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Katarzyna Sagatowska

Visualisations of 20th-century Forced Migrations

23 December 2022
  • forced migrations
  • Visualisations of 20th-century Forced Migrations

Memory is inseparable from identity. It is a complex relationship. Personal experiences create our individual identity; experiences of previous generations our social and cultural identity. The mechanisms of memory and the manners of its interpretation are topics of research by scholars from various fields: psychologists, sociologists, and historians. These are also motifs taken up by artists.

The project Visualisations of 20th-century Forced Migrations – Transnational Memory in Pictures and Art focused on the transnational experience of forced migration before, during, and as a result of World War II (1933–1949). It is not simply about the historical moment of flight, expulsion, deportation or forced resettlement, but more about experiences and images related to the cultural memory of the affected groups.

We invited young people from various disciplines to join the project and talk about topics related to forced migration in the 20th century, using tools from the field of art and various types of visual materials. We were looking for intimate stories describing the experiences of the participants in the events, because, paraphrasing Martin Pollack’s words in his famous book Topografie der Erinnerung[1] (The Topography of Remembrance), ‘it will be easier to understand a great story when we look at it (...) from the inside out, from the perspective of individual experiences and ordeals, including tragedy.’

During several months of intensive work, an extremely diverse range of projects was created, and the development of the final visual form was preceded by long and thorough research. Some of the authors used archival materials for their analyses, while others decided to produce a completely original artistic statement. Online solutions turned out to be an interesting tool, making it possible to share the collected text, photographic, and video material through publicly available, open-access websites.

The Lighthouses. A Story about the Germans in Yugoslavia by Mladen Nikolić (Serbia) is a visual essay about the fate of the ethnic German population in the territories of former Yugoslavia using the example of the town of Pančevo. The German names carved in the 1920s and 1930s by the town’s inhabitants on the bricks of the two lighthouses pointing the way to the port provided the author with his inspiration. Nikolić also found a large number of archival photos depicting pre-war everyday life, as well as the impact of warfare on the fate of the Germans.

In her project Images of Law and Injustice, Andrea Škopková (Czech Republic) decided on the form of a textual essay analysing visual materials about the forced migration of people living in the border areas of Czechoslovakia in the years 1938–1945.

Several projects have taken the modern form of websites. At www.docpstrazna.pl, Joanna Kowalska (Poland) invites us to take five walks around Pstrążna, located on today’s Polish–Czech border, together with its inhabitants. The author’s idea is that during the video-recorded walks, the witnesses talk about the history of their families and migration in context, pointing out traces of memory and memory loss in the landscape. Kowalska complements the video materials with her own photographs showing the village today and with documentary photographs she has received from interviewees.

Brenna Yellin’s (USA) project Disorderly Trajectories traces the migrations of ethnic Germans from the areas that fell under the influence of the USSR after the war. Usually, these routes are presented in a simplified linear way, but Yellin shows how complicated they were. Based on the histories of several characters, the subsequent stages of the journey and their dates can be traced. The author has also selected quotes from their testimonies, which concisely relate their experiences and accompanying emotions (www.tinyurl.com/BrennaYellin).

The third online project is Displaced People and the Buildings They Left Behind by Badri Okujava (Georgia), available at www.topography.ge. This project focuses on the ethnic minority of German Swabians who had lived in Tbilisi from the mid-19th century and who were forced to leave in November 1941. The main part of the project is a topographical depiction of over 400 former places of residence of minorities. This was achieved by marking the map of Tbilisi with specific addresses, family names, and photos taken by the author documenting the current state of these buildings.

A bridge between online projects and original implementation is It Is Still Before My Eyes by the duo Liana Blikharska and Daria Koltsova (Ukraine), which consists of two parts: an artistic design of a stained-glass window and a presentation using Google Earth. The authors talk about the deportations in the USSR through the fate of the Crimean Tatars who had lived in these areas from sometime between the 13th or 14th century. During the so-called evacuation programme, the Soviet authorities forced the entire Tatar community to leave the Crimea and move east.

The next three works are expressions of the artists’ creativity. Kalina Trajanovska (Macedonia) created a video work combining her own photographs and recorded sound. This poetic tale refers to the history of Madžir Maalo, a district of Skopje in Macedonia. The name of the district literally means ‘refugee settlement’ (Ottoman Turkish muhacir and Arabic muhajir meaning ‘refugee’). Observing the destruction of one of the houses, Trajanovska reflects on the Muslim inhabitants who were forced to leave their homes during several waves of migration.

Antonia Foldes’ (UK) project Threads takes on a unique final form – a hand-embroidered bag created by the author. The embroidery design combines various folk motifs and methods of execution to tell the story of migrations in what is now Ukraine. The bag has been a symbolic object accompanying migrants for centuries. It allows you to ‘package’ the past and ‘take’ it into an unclear future. Referring to Michael Rothberg’s theory of multidirectional memory, Antonia Foldes juxtaposes various narratives about memory without judging them.

Another author who uses embroidery in her work is Olga Filonchuk (Ukraine). Using the format of a book–diary entitled At the Still Point of the Turning World, she captures her daily life since leaving Kiev in March 2022 following the Russian invasion. Together with her sister and seven-month-old niece, they settled in the German spa town of Bad Liebenstein in the company of other Ukrainian women and children. The diary is a collection of photos and texts by Filonchuk that express the complex emotions and memories that accompany the author in her new home. It is an attempt to register a moment of inspiration, a moment of shock, which turned from seconds into weeks, then months, and stretched in time.

The basis of the works within the Visualisations of 20th-century Forced Migrations – Transnational Memory in Pictures and Art were meetings between people from different countries, from different regions, and from different backgrounds. We met initially in June 2022 in Berlin, and then we saw each other online for several months, refining the next stages of the projects. I know that, apart from official meetings, the participants had private contacts, exchanged knowledge, supported each other with experiences, and worked together. Looking for the best artistic solutions and the most precise ways to express their thoughts, they had the opportunity to get to know and understand each other better. They added their contemporary individual experiences and histories to the analysed historical individual stories. The resulting projects are an expression of the potential that the visual arts have in better understanding important historical events by learning about the fates of their individual participants.



[1] Martin Pollack, Topografie der Erinnerung, Residenz Verlag, 2016.


Photo by Mladen Nikolić