Found objects, Lost paradises
— published in: On drifting (2020)
— author: Malik Nejmi, photographer, Morocco/France
— all illustrations from this article: Objets trouvés / Paradis perdus (2015—2018). In: “ Les traversées auto-gérées du Détroit de Gibraltar, histoire d’Omar Ba ”.

Malik Nejmi


Gedj amoul bankass ” is a Wolof proverb that literally means “the sea does not hold us ”.

It is also the title of a series of videos made in Tangier in 2015 by Omar Ba, a Senegalese migrant who has been in transit in this border city in northern Morocco for a time that he himself can no longer define (perhaps ten years). In a migratory context, this proverb could also be translated by another expres- sion : To “ join the flow ” 1.

An injunction given to young Black men in Tangier to migrate at all costs to neigh- boring Spain, and for whom the prospect of crossing the Strait of Gibraltar is in every discussion, on every mind, in every body and in every dream, so much so that the imma- terial border erects as “ possible ” the drift of a totally diverted space, where the military plays with migrants, where migrants play with political agreements, where everything is done to push them to cross in the most precarious conditions possible. While the port of TangierMed has moved several dozen kilometers away from the city and “ privatized the border ”, it is now necessary to cross the Strait by paddling an unmotorized zodiac : Those who take a motorboat will be counted as traffickers (harragas) and will go to prison before being sent back to their country.

I met Omar Ba on the port of the city, he appeared to me like a character out of a novel, his voice from the movies, his posture, his gaze hidden behind his dark glasses (a bit like the hero of Chris Marker’s La Jetée). He seemed willing to tell me his stories of the crossing and he very quickly imposed him- self as the heroic figure I was looking for2. At that point, Omar, if he accepted, would be the one to whom I could o er a documentary commission; for what interested me in this experience was to produce a counter-narrative and to explore forms of denunciation of the reality of migration by giving the so-called “ migrant ” the possibility of making his own film, through the use of mobile phones.

The metaphor of the title of Omar Ba’s film evokes first of all the fragility of the destiny of one man and a thousand others faced with the impossibility of crossing the sea.

In this circumstance, filming with a mobile phone moments of the daily life of migrants
in Tangier was also to question a hyper-nostalgic field of the Mediterranean erected as a cultural bridge where impulses of hospitality come up against strata of postcolonial history – or even “ indigénat ” – that Omar himself will evoke at the end of our meeting. For the Mediterranean is also a space of tension,“ a place of separation, crossed by logics of domination and power since the time of colonization ” 3. In Tangier, the organization of the crossing of the Strait of Gibraltar by young sub-Saharans allows us to deconstruct this figure of exile as a nostalgic victim frozen in history. How these young men and women collect the sum of money needed to acquire an inflatable zodiac and a whole set of objects for the crossing, air pump, pair of binoculars, handcrafted wooden oars and makeshift buoys, all of which are objects of resistance that will now suspend the Mediterranean narrative from a set of informal contradictions.

This type of narrative protocol – asking the migrant to be the director of his or her own films – could quickly lead to confusion. What is my role as an artist, what is my stance towards Omar? How is this documentary commission being paid for? Should the artist-migrant relationship be explicit in the film? How can we interpret the truth of the images when his staging shakes up the pre- conceived images on the subject (when we see Omar dancing in his costume, for example, and thinks he is an actor-studio)? Who is the film aimed at, Malik, the “ whites ”, or the Museum he quotes in a video?

Exploring the initiatory wanderings of a cinema at the border, or even of a “ border cinema ” , also means producing a liminal field of research to escape the explicitness and judgment of images. The production of a “ place ” that will evoke a geopolitics of the migrant’s work and allow the blurring of spatial references on the border, but also the construction of a “ terrain ” that leads to reading this experience as the writing of a common destiny.

The partition between Omar and me, i.e. the encounter between the son of an im- migrant returning to Morocco and a migrant trying to escape from it, will have produced this semantic field that allows us to accentuate the relationship (empathy, links) while shaking up anthropological postures.

As we met, for example, on the Grand Socco in Tangier, I understood that Omar was using the camera as a tool to remobilize his migration project. This could be seen in several filmed scenes where he started to point the camera on himself (passport scene, buoy making scene), scenes where he summoned the inhabitants to “ his place ”
to share not only the techniques and preparations for the crossing (which was the object of my commission), but above all what “ being in the world ” means for those who migrate. At the same time, I understood without really understanding him, that his posture was more that of a smuggler (a ” chairman ”), one who prepares the departures of others but without revealing himself. Thus, if he had accepted this project it was also because he was not physically or psychologically able to cross the strait himself. Omar and I are similar in that we both implement strategies to avoid a certain violence of real life (surely linked to this post- colonial legacy), we are both “ middlemen ”, storytellers.

At this point in my research, I met Sophie Bava, a migration specialist and socio-anthropologist in Morocco, with whom we very quickly exchanged views on the Senegalese journeys of adventurous migrants. Our discussions then led to collaboration on an ongoing project on “ the objects of migration ” and on shared ground in Morocco and Marseille. Her view and her writings on the long times of migration allowed me to better understand why Omar had accepted my deal, or to point out that in these times of exile, one turns to stronger values : the religious takes on a fundamental position, as well as the structuring of friendship networks.

While Omar was delivering films to me, he also staged symbolic objects that he sent me. So I found myself collecting seven wooden oars, an ablution can (which had contained water mixed with suras diluted in ink, perfume that his mother had sent him by courier from Dakar to Morocco), a small Koranic booklet, drawings of the border, a child’s sandal and a piece of cloth.

All these protective objects (the sandal placed under the migrants’ mattresses to bring luck, the oars blessed by a migration marabout staged in one of the videos) now accompany the installation of this work in museums.
This way of structuring an autobiographical narrative and of transmitting objects is absolutely fascinating when one knows how this can be questioned today by the relationship of museums to “ decolonization ” and the return of objects of worship to African countries. What happens to the object when it is transmitted ? And what discourse occurs when the object is staged by “ the migrant ” himself and no longer by the museum ?

Omar’s work reveals that space, time and objects are inseparable, for places exist only in a given time, animated by objects that are summoned, and disappear at the same time as the human ties that had been woven there and that had produced them by making them unique. In fact, this strategy of Omar’s unveiling through objects and films allows us to think that in these long times of migration, stopping, slowing down (taking a camera, narrating one’s autobiography, making connections) becomes a political act that brings about a new temporality. This new narrative time will allow Omar to analyze the epic dimension of his journey with a certain hindsight.

It is rare to see a migrant looking back or telling his story, and perhaps even more so among young sub-Saharan Africans, of whom almost no image reaches us – unlike Syrian migrations, for example, which have nourished social networks or fueled other equally harsh and violent journeys. No, what we get from Omar Ba in this human experience is the extension of a new geographical concept, a kind of “ parallel ” world map where the modulations of migration, movement and then of the “ parallel ” world are not only the same, but also the same. The anchoring, and the tensions of colonial history, produce a choir-place where the tinkering and juxtaposition of narratives comes to signify, at the confines of the West, that these movements are not nothing.

On the contrary, after having rubbed shoulders with Omar during this five-month research, I am convinced that from the work he has produced there emerges a whole new mythology in progress, whose only way of reinventing the old world is through the ordeal of migration.

The ability to be “ other ” is a condition of migration implemented to escape from one’s condition as a migrant, exile or refugee. For if there are so-called “ transit ” spaces, they are also and above all “ spaces of the right
to life ”. It is also necessary to promote research and production tools enabling migrant- adventurers to become agents of the law. The change of the dominant-dominated scale that has brought about the strategies of this research suggests that migration is not only the new scene of citizenship, but also a tool for anticipating a world and world view that prevails without scruples in the intellectual debates on its “ repair ”. When Omar
Ba talks to me about the “ Bridge for Whites ” 4, when he thinks that I am going to use this bridge to return to Europe, he refers to a debt of justice that is equalled only by the const- ruction of the legitimacy of his discourse on the world. This philosophical breath literally breaks into the anthropological relationship that we have, we artists and researchers, with the way in which we report history and collect it.

We will have to determine a whole chain of responsibility for this postcolonial violence in order to finally understand the mobilizations and constructions that are “ on the move ” and that produce, in my opinion, a new great civilizing narrative. For if the word “ Odyssey ” is not part of the language of migrants, it is much more a fantasy of a Europe that no longer has anything to tell itself, and that protects itself behind dust covered heroes.

No, as Sophie Bava says, we will have to “ build with this Mediterranean Africa ” which is in the process of making tomorrow’s world. In fact, it is the human steps that allow us to imagine migration and to open the small door of anthropology by looking at things through the fact that migrants “ do not see things the way we do ”. And it is from this viewpoint that we change the contents and clichés about migration. Nobody talks about anchoring, about long times, about symbology, about objects. Yet they lead us back to other assumptions : organization, exchanges, transactions, return journeys, visitations or even spatial and religious reconstructions. It is not what migration shows us, but what migrants allow us to glimpse at that will become the source of understanding for a new school of thought. And the history of migration is after all “ the history of ideas ”.

The analysis of migration over long periods of time makes it possible to erase the idea of conquest or invasion. The questions posed by Morocco about contemporary migration reveal its incredible modernity.

[1] Term borrowed from the exhibition presented at the Jeu de Paume, 2015. Erin Gleeson, curator, is co-founder and artistic director of SA SA BASSAC located in Phnom Penh. “ Rallying the flow ” is an expression borrowed from a Khmer proverb. Wherever you are, you have to adapt your actions to the situation. This proverb reminds us of the existence of an ancestral lever for acting on the collective consciousness : individual expression.

[2] In 2015, Malik Nejmi is in research residency at IMéRA Marseille. He produces a research between art and social sciences : “ Self-managed crossings of the Strait of Gibraltar : the case of Omar Ba ” (IMéRA, FNAGP) for which he produces a series of clandestine films. This exchange of films and objects will produce an installation presented in Leipzig at the Grassi Museum and today entitled “ Lost objects, lost paradises ” in reference to Jean Jamin’s text about the Dakar-Djibouti mission.

[3] The Mediterranean as a border: symbolic order, materialization of bodies and immigration. Caterina Rea (University of Lille, France) quotes Barakat about the racialization of the Mediterranean space. In “ Polis e Psique ” Vol.1, Número Temático, 2011.

[4] At the end of his research, Omar asks Malik :

“ How are you heading back? ”
“ I’m taking the airplane ”
“ You’re not crossing the bridge? ” “ The bridge? ”
“ The bridge for Whites… ”
From an interview with Hélène Bertheleu, sociologist, Hommes et Migrations “ Exposer les migrations ”
No1322 July-September 2018