It’s not what’s in the bag, but the bag itself

Lifestyle

It’s not what’s in the bag, but the bag itself

Artist shuns the fascination with ‘cherished items’ to focus on how migrants identify with what carries them

Chris Thurman

To migrate is to carry. Some migrants, the unforced ones, have the good fortune of being able to pay shipping companies to do the carrying for them: furniture, kitchenware, décor, books and houseplants, all packed into containers and dispatched safely across the ocean. Others are not so lucky: fleeing with nothing more than the clothes on their backs, they carry memories and vestiges of belonging from the place they once called home.

An archetypal image of the refugee is, in our collective imagination, a figure carrying an object — a satchel, a parcel, a bundle, a sack. So familiar is this iconography that a fetish has developed among journalists and photographers catering for the settled, non-migrant media consumer: “What’s in the refugee’s bag?” is a subgenre of human-interest stories covering the phenomenon of forced migration. The poverty of the displaced person is romanticised, with a combination of pity and sentimentality attached to the notion of “a few cherished items”, salvaged by those escaping persecution or warfare and guarded like talismans.

The visual history of “luggage” from a century of refugee crises has in many cases been severed from the grim material circumstances and the violence that precipitated them. Think of the Ghana Must Go bag, now employed for fashion shoots, though it should also be a reminder of Nigerian xenophobia in 1983 (or, for that matter, SA xenophobia in 2008 or 2015 or 2019)...

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