Exhibition Review: Odyssey by Ximena Echague

Inside the European Parliament’s slick, postmodern Altiero Spinelli building, there is a curious display of photographs: of people’s bodies, faces, bodies alone and together with their families, hands holding a mobile phone or a post wrapped with barbed wire. Pieces of clothing are scattered across the floor and a white cage holds an assortment of personal items, including a colorful doll’s house and a much-worn tracksuit top.

This is Ximena Echague’s exhibition “Odyssey”, which tells the human side of forced migration. An Argentinian-born street photographer who has herself lived in multiple cities with “floating populations”, around the world. Echague has collected the testimonies and pictures of people who fled war or persecution and found relative safety in Belgium. The result is a small, but humanly complex work that goes beyond the headlines to explore both personal and shared histories of movement.

At the exhibition’s opening on 24 January, Echague reminded the audience that “we are all migrants”. Her work bears witness to the horrors that the people faced in their countries and on their journeys, but also emphasizes their dignity, “as subjects, not objects”. A number of the people featured in the exhibition were at the opening; among them was Ismail, who escaped the war in Somalia 7 years ago and now volunteers giving guided tours of Anderlecht. His tour route includes the houses of Jews deported during the Nazi occupation. Showing people such sites is not easy, he says, but reflects that “every country has its past”, and that the important thing is to move on.
Ismail says he loves Brussels, where he has opportunities and can live without fear of war. But it is far from easy or even safe for migrants in Belgium these days. Omid, who fled Iran aged 23 after his father, who had worked for the secret services, disappeared, worries that “some people are angry with migrants”. He now works welcoming refugees in Flanders, but because he doesn’t have papers could be deported at any moment.

Also at the opening, Nadia Echadi from the Citizens’ Platform for Refugee Support warned of a humanitarian emergency in Brussels’ Maximilien Park, where hundreds of migrants are without proper shelter or food – and that instead of helping them, the government is set on deporting them.

Meanwhile, Natalia Alonso, Head of EU Advocacy at the charity Oxfam, criticised European policies that block people from moving instead of recognizing that migration, properly managed, can be a “win-win”. “We need a human solution”, she said.
For Ismail, the situation is “complex”. He has had his asylum application rejected three times and narrowly avoided being deported, but he acknowledges that no country can have entirely open borders.

“Odyssey” is a reflection of that precariousness, and also a direct message to governments that seem increasingly hostile towards migrants. But above all, it shows that people who have left their countries are, as Echague says, “human beings, like us, trying their best, and they deserve our sympathy and our support.

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