The emotional impact of emigration, through the eyes of an artist

Sulette Ferreira, Daily Maverick

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The emotional impact of emigration, through the eyes of an artist

Arachon sculpture by Bruno Catalano

Benedicte Panariello / Flickr

Emigration outcomes are often depicted as fairy-tale endings. French sculptor Bruno Catalano depict them as an intimate and much fuller journey, encapsulating the highs and lows that come with it.

As an emigration therapist, I have the privilege to explore the world of emigration through the eyes of my clients. Everyone’s experience is unique. Emigrants venture into a new, unknown world: they leave the familiar to start afresh amid new cultures and environments. Some recall a profound sense of being emotionally uprooted, while others fully embrace the opportunities presented and continue to thrive. Still, some experience both.

Art and the world citizen

We live simultaneously in two worlds: the outer world of experiences, circumstances, and situations, and the inner world of reactions, emotions, and thought. Emigration presents this same dualism: in our outer world of circumstances and situations we or a loved one emigrates and we react to that experience in our inner world of thoughts and emotions.

In my encounter with the art of French sculptor Bruno Catalano, I found that art presents this same dualism, and can therefore help us in exploring the depth and complexity of this phenomenon. Through his art, he delves into the universal themes of travel, journeying, and migration. 

In 2013, Catalano created 10 life-size bronze sculptures, which were displayed along the waterfront of Marseille, France, to commemorate the city’s status as the European Capital of Culture. Aptly titled Les Voyageurs, the sculptures, the most famous of which is now on permanent display in Calgary, Canada, depict 10 different travelers with large portions of their bodies missing, each carrying a suitcase. Stunningly imperfect, these “hollow” figures resonate the story of the modern-day soul, the traveler, and the emigrant. Despite their bodies being open to the wind and light, each retains its balance and coherence.

Arachon sculpture by Bruno Catalano. Image: Flickr

Sculpture by Bruno Catalano. Image: Angele / Flickr

Sculpture by Bruno Catalano. Image: Pop H / Flickr
Sculpture by Bruno Catalano. Image: Jeanne Menjoulet / Flickr
Sculpture by Bruno Catalano. Image: Jeanne Menjoulet / Flickr

Catalano was born in Casablanca, Morocco, and moved to France to settle in Marseille at the age of 12. He went on to become a sailor and considers himself an eternal migrant. He was always in the process of leaving – “far from my roots, wanting to leave, curious to look elsewhere, to see what happens” – a nomad who does not belong to any one place. To him, these sculptures represent the world citizen.

To Catalano, migration is an intimate journey. While each of these statues carries a single suitcase that weighs them down, they also serve as their only means of support. The suitcase represents experiences and desires, a container filled with memories that ground the emigrant and provide support. Catalano refers to this as “roots in motion.”

Art and the emigration therapist

Emigration outcomes are often depicted as fairy-tale endings, with successful emigrants thriving in their new country, rarely looking back with regret. However, the reality shared with the emigration therapist is often the contrary, often relating the challenges experienced, the sadness and the loss of all that was known and loved. This is strikingly expressed in the missing parts of the statues by Catalano, which entice the viewer’s imagination. 

Sculpture by Bruno Catalano. Image: Geraldine Deveau / Flickr
Sculpture by Bruno Catalano. Image: Yvette Gauthier / Flickr

As an emigration therapist, I was encouraged by Catalano’s art to re-examine my thinking and approach toward emigration. In every person’s life, there are incomplete experiences, missing pieces of a larger puzzle. Catalano’s art speaks to this reality through the missing parts of the statues. Art can complement the conversation during therapy, as both the artist and the audience exhibit some level of emotional vulnerability. 

We are all nomads on the journey of life. We have all experienced the excitement of the new and the sorrow of the loss of what we have left behind. Emigration leaves one feeling ungrounded, floating and uncertain about the future. While the journey is difficult, we find the strength to carry on by embracing our experiences and desires, “our roots in motion.” 

Catalano’s “in transit” bronze sculptures resonate with many, capturing the essence of the emotional impact of emigration. – Rappler.com

Sulette Ferreira is a South African social science researcher and family counseling therapist in private practice. Her research interest feeds into her practice, in which she specializes in the emotional impact of emigration. 

This story was originally published on Daily Maverick (South Africa), and is republished within the Human Journalism Network program, supported by the International Center for Journalists.

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