Common Ground: Exploring Hospitality through Art

Common Ground: Exploring Hospitality through Art

Redi Koobak and Suruchi Thapar-Björkert

Imagine a village in the middle of a forest. Sparsely populated, surrounded by serene nature, it could potentially evoke an image of a perfect place for a quiet holiday getaway. However, pin its location in post-Soviet Estonia about 20 km from the Russian border, or 220 km from the capital city of Tallinn, and you will immediately add a sense of abandonment to the scene, a sense of being frozen in time. According to the 2011 census, Jaama village in the (former) Illuka rural parish in Ida-Viru county had only 30 inhabitants, none of whom were ethnic Estonians. In the aftermath of the Second World War, when Estonia was occupied by the Soviet Union, Ida-Viru county underwent ethnic cleansing as the local population was forced out by migrants from Soviet Russia. The only small shop in Jaama village is open just a few days a week. Without a car, it is difficult to get around. Life here becomes the epitome of isolation and desertion.

Between 1998 and 2013, the building in the forest behind Jaama village was the place where Illuka Reception Centre for Asylum Seekers was located. Squeezed in a forest between two villages, the centre was supposed to not “disturb” the life of the villagers too much. In its insistence on “catching up with Europe,” the government was keen on showing the outside world that Estonia is capable of offering protection to asylum seekers in a way that is “worthy” of an independent state. At the same time, there was a sentiment that if the conditions were too good, there would be more of “them” coming. In this context, questions of hospitality and hostility towards displaced persons become inseparably entangled with national narratives of the experience of ethnic conflict and the legacy of forced Soviet re-population policies. Thus, in the Estonian national imaginary, the presence of “foreigners” triggers memories of historical injury.

Coupled with Estonia’s long-standing fear of cultural and political marginalization, it is precisely this entanglement that inspired Tallinn-based artist Kristina Norman to explore how the topic of refugees and asylum seekers unfolds in the current day Estonian context. Known for her interdisciplinary artistic practice, Norman is devoted to creating sharp, provocative documentary and research-based art projects about human rights and the politics of memory. Zooming in on her documentary art installation Common Ground (2013), we examine how Norman’s project brought refugee issues to the collective consciousness in Estonia at a time when there were no significant local discussions around this. Arguably then her project constitutes both an interventionist practice and a communicative tool for understanding (in)hospitable political landscapes in Europe.

In Common Ground, Norman places the narratives of asylum seekers who were housed at the Illuka Reception Centre for Asylum Seekers in 2013 while awaiting the official decision on their status side by side with the recollections of Estonians who fled to Sweden in 1944. Hoping this would be a temporary exile because the West would surely not leave Estonia in the Soviet grip (they did), many Estonian refugees nonetheless remained fearful of their future. It is thus not unreasonable to expect that the experience of Estonians with the devastation of forced migration has sensitised them to the issues of refugees in today’s age of mass migrations.

In the video installation, the artist highlights how the Estonian refugees describe the welcoming care they received when they arrived in Sweden. Several of the older women who could easily pass as Swedes have warm memories of food being served as they arrived in camps after the tumultuous crossing of the Baltic Sea: pea soup, pancakes, herring. In a touching story, one woman describes how after a difficult experience of diphtheria, the nurse gave her a hot bath and washed her hair without being obligated to do it, just because of humanly care. Despite the hardships of a refugee life, the underlying emotion is a sincere gratitude for people’s hospitality that they encountered and that enabled them to build a good life in the new society.

In stark contrast, the asylum seekers at the Illuka Reception Centre paint quite a different picture of hospitality. While they assure the viewer that they feel safe and the housing is adequate, they struggle with the little money they receive from the state and they have no one to ask for help when, for instance, there is a water stoppage at the centre. The men in the video talk about the devastating effects of silence, being cut off from civilization, surrounded by just barely populated forests. They point out how they don’t even know what Estonia is like because they have no connection with the society or its people. They feel estranged and with no opportunities for a less uncertain future even if their applications for asylum are granted. In the video, they are unable to disclose their country of origin and their “case” but their experiences of terror and brutality mirror those of the Estonian refugees. One asylum seeker mentions, “(…) it was a difficult situation in the war zone area (…) people were being killed (…) captured and tortured (…) being held for years…nobody knows their whereabouts.” Another disclosed: “My life was in danger.” Thus, they are at a point of no return.

The suffering of fellow Estonians who were forced to flee from their homes forms a significant part of the national self-image of Estonians today. At the same time, as the artist observes, “we appear to the outside world as a country that takes an extremely rejecting attitude towards the asylum-seekers,” despite the fact that they are “coming from similar situations to those that governed Estonia a few decades ago” (quoted in Kodres 2013). So rather than simply drawing attention to the devastating effects of violent historical events that lead to forced migration, Norman invites the (Estonian) viewers to feel empathy towards current day refugees by evoking memories of hospitality with which Estonian refugees were received during the Second World War. Importantly, Norman uses a historical comparison not because she wants to equalise the experiences of these two sets of refugees, set apart in time and space, but because she wants to highlight the (dis)similarities between experiences of hospitality regarding basic human needs such as food, water, shelter, physical and mental well-being.

Furthermore, Norman’s installation asserts “the value of the ordinary, the seemingly uneventful, on its own terms” (Raley 2015, 270) in exploring everyday renditions of hospitality together with articulations of hostility. For example, while grateful for the safety they are given in Estonia, the Illuka residents’ feeling of being unwelcome and isolated is further exacerbated through the rare moments when they do manage to access public spaces such as a cafe in Jõhvi. A simple everyday experience of having a cup of coffee turns surreal when they observe how their presence causes discomfort among the locals who can’t gobble down their lunches fast enough to leave. The video thus reflects upon the limits to hospitality when processes of racialisation re-instate hostilities, unfolding a new logic of social and spatial segregation. In particular, the spatial divisions that Norman highlights underline how the locals and the outsiders are schematised according to reductive and prejudiced conceptions of self and other, so that “our space” is valorised, to be protected, and “their space’’ is denigrated, to be managed in “their” and “our” best interests (Ingram, 2011). Ironically, it is also the Russian-speaking locals who experience a similar kind of divisive segregation and marginalisation within the society at large.

The differences between the experiences of the Estonian-Swedes during the Second World War and the contemporary asylum seekers in Estonia are further highlighted in the artwork through the fact that the former can speak under their own names and with their own face, while the latter remain anonymous and they tell their stories with their backs turned to the camera. Even upon introduction, the refugees from Estonia identify themselves with their full name, date of birth and place of origin as they share their recollections in a cosy inviting space of home, complete with nostalgia and smiles over pastry and teacups, while those from the Illuka centre introduce themselves as “asylum seekers” who for security reasons cannot “disclose” their “country of origin” or details about their lives, sitting in bleak empty rooms with basic or makeshift furniture. In the video, it is precisely the anonymity of refugee lives, that justifies their dispensability and disposability by the state. In shifting back and forth between the unwelcoming Illuka centre and the comfortable surroundings of the Estonian refugees in Stockholm, together with their narratives, Norman’s art transcends national boundaries while simultaneously exposing the embeddedness of hostility in renditions of hospitality.

Critical artistic practices play an important role in questioning the “dominant consensus’’ (Mouffe, 2007: 5) by visualising what is repressed and obscured. Juxtaposing the spatio-temporal specificities of displacement and migration together with the material and experiential aspects of hospitality, Norman’s installation re-inscribes spaces of being and living by giving “a voice to the people [of Illuka] whom we never hear” (quoted in Kodres 2013). Nonetheless, this representational strategy of leaving the asylum seekers nameless and faceless in the artwork is layered with its own ambiguities. It inadvertently runs the risk of further sedimenting and normalising the marginalisation of the refugees. While drawing attention to the importance of a critical interrogation of the national self-image is a valuable intervention in this context, we are, at the end, left wondering to what extent it is possible for art to represent, aesthetically and ethically, the politically unrepresented and give a voice to the “unheard” marginalised and displaced populations.


Redi Koobak is Postdoctoral Researcher at the Centre for Women’s and Gender Research, University of Bergen, Norway. Her current research interests include feminist visual culture studies; the intersections of postcolonialism and postsocialism; discourses of war, gender and nationalism; transnational and local feminisms; and creative writing methodologies. Koobak is the author of the monograph Whirling Stories: Postsocialist Feminist Imaginaries and the Visual Arts (2013). Suruchi Thapar-Björkert is Docent and Senior Lecturer at the Department of Government, University of Uppsala (Sweden). She researches on gendered discourses of colonialism and nationalism, gendered violence and suburban vulnerabilities, ethnicity, social capital and social exclusion, empowerment and anti-poverty initiatives and qualitative feminist research methodologies.

Image credit: Kristina Norman