Spent teargas canisters. Hundreds of these dull grey tubes the size of deodorant cans littered the sand on the walk to the contaminated former landfill site in Calais that became a temporary camp for as many as 10,000 displaced people until late 2016. This was the place called Lande or “heath” by the French authorities, but alternatively “The Jungle” by its oppressed inhabitants.
Seeing a few of these missiles at this powerful exhibition at Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford brought back memories of a solidarity visit to the “Jungle” — and I know I wasn’t the only one who brought one back as evidence, if we needed it, of the brutality of the racist “hostile environment” for migrants and refugees promised by the then home secretary Theresa May.
And this is an exhibition all about evidence — documents, records and artefacts from a near history curated by archaeologists Sarah Mallet and Dan Hicks along with artists and others.
Alongside the canisters are old wooden school chairs, homemade and official signs, sections of wire fencing, rusted old stoves, banners, a myriad of objects and artworks salvaged from the Jungle that was demolished in October 2016.
There are also dozens of photographs of life in the Jungle — children walking among the debris, confrontations with riot police, a tent with a Palestinian flag lit up by orange flames during the last days of the Jungle. Many are on loan from people who had gone to volunteer in Calais.
Particularly heartbreaking is a painted paper cut-out of a child, one of 291 “Paper People” made by children in the camp with artist and co-curator Sue Partridge. Each represented an unaccompanied child. Within a day of the demolition, 129 of these children went missing.
Iranian artist Majid Adin’s watercolour “The Wind Will Take Us Away” is a touching depiction of Jungle life. Adin hid in a fridge and a truck to make his escape to Britain and went on to make an incredibly moving music video for Elton John’s “Rocketman”.
A giant canvas is adorned with outlined maps filled with the flags of Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran and Syria. In the corner, barely noticeable, is a tiny drawing of Britain — a land perhaps too far away for the refugees that painted it.
As the French government sent its baton-wielding gendarmes and bulldozers to finally crush the Jungle in October 2016, a four metre high, kilometre long concrete wall along the main road to the port funded by the British state was well under construction.
From time to time, mainstream media make much of the historic animosity between the two states, and that has been heightened by Brexit, but both have been solidly united in their violently ruthless approach to those fleeing war and persecution. And those seeking sanctuary are mostly descendants of people that suffered under the yoke of British imperialism.
Just a year earlier, the universal grief that followed the pictures of three-year-old refugee Aylan Kurdi washed up on a Turkish shore sparked a movement that offered real hope. Just a short walk from the Pitt Rivers museum, more than 3,000 people gathered under the Bridge of Sighs to demand that refugees be welcomed into Britain, with 100,000 protesting in London a week later.
The Tory government was under real pressure and there were encouraging signs when Germany opened its doors to hundreds of thousands of refugees. But they were able to bide their time. Any establishment sympathy was just opportunist and fleeting and very soon politicians and press were back to demonising migrants and refugees.
In their book that accompanies the exhibition, Mallet and Hicks make the point that, “Archaeologically, this global wall-building moment is unprecedented: whether in Texas, Norway, Israel or India, the change isn’t just a question of scale, but of the increased militarisation of national borders that exclude, and in doing so create human populations that are categorised as ‘illegal’.”
As the architect of the “hostile environment” heads for the dustbin of history, the disappearance of refugee children from the Calais Jungle sits alongside the detentions and deportations of members of the Windrush generation as the major stains of Theresa May’s rotten racist legacy. A legacy from which the likes of Nigel Farage have been able to feed.
But as much as the exhibition charts an episode of racist oppression, it’s also a record of the struggle against that oppression — the remarkable resilience of inhabitants of the Jungle.
It is also a testament to the millions who rejected the racism from the top of society and the thousands that brought and continue to bring solidarity to refugees trapped in northern France.