There is no better setting for Koen Theys's Diasporalia than the St Joseph Chapel in Antwerp Cathedral. The 19th-century altarpiece there features scenes from the life of St Joseph. The depiction of Jesus’ birth is noticeably atypical: no manger, no ox and no ass. And above all: no crib. The child lies on rectangular blanket on the ground. There is no room at the inn for the newborn Messiah. He thereby shares the fate of so many displaced and uprooted people who are searching for their place in the diaspora of existence.
We call them refugees. We call them the homeless and those without papers. When the city gates were closed at night in the Middle Ages, a bell sounded in order to announce that those who were not residents must leave the city. They were therefore called ‘clochards’. Today there are still innumerable bells ringing to indicate that we are not at home here, and do not belong here. Diasporalia confronts us with the fate of people for whom there is no room at our inn. Like the blanket for Jesus, 12 mattresses lie on the ground for people whom we do not know. On each mattress personal possessions reveal something about the person who has made it their temporary shelter. How did they end up here? What did they have to leave behind? Where are these people now? The onlooker cannot avoid engaging with the story behind each sleeping place.
Koen Theys’s inspiration for the artwork arose from a visit to the cathedral. The result is stunning. A rich picture of poverty. An encounter with absent presences. Beauty that disturbs. The 21st century floods breathtakingly into the historic framework of Antwerp’s most beautiful jewel, Antwerp Cathedral.

Does an artwork on that theme belong in a church? Europe has been in the grip of a refugee crisis for a number of years. Images of defenceless men, women and children who risk their lives to make the crossing to the old continent on ramshackle boats are burnt into our mind. This crisis is rooted in a mixture of political, economic, religious and humanitarian problems. With many people it evokes a paradoxical cocktail of feelings. ‘Surely we cannot leave people fleeing from violence to their fate?’ is said simultaneously with ‘Surely we cannot give shelter to everyone who is looking for a better life?’ It becomes even more complex when you realise that the humanitarian crises in Africa and the Middle East are not only the consequence of some people’s extreme religious fanaticism, but also of colonial mechanisms and economic exploitation by rich countries or multinationals. There are no easy or satisfactory solutions for the international refugee issue. Nor should the Church lose itself in clichéd superficialities when considering the lot of refugees.
At the same time, the St Joseph altarpiece shows how relevant the theme is within religion. The depiction of the flight to Egypt reminds Christians that Jesus himself, carried by his parents, was a refugee when the family fled to escape Herod’s murderous jealousy. Those who dedicate themselves to Jesus have no choice but to feel solidarity with those who have to abandon their home in order to reach safety. Furthermore, one of the key texts in the Old Testament exhorts both Jewish and Christian believers never to forget that we are descended from a homeless wanderer travelling to the Promised Land: “When you have entered the land the LORD your God is giving you as an inheritance ... Then you shall declare before the LORD your God: “My father was a wandering Aramean” (Deuteronomy 26: 1-5). Anyone who has a home of their own, says the Bible’s message, should never forget that that home is ultimately a gift from God. From this follows the express injunction to act in solidarity with those who have lost their home – widows, orphans and foreigners:

Do not mistreat or oppress a foreigner, for you were foreigners in Egypt. Do not take advantage of the widow or the fatherless. If you do and they cry out to me, I will certainly hear their cry.
(Exodus 22: 20-22)

And hence we stand with Diasporalia before St Joseph: enjoined to solidarity and wrestling with our incapacity to fulfil this injunction. So we place our world in his hands. We ask for his protection and his familial care. For shelter for the defenceless people who are fleeing, for familial warmth in our diverse society. The cathedral’s congregation pray that the original inhabitants of our city and the newcomers can together truly feel at home in the society of which we are all part. To that end we are keen to enter into dialogue and implement practical initiatives. Because if it is within our power, the ringing of the bells will not deliver the judgement ‘Leave the territory’, but the biblical exhortation ‘Be your brother’s keeper!’

Bart Paepen – catalogue ‘Diasporalia’
mai 2018