A line drawn with a marker by a hand on each map enables the viewer to follow the path of each journey. Poised between a documentary and a film, Khalili’s uninterrupted, spontaneous recording of each subject’s narrative is accompanied by the slow almost surreal movement of their hands along the borders of several countries.

Accounts of treks from Algeria to Tangiers, and others from Mogadishu and Somalia to Italy, and some traveling from Dhaka to Delhi to Moscow, through wide-open deserts, choppy seas, and hazardous checkpoints, are just stops for the immigrants in their hope of reaching the United Kingdom or the Scandinavian countries. Their clear, almost clinical tales recount treacherous journeys of concealment, subjugation, and incarceration. Presented without images of the landscapes or photographs of the speakers, with the exception of the appearance of their hands, Khalili creates a distance between the viewer and the reality of the situation. Her bare minimalist technique forces us to imagine the plight of these disregarded individuals who are often hidden in trucks and boats and preyed upon by greedy smugglers who promise to transport them across the Mediterranean Sea to Italy and Greece for large sums of money.

When I first saw Khalili’s project in the exhibition Here and Elsewhere at the New Museum, New York, in 2014, I was struck by the way she engages in a kind of activism that creeps up on the viewer. Her project, unlike any other, does not use maps to discuss geography or territories. Instead the inequities of society and the divide between the haves and the have-nots are made clear as these African and Middle Eastern immigrants are detained, confined, and rejected in different European ports of entry. The effect of combining these intimate auditory tracks with the movement of a hand on a map is like watching the arbitrary maneuvers of a pawn on a chessboard. Khalili’s subjects are mere pawns with no control over their destiny. Left to chance, the immigrants’ first hand accounts of their journeys gives grist to the voice of the disenfranchised. Without being maudlin, The Mapping Journey brings home a close up view of the lives of thousands of people who washed up daily on the shores of the Greek Islands and Italian villages.

Khalili’s pristine maps marked by single curving lines become a platform for the precarious situation of a large populace in need. Her work is particularly relevant in today’s highly charged and controversial environment of xenophobia and fear. While a map is the most essential tool to guide a person’s journey, the maps that make up her project are trajectories of uncertainty and desperation. Yet, through this highly understated but powerful work Khalili’s case for these hapless immigrants is conveyed with a great deal of dignity. Hidden behind the narration of each matter-of-fact story is the need to escape from the trauma of war, famine, and autocracy. These people risk their lives in the hope of finding a better one; these are incredible stories of grit, bravery, and survival.

Bouchra Khalili, The Mapping Journey Project, 2008–2011. Installation view MoMA, New York. Courtesy the artist and the MoMA, New York.

Bouchra Khalili, The Mapping Journey Project, 2008–2011. Installation view MoMA, New York. Courtesy the artist and the MoMA, New York.

Bouchra Khalili, The Mapping Journey Project, 2008–2011. Installation view MoMA, New York. Courtesy the artist and the MoMA, New York.