Closing Borders: Riiko Sakkinen responds to the refugee crisis

BY CHRISTINE ALFORD

“If you demand that Europe’s borders be closed, you are not following your time. Our borders have already been closed, with concertina wire that tears both flesh and clothes. The Iron Curtain of the Cold War was a toy compared to the present border fences of Europe,” says artist Riiko Sakkinen in his exhibition. The Closing Borders Exhibition is now open at Serlachius Museums in Finland.

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Sakkinen’s words are based on what he has seen and experienced. In 2016, the artist toured with Pauli Sivonen, the curator of the exhibition. They visited Europe’s external borders; the African cities Ceuta and Melilla, which belong to Spain, the Greek archipelago, the Balkan routes and the demolished refugee camps in France. 

During their travels, the artist and the curator saw refugees and migrants trying to reach Europe, their path blocked by high fences and razor-sharp concertina barbed wire. They saw refugees placed in conditions reminiscent of concentration camps. They saw refugees in the border zone of two countries, stuck in no-man’s-land, living in tented villages.

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On reaching a new hotel, Sakkinen always asked for writing paper bearing the hotel’s logo and began to sketch what he saw. The exhibition’s key works include enlarged prints of these drawings. Sakkinen addresses the issues encountered by the refugees, as well as the attitudes of the indigenous population towards refugees and migrants from the Middle East and Africa. 

Sakkinen is first and foremost, a political artist. He finds the subject matter for his images in entertainment and consumer culture: comic strips, packaging and advertising. The multi-layered and provocative works contain references to history, social problems, and racism. All of the exhibition’s works have texts that inform the viewer but leaves the  interpretation open. 

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The exhibition also features objects. At ceiling level runs concertina barbed wire, manufactured by a company in Malaga that has rapidly increased its sales.  In the centre of the exhibition space is a car that asylum seekers arriving in Finland from Russia left after crossing into Finland in winter 2015–2016. The Finnish state auctioned the cars that were accumulating at the border.

The exhibition also displays children’s swimming toys. The toys are printed with: ‘This is not a life-saving device’. Sakkinen collected them from among the tens of thousands of life jackets that were abandoned on the shores of the island of Lesbos. Over a couple of years, hundreds of thousands of refugees from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan have passed through Lesbos, crossing the sea between Greece and Turkey in densely packed boats. 

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Sakkinen does not highlight in his exhibition the perspective of a single refugee or migrant. Instead he addresses the state of being a refugee or migrant as a phenomenon and explains how Europe has responded to it. The artist says that when preparing the exhibition he read the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the United Nations in 1948. Under the declaration, everyone has the right to seek asylum from persecution in other countries. Similarly, everyone has the right to freedom of movement and residence within the borders of each state.

Sakkinen concludes that:

“The Declaration of Human Rights is, in practice, no longer in effect. It is not protecting people in distress that are coming to Europe.”

In the summer of 2017, a publication will be released by Pauli Sivonen. It is a travelogue, inspired by the men’s discussions of their experiences. At the same time, it casts light on the stages of the exhibition process, which went through many twists and turns.

Sakkinen lives and works in Spain. In the exhibition, he explains his vision of the kind of world he would like to live in:

“I want a world where there are no borders and where people can freely choose their place of residence. I want a world where people have the right to move but, above all, the right not to move. I want a world where no-one has to leave home because of war, violence, persecution or poverty.

The exhibition is open at Serlachius Museum Gösta from 4 February 2017 to 7 January 2018. The Serlachius Museums are open in the winter season, 1 September–31 May, from Tuesday to Sunday 11 am–6 pm.

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