My fingertips were first rolled in what felt like an ink stamp pad. The artist then pressed a cold drawing utensil to the skin of my left arm. I sat there, sterile, removed from my own body and experience. My left arm stuck through the wall, vulnerable to the gallery’s cool air.
Basel Zaraa’s “As Far As My Fingertips Take” is an artistic performance curated by UMS, a multi-disciplinary arts presenter affiliated with the University, in partnership with the University’s Institute for the Humanities. “Fingertips” is one of four performance titles that comprises UMS’s “No Safety Net” festival. All of the performances in “No Safety Net” deal with socially or politically relevant issues. “Fingertips” runs from Jan. 23 to Feb. 9 at the U-M Institute for Humanities and the Arab American National Museum in Dearborn, MI.
The motif of fingertips is inspired by the Dublin Regulation, an EU database that tracks refugees’ fingerprints. Quite often, these refugees would be sent back to the last country their fingerprints were recorded in.
Zaraa is an artist and musician, and a Palestinian refugee born in Syria. He currently resides in Birmingham, UK. Tania El Khoury, a prolific contemporary experimental performer based in Beirut, commissioned Zaraa to create this intimate and empathy-building installation. This performance is based on his sister’s refugee journey.
UMS programming director Mary Roeder described the performance as emotionally hefty as it is physical, allowing audience members to understand the personal refugee journey.
Senior programming director at UMS, Mark Jacobson described the performance as an “intimate, one-on-one, performance experience that’s approximately 10 to 15 minutes” for “anyone who wants to become closer to the understanding of the refugee crisis globally.”
“Many of us in the West, me included, have a sympathetic response to the global crisis, but speaking for myself, I’m not readily in touch with members of this displaced global community. After experiencing ‘Fingertips’, it becomes very personal, empathetic,” Jacobson said.
When my fifteen minutes arrived last Thursday night, the artist’s cold hands adjusted my arm and fingers for each part of the drawing. It felt like one of those childhood games or secret codes where you try to guess what word someone was writing on your thigh or back. The elongated lines and focused splotches of ink made me think it was a vine adorned with flowers and leaves.
As the artist drew on my exposed arm, old-fashioned headphones covered the entirety of my ears. I heard the waves first. The crashing waters of the Mediterreanian harmonized with the cawing of seagulls. Zaara’s voice crooned through my headphones, narrating the journey he and his sisters took through Europe.
He said he was going to play a song, the English translation written on the wall above my seat. The song began with a traditional wail and instrumentation, then the artist transitioned into rapping the second half of the song.
The cold utensil sailing across my skin felt otherworldly, distant and sacred. We were offered to wash our arms and hands in a basin right after the experience. To rinse away the experience begged the question of how the rest of the world, not personally impacted by the refugee struggle, decides to respond to this suffering. It felt almost disrespectful to erase an experience like this. I felt that it deserved to linger and be on the forefront of my mind for at least the time the ink remained on my skin.
After the performance, I told Zaraa that it felt like going to confession. Something about the separation with the white walls and the shadows of the room recalled a kind of spiritual cleansing, an acknowledgement of the vastness of the world and human experience.
In the days following “Fingertips,” I looked up how the refugee crisis has evolved in the past few years. I also lamented the drawing’s slow fade on my skin, saddened every time a shower or sweater rubbed a certain part away.
One of the most vulnerable parts of the experience was the drawing of a boat attached to a string drawn from the center of my palm to the tip of my middle finger. My arm featured people all walking in a single direction carrying backpacks and suitcases, even the children. They all moved towards the crook of my elbow where a line was drawn around the circumference of my upper forearm. They seemed to be walking to the harshly drawn black line of discrimination and apathy they faced on their journey.
Roeder remarked on what lingers in the consciousnesses of those who participated in “Fingertips.”
“I think you can intellectualize things all day long and post on Facebook that ‘I feel so bad these things are happening,’ but what action are you taking? What impact is that ‘feeling bad’ having? Does it take having this physical encounter with someone to find change in yourself?”