Skip to main content

Migration, Identity, and Place

Elena Isayev

There is a widespread misconception that high mobility is a relatively recent phenomenon and that ancient society was largely sedentary, though in fact it too involved extensive movements of people. If we recognise this fact we can draw powerful analogies with the ancient world and use these to question current notions of belonging, ‘the migrant’ and the significance of place. The ancient context, by providing alternative social and cultural models, has been used as a catalyst in collaboration with art and performance practice to stimulate a rethinking of fundamental categories such as place, mobility and memory, in a way that has led to a new understanding of what it means to belong to a community and place.

Isayev’s research, focusing on ancient Italy, challenges the prevailing view that in the ancient world there was a natural tie to a specific homeland and a demographically settled world. She argues that the combined evidence of archaeology and literature suggests that much human mobility in the last millennium BC was ongoing and cyclical. As a result, xenophobia is difficult to identify, and outside the military context ‘the foreigner in our midst’ was not seen as a problem. Boundaries of status rather than geopolitics were the ones that were difficult to cross. In view of the high level of population movement in pre-Imperial Italy, Isayev disputes the general assumption that ties to physical territorial sites were an essential component of individual and collective identities. She also stresses the absence from ancient culture of many features, such as a rigidly bounded territorial citizenship, that are typical of the nation state. These observations allow us to raise broader questions about the nature of community membership and ‘belonging’, and to explore the implications for contemporary culture and practice. Isayev’s publications examine diverse ancient patterns of mobility, and chart ancient attitudes towards migrant groups and individuals.

Isayev has led three collaborative projects, drawing on the implications of historical research, to engage young people, minority and disaffected groups in shared reflection and creative activity. These would not have been possible without the generous support of a number of key funding bodies (AHRC, Arts Council Wales, Arts for All Scotland area Committee, Gramnet, University of Exeter, Swansea Metropolitan, University of Glasgow) and unquantifiable contributions in kind by numerous individuals and organisations. These projects centred on the paradoxical idea of Future Memory. The first project De-Placing Future Memory (2009), brought together an interdisciplinary group of academics, along with international artists, musicians and curators, some from conflict areas (Palestine (Petti and Hillal) and Iraq (Salim, MalAllah), lead artists Webster and McMullan). It engaged over 600 participants, including a workshop with school children, and combined artworks, a month-long exhibition, and public presentations at the Exeter Café Scientifique and Phoenix Arts Centre. 

The methods explored in this first project were taken forward by Isayev with artist Webster and musician Wood with Overtone singer Ormiston in Future Memory in Place (2011). This involved thousands of people in Swansea, including 2700 pupils from 9 schools (with week-long workshops at each), members of the Brunswick Refugee and Asylum ‘drop-in’ centre, Gower College (ESL), and the over-55 Art Group at the Glynn Vivian Gallery. It included the creation of three public art-works in Swansea: (i) a sculpture relating to ‘tesserae hospitalis’, distant friendship tokens, housed at the National Waterfront Museum; (ii) a multi-media event, combining a visual installation, new choral composition and film, 1000 Colours Blue, performed live with a choir in Swansea City Centre;  (iii) an exhibition of 800 sent postcards painted by school-children; the postcards, and the 1000 Colours Blue have been on exhibition in Swansea galleries and in Glasgow Centre of Contemporary Art.

The third project stemmed from a presentation in Glasgow of the Swansea project. This created an opportunity to explore ideas of memory and place in conjunction with artists Webster, Wood and the Red Road Flats community and Glasgow-based artists and academics, Kay, Phipps, Given and Timmermans, as well as to work with film maker Khan. It engaged about 1000 participants in spring 2013. It included: (i) archaeological and sound workshops at St. Martha’s Primary School; (ii) story, photographic and music workshops with local community groups; (iii) a final event including a live choral performance and a soundscape created through a 25 storey building, as well as a colour installation and photographic archive exhibition; (iv) a documentary film by Khan, still in the production phase; (v) a forthcoming exhibition at the People’s Palace, Glasgow of objects and stories created about them by school pupils.


De-placing Future Memory webpage and De-placing Future Memory repository webpage

Future Memory in Place webpage and Future Memory in Place repository webpage

Future Memory in Red Road: Details of the event/project can be found on the Future Memory in Red Road Facebook webpage and the University of Glasgow website