Living refugee exhibition ‘designed to make you feel uneasy’


Refugees residing in Ghent’s contemporary art museum form part of an installation that calls on visitors to question stereotypes and prejudices

‘Human zoo’

“Meet Mohammed,” says Smak director Philippe Van Cauteren, introducing one of 12 refugees living and working in Ghent’s contemporary art museum as part of an installation. “He’s from Mosul.”

A brutal battle against ISIS in the Iraqi city has recently ended, and Van Cauteren asks about the wellbeing of Mohammed’s family. “All fine,” he responds in broken Dutch, with an improbable smile. “All needs to be built anew.”

Meeting Mohammed is uneasy. Because Mohammed is a living element of an incongruous installation that mixes art with reality. Behind him, a dozen heads of King Leopold II stare ahead, the product of the previous day’s clay workshop (pictured) at the museum’s refugee community centre.

The centre is one component of Verlust der Mitte, an installation by Swiss artist Christophe Büchel, which also includes a refugee “camp” resembling the Calais jungle, a makeshift dormitory, a life-sized Congolese village and Congolese “investment fair”. The overriding message is that in terms of exploitation, not much has changed since the 1800s. 

‘Human zoo’

At the community centre, visitors are invited to participate in clay workshops. Choreographer Jordy Dik teaches the refugees to tell their story by posture and movement, and visitors can join mindfulness sessions. Sometimes chocolate is made in bullet moulds.


Programme leader Rens De Venter dismisses the juxtaposition, insisting: “This is an example of how to activate a vulnerable group. We are stuck with the idea of the helpless refugee who needs feeding and housing. That’s too simple.”


Refugees need to give meaning to their new lives, he believes. “Meeting people and creating opportunities remains elusive for most of them – that’s what we help them with through this.”

De Venter admits their presence at Smak is a nod to the “human zoos” set up during Ghent’s world exhibition in 1913. An old poster from that year is on display promoting the Senegalese village “with 150 natives”.

“It’s]designed to make you feel uneasy,” Van Cauteren adds, “oscillating between true and false. It’s this uneasiness that will make people question their stereotypes and prejudices – both against refugees and against what they consider art.”

Photo courtesy Smak