adrift lives

Lasar Segall, Ship of Emigrants, oil on canvas, 230.00 cm x 275.00 cm, Lasar Segall Museum Collection - IPHAN/MinC (São Paulo, SP), 1939 | 1941.


The deepest sense of sacralization of the excluded still today instigates an increasing number of emigrants to leave in search of a safe, non-violent destination.

The image of a 16-year-old Moroccan teenager in tears with his body tied to empty bottles on the beach has gone around the world in recent weeks. On May 19, the boy Aschraf Sabir repeated the gesture of thousands of other young people from his country when he tried to swim across the border between Morocco and Spain in North Africa. He managed to reach the beach of Ceuta, an autonomous city that constitutes a Spanish enclave in the north of the African continent, but was soon received by the military who were waiting for him to leave the Mediterranean waters to return him to his country of origin. In one of the video images that record Aschraf's arrival, one can see that the appeal addressed to the Spanish guards carries the expressive force of the pain and dreams of every emigrant: "Understand us, for the love of God!"

Aschraf's helplessness is embodied in the words that announce his desperate request. The scene starring the Moroccan teenager, among many others recorded in recent decades in various regions of the world, attests to the contemporaneity of works of art that tried to express the human condition of the emigrant. This is the particular case of Lasar Segall, a painter, sculptor and engraver born in 1889 in Vilnius, the current capital of the Republic of Lithuania. Segall lived with his family members the experience of being exiled in the territory dominated by the Russian Empire at the turn of the XNUMXth to the XNUMXth century. Under the rule of the Tsars, Jewish families experienced famine and rampant violence from the pogroms in Eastern Europe. The migratory movement was part of Segall's whole life: before heading to Brazil between the wars, where he was welcomed by the modernists of São Paulo, among them Mário de Andrade, he lived and studied in some of the great European cities in dark periods. conflict and political persecution. The traumas accumulated in the artist's skin marked his trajectory and became the main material of his compositions.

Lasar Segall's work received precious interpretations and readings from some of his contemporaries, revealing the unique position occupied by the artist in the work that consisted of unveiling the spirit of the time in which he lived. A collection of comments and articles written by painters, writers and poets unfolds the universe of meanings that overflows from the shapes, colors and volumes of his drawings and paintings. Among numerous catalogs of exhibitions, interpretations and comments, I refer here, in particular, to the collection Lasar Segall: anthology of national texts about the work and the artist. (Funarte, 1982). The poet Carlos Drummond de Andrade and the French sociologist Roger Bastide were some of those who left a testimony of Segall's art.

Lasar Segall's composition titled Ship of Emigrants (1939-1941) it will complete 80 years of its realization in 2021. Certainly one of the artist's masterpieces, the painting received and still receives special attention. The vessel that protects a distraught crowd from the waves contains within a precarious outline not only the pain and suffering of subjects deprived of a place, a homeland; on Segall's boat also sail the secrets and dreams that reveal the condition of all humanity.

In this sense, Drummond wisely defined: "Segall's social frameworks are addressed to everyone, they do not meet a particular need." Roger Bastide, in the same line of interpretation as Drummond, sees in the subtle desolate movement of the ship's curves the finish of a form that also bears a universal meaning: “It is not the painted object that expresses, but the way in which it is painted. But, precisely because he expresses himself through forms, the painter transcends the momentary, to give his paintings a universal and permanent value. They are no longer massacred Jews, they are no longer Europeans looking for another habitat, it is our humanity, it is ourselves that are laid bare on the screen.”

As in the folds of a dream, the expressive force of Segall's painting is reflected in the power it has to say both the unspeakable and what should not be said. The manifestation of this oneiric atmosphere is strongly present on the canvas: the eyes immersed in dreams of the emigrants inside the vessel give a positive meaning to a certain cartography of the abyss, of the non-place, of a reality that, even being plausible, the awakened eye not able to see. Emigrant Ship evokes the tragic and desperate journey of Jewish migrants, who, fleeing the war and Nazi persecution in Germany, piled up like merchandise, on large ships, heading for unknown countries. The ship portrayed by Segall is a genuine record of marginals thrown into the abyss of their own fate. The plot of history, tireless machinery, day and night rewrites and renews the quality of the mass of marginalized individuals.

Between 1939 and 1941, in a historical-political context marked by the reassertion of the power of the National States and ideological movements of a nationalist nature, the margins were populated by expatriates. Entire families found themselves besieged by identity devices based on a perverse process of self-purification. In this sense, the artistic universe inhabited by the painter – the Nazi persecution during the first half of the XNUMXth century – reveals a strange space of death and purification. Thrown so many times into the open sea, the madness of emigrants pursued by the somber gesture of exclusion outlines the path of an eternal crossing.

It is often forgotten that Segall's framework does not contemplate the entire migration process: departure, crossing and arrival. This is not a work capable of envisioning a political process of negotiation of identities. There is no trace of this type of negotiation in Segall's painting. On the contrary, one sees a collection of individuals at the mercy of an inconclusive movement, condemned to drift. Segall's emigrants seem obliged to inhabit, crystallized, the bridge of exile.

In a way that underscores the profound sadness of his features, the boat's crew was not given the light of a minimally safe port in which to disembark. Even the shipwrecked Raft of the Medusa (1818-1819), by Géricault, could glimpse, among the piled up wreckage of themselves, a possibility of arrival. Segall's emigrants carry the moment of disembarkation only in their dreams of a new world. As with the madmen and foreigners transported from city to city by the rivers of Medieval Europe, the grooves of the waters of Segall's grey-green ocean break up and erase any possible trace, any concrete vestige of human existence.

In this sense, it is worth remembering Bastide's observation about the plastic layout of the beams under the ship's deck where isolated individuals and entire families are distributed, fragments of a desolate atmosphere of solitude:

In the series of etchings of the immigrants, Segall frequently used ascending lines, slightly oblique, and other sinuous ones, as reflections of the shy hope of the exile. But in Navio de Emigrantes the painter returns to the ellipse, or at least ends the drama of the immigrant in a half ellipse made by the back of the boat. The ship thus imposes its shape on the women and men who dream of the bridge of exile. And as ethical or temperamental differences disperse the mass into families, couples and even individuals, as, on the other hand, the dream is an important instrument of isolation, of fragmentation, since each one, through it, goes to the most deep secrets of his being, to the point of being incommunicable, Segall is not content with enclosing immigrants in this half-ellipse; so that the ellipse does not break under the impulse of all these desires, these contradictory nostalgias, he reattaches the ship's curves, throwing a whole series of beams that hold the paving and that, by a happy increase in symbolism, draw on the human mass a multitude of crosses.

By rescuing the oppressed face and pain of the excluded, the artist exposes the meaning and logic that underlies exclusion. It is necessary to know how to ask the work what the dynamics of its colors and strokes mean. The gesture of understanding corresponds, according to Merleau-Ponty in The visible and the invisible (Perspectiva, 2000), a kind of opening to the other, to the absent, or even to the invisible, “this secret counterpart of the visible”.

The sad faces unveiled in detail by Segall inside his vessel – a heap of people composing an “almost” community of subjects from a fragmented mass – represent some of the victims of contemporary “divisions”. In a radical way, they accuse the sacred character of all identity fiction. The Czech-Brazilian philosopher and also a Jewish migrant Vilém Flusser, in his “philosophical autobiography” entitled Bodenlos (AnnaBlume, 2007), acutely perceived the tension established by the presence of the emigrant and his irreducible difference: “For the resident, the emigrant is even more foreign, less familiar than the migrant outside, because he lays bare the sacred, for the domiciled, as a banal thing. He is ugly and worthy of hate, because he identifies the native beauty with a kitsch beauty.”

The deepest sense of the sacralization of the excluded – a process that consists at the same time in the separation of the foreigner and the purification of the native – remains in the record of the conflicts and violence that instigated and still instigate today an increasing number of emigrants to leave for search for a safe, non-violent destiny. Days after the failed attempt to enter Spanish territory, Aschraf revealed in an interview to the newspaper The country the dream that animated him during the difficult journey: to go to Europe, study, work and be able to help the rest of his family in Morocco. The teenager was interviewed in one of the poorest neighborhoods in the city of Casablanca, at the home of his second adoptive mother. Then 16 - Aschraf's current age - his biological mother gave him up for adoption when he was still a baby, just three days after his birth. Rabía, the boy's first adoptive mother died when Aschraf was 11 years old.

In Morocco, children of single mothers carry the stigma of being born “outside the law” for their entire lives. While mothers are considered prostitutes and often rejected by their own families, their children are named in the local dialect. Wlad lehram (“children of sin”). This is a social condition of sub-citizenship, as children do not have rights related to paternal affiliation, such as the father's surname, inheritance or pension.

Aschraf's appeal addressed to the Spanish guards - "Understand us, for God's sake!" – remains an endless echo of the countless lives lost in the tragic stories of emigration. Like the crew of the Ship of Segall, the Moroccan boy was born thrown into the sea by a society incapable of including among its children those who find strange and problematize its sacred institutions. Born of a refusal, it is still the refusal of another place that is repeated in Aschraf's life. His desperate request for understanding and understanding is the most radical denunciation of what we have transformed from the daily and repeated work of exclusion gestures.

*Joao Paulo Ayub Fonseca, psychoanalyst, he holds a doctorate in social sciences from Unicamp. author of Introduction to Michel Foucault's analytics of power (Intermediates).


ANDRADE, Carlos Drummond. Segall and the ship. In: Lasar Segall: anthology of national texts on the work and the artist. Rio de Janeiro: FUNARTE, 1982.

BASTIDE, Roger. The oval and the straight line – apropos of some paintings by Lasar Segall. In: Lasar Segall : anthology of national texts about the work and the artist. Rio de Janeiro: FUNARTE, 1982.

MERLEAU-PONTY, Maurice. The visible and the invisible. SP: Perspective, 2000.

SELIGMANN-SILVA, Márcio. “Towards a philosophy of exile: A. Rosenfeld and V. Flusser on the advantages of not having a homeland”. Electronic Journal of NIEJ/UFRJ – Year I – nº 3 – 2010.

See this link for all articles


  • About artificial ignoranceEugenio Bucci 15/06/2024 By EUGÊNIO BUCCI: Today, ignorance is not an uninhabited house, devoid of ideas, but a building full of disjointed nonsense, a goo of heavy density that occupies every space
  • The society of dead historyclassroom similar to the one in usp history 16/06/2024 By ANTONIO SIMPLICIO DE ALMEIDA NETO: The subject of history was inserted into a generic area called Applied Human and Social Sciences and, finally, disappeared into the curricular drain
  • Franz Kafka, libertarian spiritFranz Kafka, libertarian spirit 13/06/2024 By MICHAEL LÖWY: Notes on the occasion of the centenary of the death of the Czech writer
  • A look at the 2024 federal strikelula haddad 20/06/2024 By IAEL DE SOUZA: A few months into government, Lula's electoral fraud was proven, accompanied by his “faithful henchman”, the Minister of Finance, Fernando Haddad
  • Letter to the presidentSquid 59mk,g 18/06/2024 By FRANCISCO ALVES, JOÃO DOS REIS SILVA JÚNIOR & VALDEMAR SGUISSARDI: “We completely agree with Your Excellency. when he states and reaffirms that 'Education is an investment, not an expense'”
  • PEC-65: independence or patrimonialism in the Central Bank?Campos Neto Trojan Horse 17/06/2024 By PEDRO PAULO ZAHLUTH BASTOS: What Roberto Campos Neto proposes is the constitutional amendment of free lunch for the future elite of the Central Bank
  • Chico Buarque, 80 years oldchico 19/06/2024 By ROGÉRIO RUFINO DE OLIVEIRA: The class struggle, universal, is particularized in the refinement of constructive intention, in the tone of proletarian proparoxytones
  • Why are we on strike?statue 50g 20/06/2024 By SERGIO STOCO: We have reached a situation of shortage of federal educational institutions
  • The melancholic end of Estadãoabandoned cars 17/06/2024 By JULIAN RODRIGUES: Bad news: the almost sesquicentennial daily newspaper in São Paulo (and the best Brazilian newspaper) is rapidly declining
  • The strike at federal Universities and Institutescorridor glazing 01/06/2024 By ROBERTO LEHER: The government disconnects from its effective social base by removing those who fought against Jair Bolsonaro from the political table