Raquel Salvatella de Prada
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Cornered is a video installation about contemporary migrants making attempts, most often failed, to cross the border from Morocco to the Spanish cities of Melilla and Ceuta, the only European enclaves on Africa’s mainland. The chapter describes the intent and focus of the installation. It further explains the process of creating the artwork; from background research on migration across Spain’s southern border, to technical details of the wooden sculpture, the experimental film, and the video mapping.

Figure 10.1 Style frame from video animation. Raquel Salvatella de Prada, 2018.

Cornered is a video installation about contemporary migrants making attempts, most often failed, to cross the border from Morocco to the Spanish cities of Melilla and Ceuta, the only European enclaves on Africa's mainland.

The visual imagery focuses on the ambitions and struggles of the migrants: their journey from their home country to the Spanish border, and the frustration of the perpetual effort to reach Europe.

Immigration across Spain's southern border

Ceuta (18.5 km2) and Melilla (13.3 km2) are situated on the northern coast of Africa and share a border with Morocco and the Mediterranean Sea. For centuries, these autonomous cities were vital ports that offered protection for Spanish ships. Spain remains a region where people emigrate from, but it is also attracting a growing number of migrants. As was the case with mass expulsions of Jewish converso populations in the fifteenth century and of Moriscos in the seventeenth century, a large number of people who want to be in Spain are excluded by force, marginalized, persecuted, and pushed away towards other borders.

Figure 10.2 illustrates different routes by which people/migrants commonly arrive to Spain. The trip to reach Morocco is often strenuous, dangerous, and thousands of kilometers long; sometimes it involves crossing the Sahara, which migrants call the second sea. Human smugglers regularly take advantage of their “customers” along the way. When migrants reach Morocco, they stay there for a while to earn money and wait for the right time to cross into Europe, often living in makeshift shelters near the borders for months or even years.

Figure 10.2 Migration routes in North Africa. Source: https://elpais.com/elpais/2014/02/16/media/1392579160_005825.html (accessed April 6, 2022).

These migrants use different modes of transportation to cross the border, including cars, planes, and boats, but the most affordable way to attempt the crossing is by climbing the fence that separates the Spanish enclaves from Morocco. The Spanish erected the first fence between Morocco and Spain in 1971. The Spanish government added reinforcement and fencing over the years. In 2014, 40,000 undocumented immigrants gathered in Morocco to try to enter Europe through Spain. For instance, between January and February of 2014, more than 4000 people tried to cross the fence and 600 made it. Since 2014, migration across Spain's southern border has increased drastically, even as the fences around Ceuta and Melilla have been reinforced. The new fences do not provide handholds for climbing. This has made crossing the border more difficult but not impossible. For instance, migrants now climb the fences with hooks attached to their hands and shoes.

Figure 10.3 Ceuta and Melilla's border wall. Source: Ministerio del Interior. https://elpais.com/elpais/2014/03/07/media/1394187503_458548.html (accessed April 6, 2022).

When migrants fail to cross the fence, they are often beaten and have their papers taken away. Then they are deported hundreds of kilometers away, to Rabat, Fes, or Casablanca. Soon they try again and fail, and try and fail, as if in an infinite loop. They are trapped in Morocco. Without papers, they cannot go to Spain or go back to their home countries. They are trapped in the forest where each day, they hide and run away from the police. They are trapped, as they appear to be inside the dome created for this installation. They are trapped, but still they have hope.

Figure 10.4 Border wall between Morocco and Spain. Photo: Jesús Blasco de Avellaneda, 2014.


Part sculpture, part light installation and video animation, Cornered provides an immersive visual experience that takes an emotional and atmospheric approach to describing migration at the southern border of Spain.

The installation projects an original dance performance interlaced with stylized visuals on an intricately patterned and light filled structure, which is reminiscent of a carved Moroccan table, covered on top by a screened dome. The interior of the structure contains a short throw projector, with the dome as a rear-projection screen. The visuals and the original scores are experienced by walking around the structure, immersing the viewer in the light patterns that emanate from it to cover floors and surrounding walls.

Figure 10.5 “Cornered” Photo: Robert Zimmerman, 2018.

The visual style of the video projection is based on African art from countries where migration via Morocco often originates. The color palette focuses on silhouettes that are placeholders for the many human beings in a similar situation. These silhouettes represent the darkness and frustration of the journey and at the same time reflect the physical beauty and skilled craftsmanship of African peoples. They are contrasted by incorporating vibrant colors that are familiar from African fabrics, patterns, and paintings.

Figure 10.6 Style frame from video animation. Raquel Salvatella de Prada, 2018.

The video combines real footage and animation, and the projection scale varies by using different numbers of screens (the dome is framed with triangles). Sometimes, only one animation covers the entire projection surface. Other times, the multi-video utilizes each individual facet or just a few at a time. While the projection is playing, the light from numerous LEDs shines through the structure to paint the walls around the viewer with geometric light patterns. In this way, the installation inhabits the entire space it occupies. Jonathan Henderson and his music group Diali Cissokho & Kaira Ba composed the musical score for the installation. Henderson is a North Carolina-based multi-instrumentalist, composer, and producer currently pursuing a PhD in ethnomusicology at Duke University. Diali Cissokho & Kaira Ba's music is steeped in ancient West African griot traditions combined with the impulses of a rock band.

Figure 10.7 “Cornered” Close-up of wooden structure and video projection. Photo: Raquel Salvatella de Prada, 2018.

Figure 10.8 Style frame from video animation. Raquel Salvatella de Prada, 2018.

Cornered creates an ambivalent atmosphere of frustration and hope. Through the video of dancers, and through Diali's voice and words in his native Wolof, Cornered provides an emotional perspective on the migratory issue, leaving the viewer with an impression of determination, deliberateness, and desperation. The intensity and mood of the audio track and the video rise and fall, reflecting the back and forth between emotional highs and lows. The 8-minute animation then repeats itself, further mirroring the repeated failed attempts to cross the border.

Cornered was first shown on September 27, 2018 at the Rubenstein Arts Center at Duke University as part of an experimental exhibition about migration in and around Europe, “In Transit”, which was held at the Nasher Museum from September 2018 to January 2019. It has since been shown nationally and internationally. Cornered contributes to a broader awareness of the humanitarian crisis at Spain's southern border.

Figure 10.9 “Cornered” Photo: Robert Zimmerman, 2018.

Figure 10.10 “Cornered” Photo: Raquel Salvatella, 2018.

The process

In researching the material for Cornered, I traveled to Morocco, as well as Melilla in 2016 and 2017 to see the location and regional art, and to talk to aspiring and successful migrants and the people with whom they regularly interact. I interviewed Omar (fictitious name), a Senegalese man now living in Dahkla, in southern Morocco. He had already made four attempts to cross the border near Nador. In his first attempt, Omar waited for a month before he tried to cross. While camping in the Gurugú forest, he and others were chased frequently and had to run and hide. In one of his later attempts, Omar was on the top of the fence for one hour before being captured and sent to Rabat (300 miles away). He then found employment in Dakhla, where he worked for about 3 months to earn some money to try again. In his last attempt, Omar was so badly beaten that he went back to Dahkla to recover. In spite of his comparatively comfortable position in Dakhla, Omar does not feel at home there because he experiences racism and discrimination. His will to migrate to Europe remains unbroken.

For the first iteration of the installation, the dome structure was created using a 3D-printable geodesic connector system with hardwood dowels. Trace paper was used as the rear projection screen. The second iteration was created using plywood, and the final piece was built using oak, often used in Moroccan woodwork. To reduce the possibility of fire hazards, a professional rear screen projection film was chosen that is reminiscent of silk, which is an often-used fabric in Morocco.

Figure 10.11 Artistic assistant Lexi Bateman. Photo: Raquel Salvatella de Prada, 2018.

Figure 10.12 Geodesic dome created by Dimitri Titov. Photo: Lexi Bass, 2018.

After finding a projector that could throw the image at a sufficiently short distance, one of the biggest technological challenges was to keep the image from becoming distorted by the shape of the projection screen. The process I used to achieve this is called UV Mapping, which is a technique borrowed from applications where a 2D image is mapped to a 3D model's surface for texture mapping. UVs are two-dimensional coordinates that correspond to the vertex information of the geometry of a 3D object.

Figures 10.13–15 Projection tests on a mockup geodesic dome, 2017. Photos: Raquel Salvatella de Prada, 2017.

They are basically marker points that control which pixels on the image/texture correspond to which vertices on the 3D mesh, thereby providing the link between a surface mesh and the application of images to the surface. The process begins by laying out the UVs by creating a 2D representation of the 3D object, as if it were unfolded and flattened out. Then, working with a software such as Isadora, which is mostly used in theater for projection mapping, the original flat image is deformed to align with the triangular segments of the flattened dome. That way, when projected onto the actual 3D dome, the image does not appear deformed anymore.

Figure 10.16 Screenshot of graphic programming environment software Isadora, from Troikatronix.

The geometric patterns engraved on (into) the body of the structure are an original design that takes inspiration from patterns frequently found on Moroccan doors and furniture. In particular, the design is a variation of one that can be found on a wooden door in Madrasa Bou Inania, an educational institution founded in 1351–56 in Fez. This design repeats a regular 8-pointed star polygon, one of the most common regular polygons and fundamental elements in Islamic art design. It lends itself to variations as part of a more contemporary aesthetic that complements the traditional African patterns shown in the animation. On the one hand, this blend of styles reflects the mingling of cultures that results from migration.

Figure 10.17 Sketch of wooden door. Raquel Salvatella de Prada, 2018.

Figure 10.18 Wooden structure. Photo: Robert Zimmerman, 2018.

On the other hand, stacking up intricate variations of the original pattern gives the impression of changing size, thereby emphasizing the projection dome atop the structure. Fading of the pattern towards the bottom of the installation further strengthens this emphasis. I created the pattern using Adobe Illustrator, a vector graphics software.

Figures 10.19–21 Multiple alterations of the designs. Raquel Salvatella de Prada, 2017–18.

Engravings were created using a laser cutting process. First, many different design drafts were printed on paper. Second, a small selection of drafts was laser cut in cardboard for more efficient experimentation. Finally, the engraving of the final design in wood was finetuned in many iterations.

Figures 10.22–24 Test engravings, construction, and set-up of the wooden structure. Photos: Robert Zimmerman, 2018.

To fill the structure with light, LEDs were placed inside it. Each LED was behind a covered lens to reduce the amount of stray light that would otherwise diffuse the visuals projected on the screened dome. The light shines through the engravings to create patterns of light and shadow on the floor and walls surrounding the structure, enveloping and drawing in viewers so that they themselves become part of the installation, helping them to become emotionally engaged rather than just observant.

Figure 10.25 Opening Day at the Rubenstein Arts Center, Durham, NC. Photo: Robert Zimmerman, 2018.

Swirling patterns of bright colors are an integral part of the video animation. They were generated by filming ink billowing and sliding in water. Video of the swirling ink was merged with patterns inspired by African fabrics to create a contrast to black and faceless human silhouettes. To create the silhouettes, dancer Tristan Park was filmed against a white background, and the video was composited with the rest of the visuals in post-production. The sequencing of colors and evocative body language work together to reflect on the migrant's journey, where the color palette follows the course of a day, from bright blues to the deep reds and oranges of sunset.

Figures 10.26–27 Watercolors in water – tests for video projection. Filming dancer Tristan Park. Photos: Raquel Salvatella de Prada, 2018.

Figure 10.28 Style frames from video animation. Raquel Salvatella de Prada, 2018.

The video was shot as footage that would later be fragmented and reassembled to create the story line and a mood oscillating between hope and desperation. This process was crucial in integrating video and soundtrack. In fact, the soundtrack was created by Henderson before the post-production of the video took place, constrained only by the need to capture the increasing emotional tension experienced by migrants, as well as the geographic distance between the places where they began their journey and the Moroccan forest where they take their last stand before attempting to enter Spain. The audio begins with sounds of the forest, such as voices, crickets, running steps and the wind, which Henderson recorded in Senegal. These sounds are blended with North African instruments and melodies, followed by a variation of a traditional Senegalese song and the recorded voice of Diali Cissokho, a Senegalese musician. The different musical styles reflect the cultural differences between the migrants and the local Moroccan population. Diali has family members that attempted the crossing and speaks about their experience in his native tongue. Matching the video to the finished soundtrack allowed the mood to be changed, not only via images, colors, and the body language of the dancer, but also by creatively cutting, duplicating, and blending video footage in the rhythm of the music.


  • Jonathan Henderson (Music)
  • Tristan Park (Dance)
  • Dimitri Titov (Geodesic Dome)


Valuable assistance was provided by Lexi Bateman, Diali Cissokho & Kaira Ba, Katy Clune, Michael Faber, Philip Moss, Mark Olson, Gabriel Pelli, Victor Ribet, Austin Powers, Philipp Sadowski, Yuchen Zhao, and Robert Zimmerman.

Cornered was supported by Duke Africa Initiative, Duke Arts, the Josiah Charles Trent Memorial Foundation, the Arts & Sciences Council, Art, Art History & Visual Studies at Duke University, and the Puffin Foundation.

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