In Strong Cornish Show, a Design for Islamic Refugees
Art & Design BFA Show 2008
Cornish College of the Arts
Through May 30
Much at the Cornish College of the Arts's Art & Design BFA Show 2008 is worth seeing and talking about. The show has two sections, one dedicated to the commercial arts, the other to the fine arts. The existential status of the 21st-century individual is the dominant theme of the latter. A more current theme—the deepening relationship between nature and design—dominates the former, and as a consequence the results there are stronger. But out of the 60 or so installations by young sculptors, painters, photographers, illustrators, and graphic designers, one spoke to me immediately—a work by Rachael Cavallo.
I found her installation exceptional because it has as its concern a current international crisis—refugees in the Middle and Near East. Cavallo, an interior designer, proposes a flexible, cheap, and modern architecture for refugees who follow the path and laws of Islam. Her system of temporary dwellings and open spaces addresses the needs of the religion. Some spaces are for men, others for women; some spaces are for worship, others for secular activities. The clarity of her design constructs an Islamic utopia in the middle of a desperate situation. The ability to continue religious customs in a refugee camp gives stability to an otherwise unstable circumstance. Cavallo's proposal is both bold and beautiful.
The installation also raises some difficult questions. Does her design reinforce the subjugation of women in Islamic communities? It can be argued that, if implemented, it would effectively block a real opportunity for women to break out of the confinement of traditional rules. A famous American person once said that the Chinese character for crisis also stands for opportunity. A refugee crisis might present a chance for old customs to break and new ones to be born. Then again, Cavallo is not wrong to insist that a designer must not make judgments about a culture or religion and instead focus on improving the living standards of those who have lost everything—property, national status, security. A gift is not a gift in actuality if it is handed with strings attached. Poor countries that receive aid from the World Bank know all about this kind of bad gift—a gift that eventually turns against you. Whatever the case, Cavallo's installation is provocative and deserves wider attention.