Moving Stories tells stories of migration through art and archeology

They came from Egypt, Macedonia, Spain, Gaul, Istria, Hungary, North Africa, Liguria and Italy’s boot. They did not necessarily go voluntarily, but because they were poor, had no livelihood in their home country, and because it was decided from above. You sign and then you are 25 years as a soldier in the service of the Roman Empire. You can be sent to all sides of that empire. And if you were unlucky, you had to go north, where there lived Batavians, Germans and Canaanites – “poor people”, as the Roman officer Pliny the Elder in 77 AD. in his Natural history wrote.

Copper alloy, found in Loowaard, 100 AD. Private collection.
Photo Wil Kuijpers

Pliny himself was involved in a military expedition in the Low Countries. And he remembered it this way: “The people live on high high and self-built scaffolding, so that their houses rise above the highest known water levels. When the waves wash in over the surrounding land, the inhabitants look like sailors, but they look like shipwrecks when the water has receded. Then they hunt around their huts for the fish that are trying to escape with the sea water. ”

What did these soldiers bring with them to these unappetizing regions that now make up the Dutch river basin? What did they leave behind on their journey to the swampy north? What did they learn here, in the area of ​​’limes’, the extreme northern border of the Roman Empire?

Graffito named Macedo, end of the first early second century AD, pottery. Collection Provincial depot for soil discoveries Gelderland, Nijmegen.
Photo by Gerard Bovenberg

Ambitious project

In fact, the sublime exhibition Moving stories Limes richness – fortunately exhibited for months in the Het Valkhof Museum in Nijmegen – on the key issues. What do you lose when you leave your home country? What do you bring? How do you assimilate in your new home country? What do you hope to find here?

The exhibition at Valkhof is part of an ambitious project to explore with archaeologists, contemporary artists and fifteen Dutch people with a migration background what stories can be told about migration – both now and two thousand years ago, where it consisted of dozens of tribes, ‘ Roman army settled here. In the publication that accompanies the exhibition, director Hedwig Saam writes about the ‘new path’ that Valkhof is taking with this exhibition. It is no longer assumed that the museum has all the knowledge and expertise in house to put together a good exhibition and publication. The central (not necessarily main) role is played by archeology curator Marenne Zandstra, who is able to distill a story from the smallest fragment, archaeological find, shard and inscription with an extremely sharp eye for detail. As a viewer, you learn something from this, but above all it becomes possible to relate to the men – and women and children in their wake – who came here two thousand years ago.

Sko ca. 95-105 AD, leather (part of six pieces of footwear).
Collection The Vindolanda Trust, Hexam

Empathic ability

For suddenly one sees such a strange name left in an amphora. Or a fragment of a letter on wood from the Egyptian soldier Apion to his father. Or a beautiful abstract copper amulet worn on the heart of a lattice. Or even simpler, the tiny fingertips left in the soft clay of the tableware. Such objects and the context in which they are presented (by the way, a beautiful decoration of Studio LA), suddenly make you imagine what it meant to the people who took these things with them and built a life here abroad.

Appealing to your empathic capacity and thus transcending all the centuries that lie between the arrival of the Romans and now is further enhanced by the good selection of nearly fifteen international contemporary artists. The Brazilian Maya Sérgio shows a beautiful installation with and around coffee. The Afghan-Dutch Narges Mohammadi raises the memory of Afghan home furniture in clay and proposes with the title almost there (2020) that you can leave a place, but you will never completely settle down in your new place. Nicoline van Harskamp shows the almost hour-long, but not a momentary annoying video My name is language (2021), where people with a migration background make clear what their name means, how to pronounce their name and what the difference in pronunciation means.

The most moving contribution on Moving stories is by Chinese artist Ni Haifeng. IN Things, clues and memories (2021) he brings objects together, accompanied by short texts, sometimes almost a story, sometimes a poem. They are objects that people took with them on the run from their homeland. For example, the old coat that Moeisha Molina kept belonged to her father, who in 1991 protected his wife and four-year-old daughter from the cold with this black coat on arrival in Holland. And then Ali Jafari’s wedding ring symbolizes the love of his wife, who was left in his homeland, who said to him before his escape, “Save yourself in difficult situations by selling the ring.” Which he never did. Jafari’s wish: “That the moment you read this text, I will be able to embrace my great love again after so many years of separation.” That kind of desire is of all times, of all cultures – and this exhibition makes it clear.

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