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Differential Treatment: Migration in the Work of Yto Barrada and Bouchra Khalili

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image of Journal of Arabic Literature

Much like their literary peers, contemporary artists across the Mediterranean and Arabic-speaking world have turned their attention to migration in recent years. This migratory turn has prompted many artists, art historians, critics, and curators to celebrate the migrant as a new figure for universality or the human while eliding migration writ large with a specific form of migration, that of clandestine movement from the “global South” into Western Europe. In so doing, these celebrations of the migrant evidence what I call “migratory orientalism,” which I define as the dominant frame for representing and analyzing migration in contemporary art today. A theory of migratory orientalism points to the ways in which representations of migrants in contemporary art and its discourse frequently rely on visible markers of racial, linguistic, and geographic difference in ways that recall earlier Orientalist and colonialist representations of the “Other.” To analyze how migratory orientalism manifests both in an artwork’s conception and its reception, the article compares recent photographic and video works by Moroccan-French artists Yto Barrada (b. 1971) and Bouchra Khalili (b. 1975). I argue that rather than taking a similar approach to migration, as critics often suggest, these artists evidence opposed ways of representing migration. Khalili’s video series, The Mapping Journey Project (2008-2011), which focuses exclusively on the migrant’s journey, depicts the African or Middle Eastern migrant as anonymous, ahistorical, and always Europe-bound. In contrast, Yto Barrada’s series of photographs, A Life Full of Holes: The Strait Project (1999-2006), takes migration as a starting point for a broader consideration of migrants’ multiple destinations and its social, economic, and political underpinnings.

Affiliations: 1: Northwestern University


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