Before you see artist and filmmaker Tomáš Rafa’s exhibit “New Nationalisms,” you can hear it down the hall at the Museum of Modern Art PS1: a mix of screams, police sirens, pleas for help and children laughing.
Those sounds are all part of the story for Rafa, who in 2009 began documenting the rise of far-right nationalism in Central Europe amid a growing refugee crisis and years of economic stagnation. For the project, Rafa filmed protests and public demonstrations — both those by far-right groups and the counter-protests against them — in his native Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and elsewhere in the region. The work focuses on the role that borders play in the lives of minorities and refugees.
These stories have taken on particular urgency in the U.S. following November’s presidential election, and as President Donald Trump continues to assert that he will build a continuous wall between the U.S. and Mexico, Rafa told the NewsHour Weekend in an email. “My project is a message to American audience how far-right populism can dramatically change social identity,” he said.
The two-room exhibit consists of Rafa’s films, mounted on the walls surrounding the viewer all while playing at full volume. The result is a loud, unforgiving cacophony — one that fits the subject matter, said Oliver Shultz, curatorial assistant at MoMA PS1. “There’s something about the chaos of this experience, standing here, that seemed appropriate,” he said.
The project began with a focus on one wall in particular: one built to isolate Romani neighborhoods in Michalovce, Slovakia.
The Romani, an ethnic minority in Slovakia whose ancestors migrated from India, continue to face discrimination in both employment and housing, forcing many of them to live in poor, tightly-clustered communities that lack running water and electricity. International human rights groups have said that discrimination persists in education as well — a report released earlier this year by the European Roma Rights Centre (ERRC) and Amnesty International said that segregating Romani children in low-performing schools maintains a “cycle of poverty and marginalisation.”
In 2009, a group of families in Michalovce built a wall meant to deter Romani people from walking through non-Romani land, a structure that has been reproduced in other Slovakian cities. Two years later, Rafa returned with cans of paint and local children who helped him paint a colorful mural on the 9-foot wall, a move meant to highlight the “absurdity of segregation,” he said. He repeated the project on several other cities’ segregation walls in the following years, including in Sečovce and Ostrovany.
The Economist reported in 2013 that about 14 similar segregation walls had been built in Romani neighborhoods during the five previous years. European Union officials have decried the walls: in 2013, EU Commissioner for Culture Androulla Vassiliou wrote a letter to the mayor of Kosice, Slovakia, saying that the city’s segregation wall violated the EU’s commitment “to fighting all forms of racism and homophobia.”
For Rafa, the walls were physical evidence left by the recent rise of far-right nationalism in Central Europe. Though nationalist parties have long existed throughout Europe, journalist Simon Shuster wrote for TIME, “the resurgence of nationalism across the E.U. has become so powerful that parties from the political mainstream have been forced to tilt sharply to the right as well.”
Rafa, who is now based in Warsaw, argues that these movements’ recent popularity is a warning both in Europe and the U.S., and that his project “has a universal message.”
Rafa began filming at demonstrations of far-right groups against the Romani people and soon expanded the project to surrounding areas, documenting the relationship between nationalism, xenophobia and the growing Syrian refugee crisis. The result is a vivid catalog of the rise of far-right extremism in Central Europe in recent years. “I would like to define borders, boundaries, between patriotism and nationalism, nationalism and xenophobia, in everyday life in Central Europe,” Rafa said.
One film chronicles the fallout after the border closed between Greece and Macedonia on March 8, 2015, preventing thousands of Syrian refugees at the makeshift camp in Idomeni, Greece, from continuing their journey. Slovenia, Croatia and Serbia had recently issued new restrictions making it more difficult for migrants to enter the country. Shortly afterward, police forced families out of the camp, busing them to government shelters and bulldozing the homes where some had lived for months or years.
Sometimes grainy or shaky, the films place the viewer in the center of the action — and in the exhibit, surrounded on all sides by the videos, the viewer must also experience them simultaneously. “There’s a real urgency around getting this footage out there and that’s the dominating logic of how they’re cut and how they’re shot,” Shultz said.
The work also issues a challenge to viewers to consider their own role in this political moment, Rafa said. “Six years ago, this far-right ideas and racism, it was at the boundaries of society,” Rafa said. “After six years, we’ve got these ideas everywhere.”