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When Contemporary Art Encounters the World of Political Refugees | (dot)migration

(dot)migration | A space by EMILY TASINATO

What would happen if one of the world’s most famous contemporary artists offered a political refugee the chance to turn his own body into a work of art to gain freedom of movement across national borders? The Man Who Sold His Skin by the Tunisian Director Kaouther Ben Hania – awarded at the 2020 Venice Film Festival in the section “New Horizons” – follows the story of Sam Ali, a young Syrian forced to leave his motherland torn by the bloody civil war, and ready to do anything, also selling his body to the eccentric American artist Jeffrey Godefroi, to reach his beloved Abeer in Europe, in Belgium. The extreme choice of Sam Ali to commodify his skin getting tattooed the symbol par excellence of the only refugees’ chance for living in Europe, the Schengen Visa, is a fierce critique of Ben Hania towards a paradoxical world in which objects can circulate more easily and matter more than human beings. In this world where there is no room for human mercy, is the same West, its lack of empathy, and its keenness in exploiting the tragedy of these migrants in search of a new and dignified life, to be also indicted: skin in exchange for a new life in the Old Continent, this is the deal, and Sam Ali, now turned into a living work of art, finds himself falling victim to the same capitalist system that was supposed to give him the much-desired freedom. By assuming deliberately the status of an object of exhibition, the young Syrian refugee has eventually lost his emancipation and dignity. 

You are a free man Sam .. No I am a dead man