In September 2015, a photograph made global headlines: Aylan Kurdi, a three year-old Syrian boy, drowned in an attempt to cross the Mediterranean Sea from Kobanî to the Greek island of Kos with his family. His body was found washed up on the shore of Bodrum in Turkey. Artist Guler Ates was deeply affected by the photograph. Guler has always had sympathy for children of disadvantaged backgrounds, but she felt a particularly close connection to Aylan as her parents are also refugees from Turkey. She has often visited Bodrum, and she is mother to a newborn baby. Prompted by these memories and experiences, Guler chose to make an artwork for the Stations of the Cross project which raised awareness of the plight of refugee children.
Her intention was to stitch individual clothes of babies and toddlers onto a large piece of fabric. She personally sourced and gathered secondhand clothes from people of diverse backgrounds specially for this project. She and her volunteers then stitched the clothes onto a large piece of cloth (450 x 780 cm). She also invited people to write or draw on the clothes to reflect on the work and the tragic current events it recalls. The work is entitled Sea of Colour.
I partook in the making of the work from the second day onwards. It took ten days to complete. My main tasks included separating the donated clothes by gender and age, selecting lightweight and colourful children’s clothes, and stitching the chosen clothes onto the fabric. The fabric was laid on the floor of a large open space in the Salvation Army International Headquarters. Each volunteer was given a pair of Kurdish knitted slippers called Patik to wear when working on the cloth.
I asked Guler why she wanted secondhand clothes for her creation, and she replied that such used objects carry with them a history. I felt that the connection between the clothes and the babies who wore them was similar to my relation to the slippers I was wearing. The slippers were a bit too tight when I put them on, but I was told that after I put them on my feet, the slippers would stretch to fit me and remain in the shape of my feet. Guler was emphasising that each piece of clothing bears the physical imprint of the wearer.
A volunteer suggested that it would be much more efficient to secure the clothes to the quilt using a stapler. However, we soon felt it would be too violent to have staples piecing through the clothes. Perhaps it was because the history of the clothes affected us that we felt that we would be piercing not just the clothes, but also the wearers. Instead, we chose to use strips of hemming tape (a tape that will temporarily glue the clothes to the cloth) to secure the clothes to the brown back cloth first, and then stitch the corners of the clothes to the brown cloth to give it extra support. Although it was laborious work, the process of stitching lent a powerful, appropriately meditative sense of mending to the endeavor.
There was a turning point in our stitching. When we tried to lift the clothes up to check if the clothes were firmly stitched to the cloth, we saw some the sleeves and trousers of the clothes hanging in the air. All volunteers were shocked by the view. Although the colours were purposefully chosen to present a colourful, cheery image that is often associated with childhood, the sleeves and trousers hanging in the air conveyed a deadly ‘emptiness’ and ‘soul-lessness’. The work became so emotional that it was a haunting experience to create and contemplate. We therefore decided to rework the stitching and freed all sleeves, trousers and skirts.
An art performance using this piece of garment was realised on Tuesday 2 February 2016. Guler invited an artist to ‘wear’ this piece walking across the Millennium Bridge towards Tate Modern, and back across the Thames towards St. Paul’s Cathedral. I was reminded of the mysterious figures that walked with veils sweeping the floor in her previous photographic works. However, in this instance, the heavy garment made up of hundreds of baby clothes replaced the lightweight silky veils of Guler’s photographs. The heaviness of the garment can be seen as a visualisation of our responsibility to take care of refugees, or of the exhausting burden of failing to take this responsibility.
The colourful clothes are arranged in a way that conjures the dynamics and rhythm of the sea waves. During the performance on the Millennium Bridge, the unexpected strong wind flipped and tossed the garment about. Volunteers steadfastly clung to the edges of the garment, as it billowed in the wind. The waves of the clothes were strangely reminiscent of waves on the sea, the sea in which Aylan Kurdi lost his life.
Stories behind the Stations