When Swedish nurse Israa Abdali got on a plane to war-torn Syria in 2016, she was shocked by what she saw.
“Everything was destroyed, I couldn’t believe this was Syria,” said Abdali, who founded the NGO, Stand With Syria. “Every time you went out, you saw someone walking without legs and arms. Everyone lost something.”
Now, a photo of Abdali and other young women who have been affected by the refugee crisis, is going on view in a new exhibition at Fotografiska in New York City. Between These Folded Walls, Utopia features a series of portraits of young women forced to migrate from the Middle East and Africa – countries like Afghanistan and Somalia – during the refugee crisis.
On view are 18 framed photographs, six wall pieces and a film installation by Cooper & Gorfer, a photography duo based in Gothenburg, Sweden, made up of two women: American artist Sarah Cooper and Austrian artist Nina Gorfer.
“It’s about finding a place in different cultures and what it means to be a woman in all of this,” said Gorfer.
Adds Cooper: “We wanted to address the time in our way, and witness how we were feeling in relation to our own community.”
The duo began this project in 2017 after a conversation with one of their friends who is a teacher for young migrants. Several students were in limbo waiting for possible deportation (when a refugee turns 18, their child asylum status ends and young migrants can be sent back). For Cooper and Gorfer, it was time to invite young women to speak up.
“We did a lot of interviews before we picked up a camera,” said Cooper. “Casual conversations. Not on-the-record until way later. In the beginning, it was a lot of talk about religion, feminism and gender equality. Prejudice and fear came up, too.”
The goal was to give this younger generation a platform to not only be seen but be heard. “We wanted to focus on younger girls, a younger generation of refugees,” said Gorfer. “A group of girls is not usually heard, and we wanted to give them a voice. We not only wanted to make it about current refugees who came in 2015, but various stages of migration and immigration.”
The photos have a sense of high-fashion glamour, like in the one of Abdali, whose shoulders are laden with yellow boxes in the portrait Israa With Yellow Boxes. As a nurse who entered Syria when many were running away from it, the boxes are meant to symbolize the heavy burden she has carried. “But she’s doing it for a better world,” said Gorfer. “She’s trying to create a better future, to imagine a better place for the people she has seen suffering on a daily basis.”
The series is essentially about imagining a future self in times of migration and hardship. “Most of the time, it’s often with equality,” said Gorfer.
She adds: “A lot of our talks with these women were about the kind of freedom you gain in a more liberal place like Sweden, like making a future for yourself, rather than a pre-described cultural role. A lot of women we met were finding their voice or using it.”
Some of the portraits call to mind the diaristic paintings of Frida Kahlo, like in Segal and the Tiger, where a young woman reaches over her shoulder to write notes with hidden meanings. In another, Yohana and the Blanket, a young woman wears African-inspired garb, with a collaged cloak that points to her inner world.
It depicts a woman named Yohana (who also is in the piece The Story of Yohana), which shows a young woman from the east African country of Eritrea, where thousands of youth are forced to life-long military service. Yohana fled the country through Sudan, Libya and across the Mediterranean sea in 2015, and is now studying in Sweden to work with children.
“A lot of the girls were quite shy and just wanted to study, not focus on activism or their political role,” said Cooper. “But other women? You couldn’t stop them, as they had a statement to say. I felt through the process, we were able to give voice to all of them.”
Over the course of their photo shoots, the photographers have watched the women’s ambitions grow from simple domestic goals to having a career and family. “A lot of our work deals with the idea of empowerment,” said Cooper. “We tend to work with a classical gaze of the woman gazing back at the viewer. We like the idea of women being Amazonian, it feels almost like they could crush you with their gaze.”
Many of the photographs take cues from classical paintings. Mannerism, a 16th-century European art movement, was an influence. They look like decorative dreamscapes with dramatic drapery, regal poses and a lively, technicolor palette (rather than a deadpan, documentary style).
Each photo tells the story of a young woman and her own first-hand experiences. “It’s vulnerable to have these young women be hung up in a museum, but at same time, we’re trying to allow them to be in control of their gaze,” said Cooper. “These photos are a labyrinth of tales that, layer upon layer, tells a story about their lives.”
The women photographed are mostly from countries like Afghanistan, Somalia and Iran while others are first-generation Swedes with familial roots in these countries.
The photo, titled Shadi or the Girl with Many Hands, shows Shadi, who is the daughter of Iranian political refugees from the time of the Shah, which was before the Iranian Revolution in the late 1970s.
It ties into their film installation, which features a group of dancers from the Gothenburg Opera, who symbolize Shadi’s inner turmoil. “It’s a dance of trust and distrust, harmony and disarray, of being our own worst enemy, the struggle to fit in and stand out,” said Cooper. “It’s the responsibility we feel being women, how things easily get piled up on us, and a struggle for your own voice.”
The exhibition will be accompanied by a 15-minute short film co-directed by Cooper & Gorfer, which features interviews with the women, who each tell their stories, from forced marriage to forced migration.
In one segment, Abdali visits the island of Lesbos, Greece, to help save the lives of refugees who arrived by boat across the Mediterranean. She performed CPR on children who washed up on the shores of the island during the height of the refugee crisis.
Abdali shares her viewpoint in the film: “We are humans in one place in one Earth,” she said.
“And we should try to really think of us all as together, and maybe one day, exactly as you have helped people in need, maybe you will be in need.”
Between These Folded Walls, Utopia is showing at Fotografiska in New York until 28 February