One of the recent themes in my work has been refugees and their journeys. My own ancestors crossed the seas both fleeing from oppression and poverty and searching for a better life for themselves and their children. Their stories often moved me, as do those of current immigrants who face daily perils during their passage. I wove a large set of tapestries and made other textiles about them, and now I have turned my attention to the broader theme of migrants in general, whose passage from their countries of origin is vastly more perilous than what my antecedents had to endure.
In this case, I started with an aluminium survival blanket, the type that is used to prevent hypothermia in rescued people, for example those migrants whose boats have capsized. I didn’t know how I would use it. One idea was to add photographs of the migrant experience. I also thought of cutting it into strips to weave, but then I noticed that when it was placed on the floor, it looked like heavy seas with menacingly high waves. It evoked the crossing of the Mediterranean by immigrants in small boats, often unsuitable for the purpose, overloaded and ill-equipped. Tiny boats could be placed on the surface. I tried various colours for the boats, which I decided to make with paper. Pale colours faded away, so I eventually went for red, which then reflected in the aluminium and looked like blood in the water. The paper suggested the fragility of the vessels and the vulnerability of those on board.
The flotilla depicted could be ships transporting the refugees, border patrol boats or rescue vessels. There are eleven of them – the same number as those in the UK Border Patrol fleet. So there is hope of rescue as well as terror. Over the years, tens of thousands have lost their lives at sea in their desperate flight from persecution and poverty, sometimes hundreds at the same time when larger ships capsize.
Viewers of this piece may either worry about the number of immigrants coming by boat to Europe or feel empathy for the migrants – which are you?