During the Fringe Festival, I went to see the Zon-Mai which is on loan from the Cité nationale de l'histoire de l'immigration in Paris. It's a house with dance performances about the experience of migration projected on the outside. In Philadelphia, it was presented in the Pump House space, along the Delaware River waterfront, which used to be a busy port and is now underused.
The performances showcased in the Zon-Mai were filmed in intimate spaces, like the bathroom of a Parisian apartment. The pain and separation of migration are very private feelings and the Zon-Mai is designed to confront the viewer with this experience.
I visited the installation with someone who has migrated twice; once from the Maghreb to France and now to the US. His reaction highlights a contradiction that I have noticed many times; the art forms used to express migration are often lost on the people who would most likely relate to these feelings. While he was impressed by the flexibility and technical skill of some of the dancers, he did not see how it expressed anything relevant to his experience as a migrant.
Migrants feel a panoply of pressures; to succeed financially, to meet the sometimes inflated expectations of their families in their home countries, to build new lives without forgetting their families and cultures, to be good citizens of their new countries. None of this necessarily gives them time to understand or appreciate high culture.
I wrote my French thesis about films that depict the range of experiences of immigrants and children of immigrants in France and how they relate to their country and its culture. Film and television are more accessible than dance performances, and thus maybe reach more people and can inspire them to reflect on their own identity and experience.
The home site of the Zon-Mai, the Cité nationale de l'histoire de l'immigration was controversial to open and was born out of complex set of academic and political negotiations about France, immigrants and identity. The Palais de la Porte Dorée, where the museum is housed was built for the Universal Exposition in 1931 and housed the museum of the colonies. Many of the migrant populations in France come from France's former colonies. How do they feel about this? Does having a museum dedicated to the history of immigration give them recognition or isolate them from other French citizens? These questions are unresolved.
Does this mean that the Zon-Mai is useless? Not at all; but it also will perhaps reach an elite audience. This isn't necessarily a bad thing. Communicating what other people experience to elites can connect them to the needs and aspirations of the greater population who they are supposed to serve.