The Melilla Project

Year:2014 - 2015

Tanja Boukal has been dealing with politically explosive places for years. These places are deeply connected with the fortune of people who struggle hard for a better life. Some of them pay with their lives for their decisions.

The socio-political background

Melilla is a Spanish exclave at Africa’s northern shore.  The town, which hosts around 85,000 inhabitants on merely 13,5 square kilometres, is surrounded by a fence, six to seven metres high, that separates it from its Moroccan environs. The fence, guarded by military and police forces and equipped with high-tech devices, was erected to keep refugees out of European territories. The external frontier of the European Union is additionally secured against illegal immigration by watchtowers, motion detectors, radar, night vision gears, and teargas bombs. Furthermore, the Guardia Civil patrols the border day and night. That way Melilla becomes a small version of the Fortress Europe.

Migrants from Sub-Sahara-Africa and Syria strand at this frontier of Europe. They camp in the woods of Monte Gurugú or they rent a cheap room in nearby Nador and wait for that “perfect moment.” Melilla’s 85,000 inhabitants face around  30,000 refugees, who are less concerned about the possibility to die at the attempt to overcome the fence than to return to their former lives. In May 2014 the biggest attempt on the fence since ten years showed a thousand refugees, who took on the fence at the same time, because of rumours, the fence could be strengthened further. The refugee camp CETI, built for 480 people, is occupied by around 2,600 refugees (status October 2014).

The Approach

Like with other projects before, Boukal was most interested in questions like ”What does this situation mean in reality?”,  ”What happens to the refugees, their desired destiny in front of their eyes, but sheer unreachable? “, “How are these people affected by the long period of waiting under degrading circumstances?”, ”What happens to them after a successful attempt to reach Melilla?”, ”How do they deal with the situation, that they are forced to wait again – even if it happens on the other side of the border?”, ”What is the daily life like in a city of permanent state of emergency?”, and ”How do the inhabitants of Melilla deal with the refugees in the overcrowded camp?”.

In the course of two research trips in 2014 the artist talked to refugees on both sides of the border, with inhabitants of Melilla and with people who work with the refugees to look into these questions. Furthermore, she had the possibility to do workshops with refugees at the CETI-Camp, to accompany self-sacrificing nurses in the Moroccan mountains, had a lot more talks, advanced her projects (listed below), and reported all her experience in a blog, dedicated to the project.

These impressions are the background for a series of works some of which Tanja Boukal already started when in Melilla.

The Artistic Implementation

Ode to Joy

Friedrich Schiller’s libretto is used by Ludwig van Beethoven in the final movement of his Symphony No. 9, which was adopted as the Anthem of Europe by the European Union.

The text tells a lot about the way Europe defines itself and its relation to uninvited intruders. With great pathos it describes the classical ideal of a society of equals, which are connected by the bond of joy and friendship.

A white lace cloth, hand-knitted of highest quality cashmere by Tanja Boukal, bears the libretto of the Europe Anthem framed by barbed wire panels. This cloth accompanied the artist’s wanderings around Melilla. On both sides of the border, she took photographs of migrants wrapped in this luxury plaid, wrapped in these high ideals of Europe.


Photos from different segments of the border fence – a deterrent from the outside, offering protection from the inside – are woven to large panels with a three-dimensional appearance. Consisting of soft terry cloth – fluffy like a freshly laundered towel – the panels are installed hanging freely from the ceiling between the other related works so that visitors are repeatedly forced to bump into them. Thus, the optical sensation is augmented by a haptical one.

The two-sided function of the fence – as a rampart as well as a (deadly) boundary - is, hence, sensible in the truest sense of the word. The terry cloth is not chosen by accident: It evokes associations to phrases like „to wash one’s hands of responsibility”.


The works are based on black-and-white photographs provided by the Melilla police for the Press. They illustrate the imaginative ways in which refugees have attempted to cross the border into Melilla, whether concealed in vehicle compartments or strapped to the undercarriage. Tanja Boukal organized workshops where refugees were able to choose the image of their personal journey and to manipulat these photographs by adding drawings and writing. The contrast between sober documentation of escape routes and the very personal artistic composition is the vital field for raising questions about the fate and personality of the refugees. For her work series, the artists took photographs of these works and embroidered the reproductions.

Melilla tiene una Valla (Melilla has a fence)

The fence which separates the Spanish town Melilla from its Moroccan surroundings is eleven kilometres long and six metres high. It forms not only the division line between Europe and Africa, but also between paradise and barbarism, human life and hounded survival. The fence is omnipresent in the town, but is ignored by the rest of Europe, although refugee tragedies happen exactly there on a daily basis.

Tanja Boukal tracked the whole length of the fence and took photographs which she processed to embroidered pictures. At first sight they look like cross stitched idylls which are commonly sold as DIY embroidery kits.


472 Photos

The entire fence, photographed yesterday: Starting at the water, up the hill, all along the border…

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Bossa! Bossa!

It seems almost impossible to cross the fence. Overcoming all its obstacles, the force of the…

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At home

In the morning at Melilla airport, show your passport, board the plane, fly to Austria. A simple…

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