ELEVEN artists from across the seas have gathered at York Art Gallery to explore migration, dispossession and national borders in a timely international exhibition.

Contemporary artist and curator Varvara Shavrova, originally from the USSR, but now living in Ireland, has brought together works by Nidhal Chamekh, from Tunisia and now France; Taus Makhacheva, from Dagestan/Russia; Shahram Entekhabi, from Iran/Germany; Brian Maguire, from Ireland, and Mohammed Sami, from Iraq/UK.

The list goes on, also featuring Shavrova herself; Vanessa Vozzo, from Italy; Vladimir Miladinović, from Serbia, Halil Altendere, from Turkey; Susan Stockwell, from Britain, and Nick Ellwood, from York.

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Brian Maguire with his work Aleppo Apartments. Picture: Frank Dwyer

"One strength of the show lies in the fact that most participating artists, including myself, are migrants," says Varvara. "This sets this project apart from a more sensationalist, if not exploitative, approach to the currently ‘hot’ topics of ‘migrant crisis’, and instead brings the empathy to the fore of the reflections on this tragic and ongoing situation that is showing no signs of being resolved, nor going away, any time soon."

Between them, they present 25 art works in The Sea Is The Limit in such diverse media as audio-visual objects, interactive installations, drawings, paintings, sculpture and audio and video works, with the walls of the Madsen One and Madsen Two galleries freshly painted blue to evoke the seas.

All apply their art to question the meaning of nationalism, free movement, inclusion and exclusion, drawing on both the historical and contemporary narratives that shape identity and opinion. Collectively, they express a desire for freedom and a better life that stands in sharp contrast to the reality the migrants experience on their journeys.

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Susan Stockwell's Sail Painting being installed at York Art Gallery. Picture: Frank Dwyer

"What makes The Sea Is The Limit a unique exhibition is that each participating artist has been addressing the theme of refugees and engaging with migration, immigration, dispossession and rootlessness for some years, and in some cases, for example the renowned Irish artist Brian Maguire, for some decades."

The exhibition has been organised by York Art Gallery and Varvara Shavrova in collaboration with Patrick Heide Contemporary Art, in Marylebone, London. Shavrova had first come to England from the Soviet Union when she was 20. "It was more to be an artist than to study," she says.

"It was the time when Gorbachev was in power, the time of Perestroika and Glasnost, when he lifted the Iron Curtain and there was a policy of openness and though you had to apply for permission to leave the country, most people were allowed to do so."

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Space Refugee, by Halil Altendere, at The Sea Is The Limit exhibition. Picture: Frank Dwyer

Earlier, in 1989, when she was 12, she had travelled from her Moscow home to Hungary where she had a pen friend who studied Russian. "At that time, before the openness, it was unusual to travel: my parents had never travelled but they had to travel with me, and as they were artists they were not considered dangerous to the state, though I'm sure they were monitored," says Varvara.

At 20, having studied at the Moscow Polygraphic Institute, she came to London to launch her art career as the first recipient of a three-year residency in North London through the Florence Trust.

"It was a time when the people coming out of Russia were cultural people, the intelligentsia, rather than oligarchs coming over now, and we got a good reception because were genuinely interested in European culture, being moved by the Tate collection instead of coming over to acquire property."

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Artist Susan Stockwell at York Art Gallery. Picture: Frank Dwyer

She had the benefit of practical studio space. "The residency allowed me to work on my art, rather than work in a bar, and I also tutored Russians at City Lit," she recalls. "Now when people hear I'm Russian, they don't realise I came here nearly 30 years ago as part of the Russian intelligentsia but that was the case," she says.

Varvara is now based between London and Dublin, where she has lived for eight years after earlier moving to Beijing with her husband and young children, and she now has an Irish passport. She combines her own artistic creativity with curating shows internationally. "The Sea Is The Limit is my comeback to curating in this country," she says.

In 2016, Patrick Heide had mounted a London exhibition of the same name with Susan Stockwell, Nidhal Chamekh and Varvara among the four artists and now Varvara has stretched the show and the theme to encompass 11 artists.

"I said to Patrick, 'this show is too good to finish here, we should expand it, as there's such a demand for an exhibition on this subject'," she says. "I sent an open proposal to York Art Gallery and they said 'yes' as it fitted in with their interest in contemporary art and the migrant issue in a city noted for its welcome to migrants as well as tourists."

The Sea Is The Limit is on show at York Art Gallery, Exhibition Square, York, until September 2. Opening hours are Monday to Sunday, 10am to 5pm; last admission at 4:30pm. The exhibition is accompanied by artists’ talks, tours and a round-table discussion focusing on migration, refugees, borders and the role of contemporary art within these themes. For a full list, go to yorkartgallery.org.uk