Destination Sweetheart opened in the Red Star Line Museum, Antwerp, Belgium on the 25th September 2020.
On first arriving at what is one of my favourite Antwerp museums I wondered if I was going to get my money’s worth: the exhibition itself, on the ground floor, is not big in terms of the space it occupies and looks initially like a a foyer expo of the sort you might idly look at while waiting to go into the main museum.
But it’s deceptive; there is a lot to take in and I could have stayed longer than the allocated 90 minute corona slot- indeed I would have had to, in order to read, look at and examine it all in its entirety.
Destination Sweetheart tells the story of those who emigrate for love and marriage, and it takes us with them on their journey, inviting the visitor to consider the choices and experiences of the love emigrant/ immigrant at various stages. This is cleverly achieved, given that there is really no single story to which these diverse physical and emotional journeys can be reduced.
At the entrance to the exhibition, the visitor encounters the photograph of Anna Raveaux, whose experience is the starting point and the inspiration for the exhibition; in 1920 she took the bold step of taking the Red Star Line to go to America to marry her partner, Roger, a sailor. The visitor stands in the building where medical examinations were conducted before passengers like Anna were permitted to board the Red Star Line boats.
It is fitting that a woman’s story begins this interesting and thoughtful exhibition. While women migrants are not the sole focus of the exhibition, for me their stories certainly seemed to dominate: on the first exhibit (a touch-screen featuring the pictures of twenty couples) fourteen of the eighteen stories of opposite-sex couples are related from the woman’s perspective, and it was the woman in every case who had made the move to her partner’s country. The exhibition also concludes with the story of two women artists – Kim Snauwaert and Anyuta Wiazemsky Snauwaert- whose relationship/ marriage is the focus of their art installation “Tussen Ons” (“Between Us”). This last part of the exhibition also details the intrusive nature of the police checks which occur when a “sham” marriage is reported.
Between the start and the end, there are many, many stories – frequently told from female perspectives – conveyed through images, recordings, films, letters, documents, historical texts and objects. The stories reflect the lives of transnationals who have made their journeys both to and from Belgium, in a wide variety of circumstances: Fati from Burkina Faso, Esther from Australia, Avdia from Romania ….
Not all stories are happy ones for their women narrators: Avdia’s story is one of surviving a relationship with an aggressive man (“I felt I was in his power”) and at points we see that laws do not favour women: one woman did not want to give up half her possessions to her fiancé in order to get married in India, as was her intention when she flew there with a wedding dress in her suitcase. Marry a Belgian as a refugee and you may not leave the marriage and retain your resident status unless you are the subject of domestic violence: you must arrange all the documents necessary to do this – it is not hard to see how such laws work disproportionately against vulnerable migrant women.
This is an extremely engaging exhibition, curated by Lien Vloeberghs. The various media through which the stories are told and the variety and humanity of the stories themselves render it completely absorbing. The exhibition is accessible to speakers of Dutch, French and English. Go and lose yourself in the past and present stories of migrant lives at Destination Sweetheart, before the exhibition ends on May 30th 2021.
Red Star Line Museum. 2020. Destination Sweetheart. [online] Available at: <https://www.redstarline.be/nl/content/destination-sweetheart> [Accessed 13 October 2020].
anyuta wiazemsky snauwaert. 2020. Tussen Ons / Between Us — Anyuta Wiazemsky Snauwaert. [online] Available at: <https://wiazemsky.eu/tussen-ons> [Accessed 13 October 2020].
Acke, D., 2020. DPG Media Privacy Gate. [online] Hln.be. Available at: <https://www.hln.be/in-de-buurt/antwerpen/red-star-line-vertelt-pakkende-liefdesverhalen-in-nieuwe-expo-destination-sweetheart-heel-wat-mensen-lieten-hun-thuis-achter-om-hun-geliefde-na-te-reizen~af9309ba/> [Accessed 13 October 2020].
And with thanks to Laura Vargas Villaveces (museum guide)
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