Borders, break-ups and emotional baggage: How an imaginary airport is challenging perceptions of identity

In his interactive installation, Hawa City, at Sikka Art Fair, cultural cartographer The Confused Arab, aka Sofiane Si Merabet, uses a familiar setting as the starting point for an exploration of where we’ve come from…
Borders, break-ups and emotional baggage: How an imaginary airport is challenging perceptions of identity

An imaginary airport is an unlikely location in which to find ourselves during Art Dubai.  However, for Sofiane Si Merabet, our journey to the departure gate serves as the study in humanity he wanted to explore for his thought-provoking installation at this year’s Sikka Art Fair at Al Fahidi District. “Whenever an important event happens in our lives, it often starts at the airport,” Sofiane tells Grazia.

“We are all travelling much more often than before and for many different reasons. Every time I’m at the airport, I always find myself wondering who is going where and why,” he explains. “You see people going on holiday, people starting a new life, but also people crying because of a break-up or a loss.”

Diptych by Amel Benaoudia

So it was against this backdrop that Sofiane began his exploration into identity. Each wall is plastered with passport covers from Arab countries and those from lands with large Arab populations, but his aim is for the piece to transcend borders – both geographical, political and personal. “Hawa City speaks to everyone, as we all have different identities and we are all facing different limitations,” he points out.

As you enter the installation, you’re invited to pick a card that assigns you a nationality and passport. The artist elaborates, “I’m French-Algerian, and I have dual nationality, so I can travel freely to many more places on my European passport than my Algerian relatives can on theirs. I also hold an Algerian passport, which I basically use only when I visit family in Algeria.” He continues, “At the border in Algiers, I find myself with two passports, French and Algerian, having to justify my identity. I was inspired by this as it has always reminded me of a card game – depending on who you have in front of you, you have to use the right card.”

Sofiane has played with these notions of privilege with a scale that measures baggage allowance depending on whether you’re a tourist, expatriate or migrant. Poignantly, in this imagined world, refugees are banned from travelling with their memories. “Why some people are called expatriates, other migrants and some refugees?” he questions. “This was also a way to highlight refugees’ emotional pain and the fact they’re very often forced to start from scratch in their new home.”

Instead of a port of disembarkation, in Hawa City, your luggage is tagged with a reason for travel – work, security, experience, love, family. And in the final room, we’re invited to remove our shoes; – and shed any emotional baggage – in a prayer-room-style setting. “The purpose of the installation is to invite visitors to reflect on their identities.” It may not be as relaxing as the Emirates Business Class Lounge at Dubai International Airport – but perhaps that’s the point.

Visit Hawa City at Sikka Art Fair at Al Fahidi District until 26 March. Follow Sofiane Si Merabet on Instagram at @theconfusedarab

Photos: Abby Kemp