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New art installation shines light on migrant workers

Exhibition at the Isabel Bader Centre for the Performing Arts gives voice to South Asian men working and living abroad.

A plate of biryani.
Biryani, the traditional South Asian dish that inspired the exhibition.

A close up shot of a heaping plate of biryani was the inspiration for what became an multi-media exhibition premiering this Monday (April 25) at the Isabel Bader Centre for the Performing Arts. The project, named This is Evidence, was developed by documentary filmmaker and academic Professor Reena Kukreja (Global Development Studies) and depicts the experiences of South Asian migrant men living in Greece.

The picture that started it all came to Dr. Kukreja’s WhatsApp account from Anayat (pseudonym), an undocumented male migrant from Pakistan. Her curiosity aroused, she texted back, “yeh kya ha?” or “what is it all about?” He called right back and said, “Biryani. I made it. It’s my ammijan or mother’s recipe.” He appeared proud that he had made the biryani the exact way his mother had taught him and that it tasted just as if his ammijan had cooked it.

“The project really started in 2015 when I was visiting Greece with my family,” she explains. “I noticed a large number of South Asian men in the informal tourist economy and, when they approached my daughter and asked if they could buy her a gift, I realized they were lonely, they missed their families. I started to think about love, about family, and the project started to evolve from there. I saw them as people who deserved to be respected and for the world to learn more about their story from their perspective.”

The resulting multi-media exhibition, which took about three years to complete, puts together South Asian migrant men’s voices and testimonies, visual and oral, that they consider important to share with the larger world. All images and videos were taken either by the research collaborator, Dr. Kukreja, at the behest of the men who pointed out what needed to be documented, or by the men themselves with their cell phones which they then shared on closed WhatsApp groups for the project.

There are an estimated 200,000 undocumented migrants from Bangladesh, India and Pakistan living in Greece—most of whom are young, poor men. Despite leaving their homes in search of a better life, their work as agricultural labourers or participants in the urban informal economy is characterized by low wages, and poor living and working conditions.

Compounding the exploitation that many migrant workers experience is the social and political exclusion. Prevailing discourses of Islamophobia and xenophobia have enabled an “us” versus “them” narrative in the Greek political landscape.

Reena Kukreja and an agricultural worker.
Reena Kukreja went to Greece to research the experiences of undocumented South Asian male migrant workers.

“I was able to get them to trust me,” says Dr. Kukreja when asked how she was able to develop the project. “My co-ethnic insider positionality as a diasporic South Asian woman with family roots in Pakistan and India and fluency in the men’s languages, Urdu, Punjabi, and Bangla, has proven valuable in building rapport and trust. It has also allowed me to bridge differences in migrant status, class, and gender identity, and to act as their cultural interpreter.”

This exhibition champions the concerns of migrant men to a wider audience and equips activists to advocate for policy changes to labour migration and family reunification laws. This is critical as the numbers of migrants increases globally while populist backlash against racialized poor migrants gains strength.

The exhibit first premiered in Athens on 11 April where some of the participating men came for the opening and spoke about their experience as undocumented migrant workers. It now moves to Canada, where it will be hosted by the Isabel Bader Centre for the Performing Arts from April 25 to May 3. Dr. Kukreja presents an opening talk on April 27 at 5 pm.

Dr. Kukreja’s work was funded by a Connection grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada. At Queen’s University, various departments have collaborated for the realization of the exhibition. These include the Global Development Studies, Dan School of Music and Drama, Film and Media, and the Cultural Studies Program.

To learn more about This is Evidence, visit the website.