Europe in Visual Representations of Migration: ‘WESTERN UNION: Small Boats’ by Isaac Julien

  • Abstract:
    The emergence of the modern idea of Europe as a geographic, religious, and cultural unity that is superior to the other continents is closely connected to the so-called “discovery” of the Americas and the beginning of the colonization of the Non-European world. This concept of Europe was reflected as well as generated by the emergence of female allegories of the continents in a wide field of visual culture, in which Europe appeared as the legitimate ruler of the world and the other continents were portrayed as primitive, savage, exotic, etc. The film installation “WESTERN UNION: Small Boats” (2007) by the British artist and filmmaker Isaac Julien deals with contemporary migration from Africa to Europe across the Mediterranean Sea. It re-articulates the tradition of representing the continents in the form of female allegories. Female personifications of Europe, on the one hand, and of a transnational community, on the other hand, are juxtaposed. The personifications presented are crucial figures in framing the topic of migration to European countries within a narrative that questions in various ways hegemonic concepts not only of migration, but also of Europe, and the relations between them. By highlighting a transnational perspective the idea that nations/national unions, communities, identities, and space are inextricably connected is challenged. This also calls into question the understanding of migration as a deviation from the norm. Furthermore, the ability of the European border regime to entirely control the movements of migration is queried by migration itself. Finally, a counter-narrative is presented which calls into question the hegemonic European historiography according to which Europe has developed on its own terms. In this context, the (post-)colonial violence by which the “entangled histories“ between Europe and Non-European societies have been shaped are evoked. I argue, however, that the allegoric translation by which this happens perpetuates hegemonic notions of gender and race that are traditionally fundamental for the construction of the European “Self“ and the Non-European “Other“.