A few years ago, during a visit to the Exile Memorial Museum of La Jonquera (Museu Memorial d’Exili — MuME), I read for the first time about Camp de Rivesaltes, also known as Camp Maréchal Joffre, a former concentration camp in the south of France which was first opened in the 1930s to accommodate Spanish exiles. The camp remained open for nearly 70 years, and among other uses, it served as a concentration camp during the Nazi occupation and then as an internment camp for Algerian Harkis. The dramatic history of Rivesaltes runs through the entire 20th century, which is why it is used as a guide to research the most tragic events of Europe’s recent past. Rivesaltes is not exclusively a geographical location; it is also — or especially, now that its ruins have made way for memory — a collective emotional space.
This work emerges from the debris of the camp, the executioner of and witness to the horror of Nazi deportations and the drama of the exile of thousands of human beings. The memory of Rivesaltes is alive and is today linked to the current camps that worldwide and at the gates of Europe accommodate millions of lives, millions of refugees, millions of dramas: the ruins of the camp are the past that connects with the present and with current EU migration policy. Nevertheless, this is not a work about Rivesaltes. Neither does it intend to be a piece of historical research. History acts here rather as a guide to a journey through collective emotional memory, searching for the universal nature of the individual experience, beyond eras, boundaries and nationalities.
The word refuge has its origin in the Latin word refugium, a word that was used indistinctly to refer to the place towards which one flees as well as to the “escape route”. In other words, to a place safe from danger (not necessarily physical and immediate) or a means to escape from a dangerous situation. It also meant “return”, “arriving back”, as opposed to “desertion”. The plural — refugia — referred to hiding places in Roman houses where the father of the family could hide his possessions in case of an attack by enemies or a fire.
Protection, escape, retreat, exit. Terms that indicate both a withdrawal and an outward movement, whichever the case, a permanent state of transit and danger.
The work presented in Refugium, refugia portrays the physical and emotional places of uprooting, places where burial frequently follows exile, where the need for shelter is accompanied by its denial and where the solution to the tragedy is only the lesser evil. The camps are at the same time refuge and condemnation and certify the loss of dignity and identity of refugees, broken, separated from their roots, from their land, from their past. Mass graves, pits, burial mounds, boxes… real or symbolic shelters, cynical alternatives to cynical European politics. The refugee as an intrinsic condition of the exiled, where the impossibility of returning home points to the absolute and definitive impossibility of having a new home, because uprooting is an irreversible trauma that affects the very fundaments of the human being.