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Mahmoud Mahdy: Meridians for the Steadfast and the Unmeasurable

23/07/2021

Mahmoud Mahdy is a multi-disciplinary artist based in the UK. He is a member of the London-based BLKBRD, an artistic collective who create public artwork in celebration of marginalised workers and communities in the UK and their stories. The collective is concerned with honouring the sacrifices of migrants both in Britain today and throughout time, from the transatlantic slave trade, to the contemporary refugee crisis, the Windrush scandal and the disproportionately high COVID death toll amongst members of the global majority.

Mahmoud has an interest in filmmaking, having graduated from UAL in 2018 with a BA in Film and TV. His work and practice involve writing and directing hybrid films that examine the unspoken symptoms of the colonised and their repressed histories, exploring themes of neglect and mysticism.

Below, he discusses migrant journeys in relation to displacement, spirituality, units of time and Britain’s colonial heritage.

[There are always prayers for history to remember the likeness and resemblance of the dispossessed. However, our tongues will always be tied when we witness the steadfastness of those who truly believe: Home remains a feeling, a notion, an instinct, a memory, a dream, today and forever...]

Migrant culture is mostly represented through those who have concluded their journeys, those who have arrived survived and settled. The culture testifies to the struggles of accepting a new home in a foreign land and affirms the distance of a homeland, mounting the notion of “origin” as the central piece to the migrant’s spirituality. However, there is a great deal of spirituality and imagination that entails a migrant’s journey – after their departure and before their arrival – that I believe is strongly underrepresented.

We all understand that seeking asylum and shelter in foreign lands is catalysed by pain and fear – the tragedy of home being no longer safe. But largely, we cease to recognise the vision and hope that also drives the migrant’s crossing. Leaving everything behind – their origin, their context – embarking on a journey of no return, the migrant is armed with nothing but hope. Left at the mercy of smugglers, border patrols, deadly seas – the unknown – a migrant’s definition of hope is radically unique. It is weighted with the high stakes of imprisonment, enslavement; not just perishing, but even disappearing. Nonetheless, in the eyes of the various laws, migrants are regarded as spirits – ghosts – until bureaucracy realises them as legal beings or citizens. Whether they dwell illegally in Europe, waiting for a government letter to recognise them, remain in camps and detention centres, or are lost within vast lands and seas, it is impossible to quantify the number of migrants stuck in limbo, who have fled their homes and are seeking a new one.

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Visual from “Bearers of Home” installation by BLKBRD Collective, commissioned by the Museum of the Home

At the prime meridian – the line of longitude defined to be 0° – a spectre awaits. Ghosts are usually associated with folk tales, far from human discovery and science. But, for the wretched, the victims of violence and atrocities, adopting the demeanour of a spirit is often the only way to be present within an overwhelming scientific world. A world that was first tailored for British interest and fuelled from the suffering and grief of others. Usually, this is the only way for unresolved pain to resurface from the depths of repression.

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Visual from “Bearers of Home” installation by BLKBRD Collective, commissioned by the Museum of the Home

From an observatory in Greenwich, time is realised and standardised. Imaginary borders were drawn across the equator, and our earth was split into time zones. White ivory statues and palaces have us believe that this was for the good of humanity. For its unity, for its development and for every “corner of a foreign field that is forever England”. Occupations, slave ships, opium wars and colonial expeditions are overlooked by Union Jacks. And, through maritime adventures, Britain shaped the world in its own image: when we look at clocks to tell the time; when we look at maps to find our homes, we tread on a world that was measured before us. However, the consequences of this drawn and divided world are suffered by millions. Migrants; families; communities are traversing across seas and time zones, fleeing violently drawn borders, searching for a new home.

It was in the spirit of human determination, we are told, that explorers – now immortalised in marble busts – discovered strange land, bringing light to the world. Yet migrants are revoked of their accomplishments. They sit waiting in deportation prisons, treated as beings who have mysteriously emerged from the dark waters. And as much as western culture claims to be modern, valuing the individual through work, the labour and toil behind migration is wholly disregarded. It isn’t considered a worthy adventure, a brave expedition, or a human discovery. Despite the impossibility of a migrant’s route; the work and the sweat behind the endless journey, Britain fails to see the migrant as a pioneer, a pathfinder, or a bearer of hope. Instead, it quantifies the migrant’s struggle in a couple of paragraphs on a deportation letter and deepens the tragedy.

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Visuals from “Bearers of Home” installation by BLKBRD Collective, commissioned by the Museum of the Home

No imperial, nor metric measuring system could measure migrants’ wounds. Migrant time isn’t made of just minutes and hours. Its units are lorries, lifeboats, borders, camps and long roads that cut through all seven seas, all four seasons, smugglers, glares of envy, stares of pity, rivers of tears and an endless trail of home office letters. Time essentially is human tolerance; however long can your feet carry you, however far you can run. Its duration could be infinite. Its pain is endless in a vast empire in which the sun never sets, and the blood never dries.

Mahmoud Mahdy

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