When former British Prime Minister Theresa May took the stage at her annual party conference in 2016, she looked out over a country in turmoil. British society had been polarised by the EU referendum just a few months earlier; increasingly heated online debate unleashed an uncompromising worldview of them-versus-us: remainers against leavers, urban elites against the market-town working class, and perhaps most crucially of all, Brits against outsiders. In her keynote speech, May tried to grasp the sentiment at the heart of a situation already out of her control. “If you believe you’re a citizen of the world,” she said, “you’re a citizen of nowhere.”
Her words left migrants — many of whom had lived in Britain for decades — questioning how welcome they really were in the country they had come to see as home. They included Zula Rabikowska, an artist and photographer who moved to Britain from Poland in 2001. Her project, Citizens of Nowhere, is an exploration of citizenship, nationality, and identity inspired by the Brexit vote and the increased expression of racism and xenophobia that followed.
“I was born in Poland and moved to the UK as a child with my mother and sister in 2001. ‘Citizens of Nowhere’ is based on my family’s experience of immigrant life in the UK. The Brexit referendum was the first time I became acutely aware of my ‘otherness’ and ‘unBritishness’ as I was unable to vote,” she says.
The project is an experimental stop-motion animation created from portraits taken by Rabikowska in the garden of her family home in East London. The rolls of film were bathed in salt water from the English Channel, not only to mark Britain’s geographic identity, but to distort the images, mimicking of erosion of immigrant identity through naturalisation.
It is over these images that their family tell their stories of migration, xenophobia, and the struggle to belong.
“Physical journeying and displacement is what underpins any migration journey and to incorporate further movement in my work I printed out the analogue portraits and created a stop-motion animation,” says Rabikowska. “As a result, the portraits of myself and my family are in constant flux, forever changing and adapting, like our immigrant identity in the UK.”