Visualising forced migration at the Wardlaw Museum, St Andrews
A haunting new art installation inspired by a Polish family’s extraordinary wartime odyssey across three continents will be unveiled on 25 May at the Wardlaw Museum in St Andrews. ‘Somewhere to Stay’ was created by artist Diana Forster in collaboration with the School of Classics’ Visualising War project. As Dr Alice König explains, ‘Our research seeks to broaden habits of visualising war by conceptualising it not as a series of battles within a well-defined temporal framework (from declaration of war to ceasefire or peace treaty) but as a much wider set of experiences, impacting a very wide range of people. We include in our study of the ‘long shadow’ of war the many different legacies of conflict for everyone involved – and our goal with this art installation is to shine a light on one legacy in particular: the struggles faced by refugees who have been displaced by conflict.
Artist Diana Forster was inspired by her own family’s experiences of displacement during the Second World War. Through a series of delicate, laser-cut aluminium panels she tells the story of what her mother, uncles, aunt and grandparents went through following the Russian invasion of eastern Poland in 1940. The ten free-standing sculptures trace an exodus that took them from their home near Lviv (in what is now Ukraine) to Siberia, then through Iran, Pakistan and Africa, and eventually to Britain. Panels capturing key stages on the journey are influenced by the traditional Polish craft of paper cutting called wycinanki. Each panel is designed so that it casts ‘the long shadow of war’.
Diana Forster’s mother and her family were among 1.7 million Poles forced from their homes by Stalin’s troops and transported to labour camps in Arkhangelsk and Siberia. Deportees were sent in cattle trucks with little food and water to logging camps where they were forced to work in temperatures as low as -40°C on a starvation diet. Detainees were released 18 months later when Stalin switched sides in the war, joining the Allies. They travelled south to Polish Army recruitment centres in Uzbekistan, where abject conditions claimed the life of Forster’s grandfather. The family then crossed the Caspian Sea to present-day Iran before heading east across mountains to India (now Pakistan). They sailed from Karachi to Mombasa, settling in modern-day Tanzania until the end of the war, when they were sent to resettlement camps in the UK.
The first two panels of Somewhere to Stay depict a peaceful life before deportation, while successive pieces illustrate where the Polish deportees stayed in transit. They were housed in wooden barracks in Siberia’s gulags; family homes in Uzbekistan; army tents, stables and a palace in Persia (now Iran); thatched rondavels in Africa; and Nissen huts in British resettlement camps.
“Somewhere to Stay focuses on an extraordinary journey and the very different kinds of shelter endured by Polish forced migrants,” says Visualising War director Dr Alice König. “Their story is just one of many examples of forced displacement as a result of conflict. We hope that this new art installation will spark more conversation about the different kinds of rupture, journeying and home-making which refugees have to tackle on a daily basis, all around the world.”
‘Somewhere to Stay’ will be on display at the Wardlaw Museum in St Andrews from 25 May 2023 until 7 January 2024. From September to November, additional works by Diana Forster will go on display in the Wardlaw’s Research Studio. These 18 prints and a sculpture of ghostly white cabbages, resting on spent rifle cartridge cases, will complement the story told by the outdoor installation. Visitors can explore these works of art, alongside a gallery of images of Forster’s laser-cut panels, on the Visualising Forced Migration website, where a video walk-through of the exhibition is also available.
Cabbage Patch – Diana Forster, 2011
‘Somewhere to Stay’ is an IWM 14-18 NOW Legacy Fund commission in partnership with the University of St Andrews. The IWM 14-18 NOW Legacy Fund is a UK-wide programme of over 20 artist commissions inspired by the heritage of conflict. The Legacy Fund was created in partnership with Imperial War Museums and 14-18 NOW – the official UK arts programme for the First World War centenary.