‘Mother Tongue’ by Angelica Mesiti is an exploration of place and identity

By Ben Culpin, photos by Madalina Paxaman

The final exhibition at the art gallery ‘O’ Space presents a vivid glimpse into the lives of people from different backgrounds who are living in Aarhus.

Internationally renowned Australian artist Angelica Mesiti has created a series of 8 short films specifically for Aarhus 2017 European Capital of Culture, exploring our sense of place and identity. From radio hits to traditional folk songs, Somali blues, marching drills and wedding dances, ‘Mother Tongue’ demonstrates a series of communal, creative activities shared across the urban, civic and residential spaces of Aarhus.

Residents of Gellerupparken took part in Angelica Mesiti’s video project (photo: Madalina Paxaman)

Of particular focus in ‘Mother Tongue’ are the communities living in the housing projects in Gellerup. Built in 1967 as a modernist ‘utopian model’ of functional housing designed specifically for families, the area has, in recent years, been referred to as a ‘ghetto’. A report by the Danish Ministery for Integration, Residency and Foreign Affairs in 2015, entitled the List of Ghetto Areas, named Gellerup as one of the worst examples in Denmark, with high unemployment, low levels of education, poor access to public amenities, high crime rates and low overall citizen security. Mesiti seeks to question this label and the connotations it brings, exploring how communal singing, dance and music can link communities and provide a sense of place. The first film of ‘Mother Tongue’ shows an apartment in Gellerup where one of Somalia’s most famous musicians, Maryam Mursal, who is known worldwide for her performances alongside Peter Gabriel and Nina Simone, is filmed performing one of her songs Lei Lei (‘I feel blue’). This song addresses the issues of homesickness and being separated from one’s culture. Although now a resident of the UK, Mursal moved to Denmark after fleeing the Somalian Civil War in the 1990s and now feels grateful towards the nation which welcomed her family.

The aims of the exhibition

The over-arching theme of the exhibition is to question how we best live together and co-operate: an inquiry which, for the viewer, is relevant both personally and on a global, geo-political level. From a contemporary European perspective this question has a particular and pressing poignancy, with the Migrant Crisis of 2015 seeing a rise in far-right political movements and fear-mongering preceding the Brexit vote, spreading distrust, xenophobia and hate crime against migrant communities on a scale not seen in decades.

This idea of how best to live together has also been a specific question in Denmark since the 1960s, through public policy and urban development projects such as Gellerup and Bispehaven in Aarhus. For this exhibition, Mesiti has worked with a range of people from different backgrounds, seeking to depict people’s lives in Denmark and Europe today, across a range of circumstances.

‘Mother Tongue’ shows how diverse communities living in Aarhus connect through music, dance and song (photo: Madalina Paxaman)

Throughout the films, the focal point remains the importance of music and singing in our lives and at how they can help to bring groups together and break down boundaries between two seemingly contrasting cultures. In the short film Joanna is a Place, the Ramallah Boy Scout Troop from Gellerup, made up of boys of Palestinian and Lebanese descent, accompany on drums the children of Rosenvangskolen in Viby singing a classic Danish song, Joanna by Kim Larsen. Mesiti draws in the viewer, sketching a picture of a society where individuals and groups seek ways to maintain their own cultural values while integrating into a new place, rather than simply being assimilated.

The last days of ‘O’ Space

The venue itself, ‘O’ Space is located in a re-used corn silo on the Aarhus docks, which opened its doors in March 2017 to host a number of one-off art installations for the European Capital of Culture. These have included the Manifesto film series which starred Cate Blanchett, Future Feminism by Aarhus 2017’s artist-in-residence Anohni and, most recently, the New Danish Modern Exhibition.

‘O’ Space has hosted the works of national and international artists (photo: Madalina Paxaman)

The gallery will be closing permanently in December to make way for new development, so this will be the last chance to experience the beautiful artwork of Mesiti’s films inside an incredible venue.

‘Mother Tongue’ will run until the 10th December.

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