Mama… I Don’t Know How to Swim

2014

Paper, fishing wire, metal hooks, fishing weights

Dimensions variable

 

Mama… I Don’t Know How to Swim uses paper boats Hafez created in collaboration with refugee families and their children, who recently arrived to New Haven, CT. They represent the deaths of migrants attempting to cross the Mediterranean Sea between 2014-16. The paper boats (each representing 62 deaths) suspended along columns of fishing lines visualizes the systems that regulate and define peoples. The Refugee Convention ratified by the United Nations in 1951 defined "refugee" as a person "outside the country of his nationality" with a "well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion." When claims to asylum are dependent upon entrance to a state in the first place, who is included or excluded from the category of "refugee"?

 

Hafez's use of paper boats that children craft and play with all over the world as a symbol of common humanity draws our attention to the paradox of the narrow legal definition of refugees based on nationalities: While an individual may have the right to seek asylum, there is no consequent obligation for a state to grant asylum. Against the tendency of western media to iconize refugees as a "problem" or state of "disorder," Hafez installs a system of visual order. Yet each boat is tenuously connected to the next through sharp metal hooks and each fishing line is pulled down by missile-shaped weights. Here, order is maintained rather than disrupted by militarized violence. Like the international system governing the movement of peoples, order casts its own changing and omnipresent shadow held in a state of suspended animation. Rather than protection, Hafez visualizes a regime of managing precarity and memorializes both lost innocence and the innocent lives lost.

A digital program, with student curated research materials, for the exhibition Critical Refuge: Sculptures by Mohamad Hafez on view at the Whitney Humanities Center, Yale University, August 30 - December 20, 2017.

This project is generously sponsored by the YALE Digital Humanities Laboratory, the Council on Middle East Studies, the Public Humanities Program and the Whitney Humanities Center.