Stories from the Land, Stories from the Sea is Jillian Edelstein’s first exhibition in Lithuania and in the wider region of Central and Eastern Europe. It fuses personal biography and documentary records to explore the crossroads between the current refugee crisis in Europe and the historical mass migration unfolding across diverse geographies. The project harnesses memory, archive and contemporary photography to probe the legacies, politics and stories of displacement that remain pressingly relevant today.
Herself an immigrant to the UK from South Africa, Jillian Edelstein is an internationally renowned London-based photographer. With her trademark approach, weaving together photojournalism and social documentation, she tells the story of the millions of people that have been displaced by war, conflict, and the rise of extremism in the Middle East and Africa. Investigating the links and tensions between personal history and collective memory, Edelstein’s own family story echoes the lives of everyday migrants and asylum seekers arriving in Europe today from the challenged parts of the world.
The exhibition brings together two distinct photographic testimonials: a set of photographs originally commissioned by UK-based organisation Counterpoints Arts taken between 2015 and 2016 in the refugee camps of Calais in France (‘the Jungle’) and on the Greek island of Lesvos, as well as a private visual chronicle from Edelstein’s personal trips to Eastern Europe between 2010 and 2018 in search of a lost branch of her relatives. These images are interlaced with Edelstein’s more recent personal photographs taken during her stay on the Italian islands of Linosa and Lampedusa in October 2020. The scenery of these sunny Mediterranean isles with beautiful beaches became for the artist a site of (visual) archive of objects, debris and traces left behind by recent waves of migration.
In Edelstein’s powerful work, we see the stillness of nature bearing witness to the hardships and sacrifices involved, the scars that mark the land and sea following the continued desperate journeys of refugees, but also the treacherous beauty, tranquillity and mystery of the seemingly innocent landscapes of present-day Eastern Europe, charged with hidden, buried or repressed traumas of the first half of the 20th century.
Shot both on analogue film and digitally, the photographs foreground critical enquiry and highlight the emotional journey across time and space as they unify half-forgotten stories and far-away destinations. They are accompanied by select excerpts from the photographer’s diary which reflect on the images and give context to the process behind them.
Acting both as a photographer and as a storyteller, Edelstein shines a light on the timeless, cyclical nature of migrations, the notions of identity, home-lessness, borders and the devastating consequences of imposed exile. Adopting a historical perspective to elucidate and raise questions about refugee or migrant stereotypes, the exhibition examines how the very history is made and performed, and how age-old topographies of intolerance, racism, xenophobia, anti-Semitism generate painful reverberations for today. Given the rise of far-right parties and rhetoric across the EU, the global forces of populism and its governance based on fear, exclusion, division and demonisation of the ‘other’ – which have all sinister roots in the long history of prejudice, exploitation, and destruction – Stories from the Land, Stories from the Sea act as a springboard to challenge political and social amnesia, offering a wider interrogation of the past and present conditions of impermanence and displacement.
About the artist
Jilian Edelstein is a prominent British photographer working in both portrait and documentary photography. Born and raised in South Africa, she graduated as a social worker before starting work as a press photographer in Johannesburg in the 1980s. Her work on campaigns with NGO’s like FXB International, Oxfam, Save the Children Fund in Africa, India, China and South America has been widely published and exhibited internationally.
An Honourable Fellow of the Royal Photographic Society, her book Truth and Lies: Stories from South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission was published in 2002 and won the Kobal Book Award & the Visa D’Or. The National Portrait Gallery in London have collected over one hundred of her portraits. In 2018 she was Included in The Royal Photographic Society’s list of 100 International Photographic Heroines. In 2020, she received the Abstract Award in the Julia Margaret Cameron Awards. Her most recent projects include the series The Water Rats, about cold-water swimming, and two museum commissions – Generations: Portraits of Holocaust Survivors at the Imperial War Museum in London, on display until January 2022 and portraits of the last remaining Foundlings for the Foundling Museum in London (forthcoming). She is working on filming the final interviews and editing for her feature documentary about the bipolar afflicted, Academy Award nominated American screenwriter, Norman Wexler.