A Dystopian Tale of Modern-day Slavery and Human Trafficking

While denouncing the menace of a suppressive looming future, Angolan artist Lola Keyezua’s series Floating Nightmares translates the plight of refugees as she gives them back their voice and dignity.

© Lola Keyezua, from the series Floating Nightmares

In recent years, as refugees have piled into leaking dinghies and rickety trucks from the shores and borders of Africa destined for Europe, they have charted different routes. While the numbers or arrivals and asylum seekers intensified, the refugees’ paths have shifted from the central Mediterranean, the route most traveled since 2015, westward: with just nine miles separating Morocco from Spain, the Strait of Gibraltar has seen increased traffic in the past two years. People flee a continent ravaged by war, disease and suffering in search of stable futures in the wealthier north. Recounting such hardships of inhumane suffering within the Mediterranean basin, Angolan photographer Lola Keyezua presents a tale of agony and exploitation, offered through the lens of an unexpected glimpse of beauty.

Floating Nightmares tells a story about the current situation of refugees,” Keyezua says, “a voice that advocates for refugees that cross the ocean to find peace and board a floating boat that places them in dangerous grounds as victims of traffickers, slave traders or even governments.”

© Lola Keyezua, from the series Floating Nightmares

But to add to the grueling reality, Keyezua paints an additional layer of fictionalised experience that highlights the dystopia of modern-day slavery and human trafficking. In Floating Nightmares, the refugees have been infected by their smugglers with an aberrant virus that leaves them emotionally and physically detached, quelling any urge to resist the violence they witness and endure, stripping them of any will to react.

To witness this disruptive motif is to wonder if the public is too easily deprived of its natural compassion when the refugees’ plights are reduced by political and economic calculations, skewed towards the brutality of a desperate journey often perceived as a menace, diminishing the humanity of their beings.

Floating Nightmares advances the conversation on migration, but with her ceremonial composition, Keyezua adds a layer of imagery: the refugees retain their dignity with qualities that Keyezua multiplies into a vulnerable but graceful honesty, scratching the surface of trite precepts deeply enough to let the truth flow through. Commissioned in 2018 by BredaPhoto Festival, the series reflects a disconnect so profound that it becomes an unbearable dream, enacted through the theatrical poise of the photographs.

© Lola Keyezua, from the series Floating Nightmares

In her stylistic voice, Keyezua starts from “a romantic relationship with the viewer.” She doesn’t opt for the violent images we often see in the media, those chosen to generate fear of the unknown, but rather “attractive images of humans in a very uncomfortable mental and physical position, while in a romantic setting that makes it easy for one to want to interact with the images that these bodies carry.”

The bodies are heavy, like precarious boulders that could easily plunge into the waves of an ocean turning "blood red." The bodies are also currency, objectified in the price to be paid for freedom. “The human body becomes a functional object of construction,” Keyezua said. “As an artist, I’m giving an unknown perspective, one's unfolding nightmare is another one’s distant fear to the unknown.”

Weighty stones and props aggravate the refugees’ physical and mental position: concrete tiles are fastened to a man’s torso, making his chest, and what’s inside, motionless; a prop sits on a man’s back - his body arched beneath its weight. Men are muted, or bent under wooden crosses, their arms stretching for height; others are subjugated by a docile but wild goat, a pyramid of hierarchy where animals sit on top and refugees sink. And a woman, dressed in a sea-blue gown, stares from beneath an upturned, suffocating, basket. Even caged, she maintains her grace and honor, her inquisitive glance, a sort of infinite humanity.

“Through images I tried to recreate pain as a beautiful illusion,” Keyezua explained. With Floating Nightmares she hopes that the “illusion in the images does not stop viewers from deconstructing their own opinion about the refugee crisis in Europe, Africa, and other parts of the world," Keyezua said. “Politicians speak the truth of today and as an artist I try to speak the truth of tomorrow by using my imagination.”

© Lola Keyezua, from the series Floating Nightmares

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Lola Keyezua is a photographer and artist who graduated from the art academy in The Hague. She lives and works in Luanda, Angola. In her work, she chronicles the strengths and weaknesses of the body. Follow her on PHmuseum and Instagram.

Lucia De Stefani is a reporter focusing on photography, illustration, culture, and everything teens. She lives between New York and Italy. Find her on Twitter and Instagram.

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This article is part of the series New Generation, a monthly column written by Lucia De Stefani, focusing on the most interesting emerging talents in our community.

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