York Art Gallery

4 May – 2 September 2018

Thought provoking works of art exploring the current and ongoing issues of migration, dispossession and national borders are brought together in this major new exhibition at York Art Gallery.

Eleven international artists including Nidhal Chamekh (Tunisia/France), Taus Makhacheva (Dagestan/Russia), Shahram Entekhabi (Iran/Germany), Brian Maguire (Ireland), Mohammed Sami (Iraq/UK), Vanessa Vozzo (Italy), Vladimir Miladinović (Serbia), Halil Altindere (Turkey), Varvara Shavrova (USSR/Ireland/UK), Nick Ellwood (UK) and Susan Stockwell (UK) use their work to question the meaning of nationalism, free movement, inclusion and exclusion, drawing on both the historical and contemporary narratives which shape identity and opinion.

The exhibition expresses a desire for freedom and a better life that stands in sharp contrast to the reality the migrants experience on their journeys.

The project has been organised by York Art Gallery and contemporary artist Varvara Shavrova in collaboration with Patrick Heide, and will feature 25 art works in a wide range of media such as audio visual objects, interactive installations, drawings, paintings, sculpture and audio and video works.

Varvara Shavrova, who has curated the exhibition, said:

“What makes The Sea is the Limit a unique exhibition is the fact that each participating artist has been addressing the theme of refugees and engaging with migration, immigration, dispossession and rootlessness for some years, and in some cases, for example as in the case of the renown Irish artist Brian Maguire, for some decades. Another strength of the show lies in the fact that most participating artists, including myself, are migrants.

“This sets this project apart from a more sensationalist if not exploitative approach to the currently ‘hot’ topics of ‘migrant crisis’, and instead brings the empathy to the fore of the reflections on this tragic and ongoing situation that is showing no signs of being resolved nor going away any time soon.”

The exhibition will take place in the Madsen One and Madsen Two Galleries and is included in the admission price.

It will be accompanied by a programme of events including artists’ talks, tours of the exhibition and a round table discussion focusing on various aspects of migration, refugees, borders, and the role of contemporary art within these themes. For a full list of events connected to the exhibition please click here.

York Art Gallery and Varvara Shavrova would like to thank Patrick Heide Contemporary Art for their input and collaboration on this project, Kathrin Becker, Head of n.b.k. Video-Forum, Berlin, the Kerlin gallery, Dublin, the Eusgter II Belgrade Gallery, Belgrade, and Azra Tuzunoglu, PILOT Gallery, Istanbul.

The Artists

The work of Susan Stockwell, who created the installation Flood in York St Mary’s in 2010, is included in the exhibition. Her earlier work is a historic comment on the slave trade that reminds us of contemporary imperial trades, and connects to her other major work examining many facets of the colonial trade, Sail Away, a flotilla of small boats made from old paper currency, stamps, tickets and maps. In mythology boats are symbolic of the transition from the material to the spiritual world and are carriers for our dreams as well as vessels for adventures, escape and journeys.

Sail Painting is a large-scale site specific installation recreated especially for this exhibition and placed in the impressive double height space of York Art Gallery, bringing the outside scale of sailing boats directly into the gallery context. Evolved from Susan’s ongoing concerns with trading and political histories, material cultures, mapping and boats, Sail Painting was first made for the exhibition Sea Markings at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon.


The theme of the sea and its limits is continued in Taus Makhacheva’s Baida video and performance piece. In the hope of a good catch, local fishermen sail far out into the Caspian Sea before disappearing into the horizon. These “invisible” boats sail into a grey zone – a state of being present and at the same time impossible to locate. The fishermen say that in an emergency it is not their death that they dread but the fact that their families would cherish hopes of their survival even if they never returned to shore.

In the event that a boat capsizes the fishermen tie themselves to the prow that remains floating above the surface of the water as a buoy. This enables their families to find their bodies and mourn their passing. The stories of these people who reconciled themselves to death and are able to speak about it with coldness and detachment lie at the core of the Baida performance.


Similarly, Nidhal Chamekh’s drawings also have a historical yet at the same time personal dimension. The Tunisian artist moves freely in the intersection between a biographical microcosm and a political framework. The drawings Etude d’un Habitat Fortune and icare belong to a series of drawings Chamekh made from images in the refugee camp in Calais.


York-based artist and illustrator Nick Ellwood is fascinated by people and their stories. He created a body of work following his engagement with refugees in the Jungle refugees camp. He uses the medium of portraiture and the universal language of drawing to find a visual and emotional ‘key’ to understanding the human condition.


Varvara Shavrova is exhibiting a series of drawings based on images from the Irish media portrayal of the migrant crisis. The series of 37 drawings shows sketch-like sceneries in black and white of mostly migrants in motion, displayed as a loop projection in space. Blankets Project is an ongoing series of wearable objects containing personal memories that the visitors are encouraged to hold and wear whilst watching the video loop.

Featuring images from Shavrova’s family albums, the blankets represent the desire to reconnect with something warm, familiar and personal when one experiences disconnection, loneliness and rootlessness as a migrant- a feeling Shavrova remembers clearly when she first left her home in Moscow in the Soviet Union as a young artist, to make her new life in the UK. By offering the visitors to wear her blankets, Shavrova hopes these feelings of loss of identity and desire for basic comfort that is experienced by millions of migrants and refugees from all over the world, can be shared through the process of direct physical encounter with the artworks.


APNEA project artist Vanessa Vozzo views the sea as “a boundary where everything disappears, a real border, but also a representation of the limit that separates life from death, from solitude, from void”.


Mohammed Sami’s background as a political refugee who came from Iraq to Sweden in 2007 informs his paintings. Sami says: “Painting is the means by which I engage the traces of personal memory. I believe that the medium of painting has the capacity to record the ghosts of something lost, not present, and therefore become the symbolic register of the permanent. Scale is informed by the Al Báath murals that I painted, on the walls of my school, in Iraq as a child and simultaneously, long after I emigrated to Europe in 2007, the traumatic aftershocks of the Iraq war continue to surface, as subconscious echoes, within the materiality of my painting.”


In his critical and political approach, Turkish artist Halil Altindere explores political, social and cultural codes, focusing on depicting marginalisation and resistance to oppressive systems. Refusing to see the problems of the country in which he lives as exclusively local, the artist scrutinises topics such as urban transformation and gender relations in collaborative works with a series of people who have had first-hand experience with them, from street vendors to hip-hop artists to ballerinas.

Altindere’s Space Refugee “addresses the flow of refugees, a truly global issue, in an extensive project composed of several ensembles of works. Framing an ironic response to the pervasive negative attitudes and resist stereotypes with which large parts of European population view the refugees from areas ravaged by war and terror and victims of political, religious, and ethnic persecution from countries such as Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, and Sudan, Space Refugee proposes a sanctuary for refugees in outer space.” (Kathrin Becker, in: Halil Altindere, edited by Marius Babias and Kathrin Becker, Exh. cat. Neuer Berliner Kunstverein; Cologne: Verlag der Buchhandlung Walther König, 2018, p. 16.)


Serbian artist Vladimir Miladinović’s main interests lie with the politics of remembering, media manipulation and the creation and reinterpretation of the history. His work engages with war and post-war trauma. It deals with media, forensics, political and ethical identification and presentation of war crimes, but also with current transitional ideologies of denial and erasure. It questions how media and institutions in the post-war societies create public space, consequently shaping collective memory. He is using art as a forum to create a counter-public sphere that raises question about war, media propaganda, manipulation of narrative, historical responsibility and intellectual engagement.


In his film My Mother – the History of Iran, Shahram Entekhabi personalizes the narration of history in bringing together his mother’s story with observations that he feels compelled to pass on. He aims to create an alternative narrative deviating from the mainstream historiography, portraying history as a malleable and subjective concept.


Since the very beginning of his career in the 1970s, Brian Maguire has approached painting as an act of solidarity. He operates a truly engaged practice, compelled by the raw realities of humanity’s violence against itself, and the potential for justice. Maguire’s preoccupations draw him to the margins of the art world—alternative space, prisons, women’s shelters, and psychiatric institutions—making shows in traditional gallery and museum spaces something of a rarity.

Maguire’s most recent paintings directly confront issues of migration, displacement and human dignity in the face of the current global unrest. Brian Maguire’s powerful large scale painting Aleppo Apartments is one of the series completed by the artist whilst in Syria, and is currently on display as part of the artist’s major solo show at the Irish Museum of Modern Art in Dublin.