Art in action: Capturing the humans behind the crises

By Lucy Sara-Kelly

The Art world has never shied away from dealing with disaster. For centuries, artists have been documenting humanitarian crises and digging deep into the traumatic responses evoked by these events. In recent years, as migrant and refugee numbers have swelled, and wars have crippled copious countries, there is now more need than ever for the art world to represent the people whose voices are lost in corrupt governments, and buried in refugee camps. Particularly in 2017, artists and galleries are embracing their role in documenting and illuminating the issues migrants and refugees are facing. Governments are failing – for example the UK Dubs amendment is ending and therefore abandoning child migrants. Travel bans are materialising – most notoriously Donald Trump’s recent attack on Muslim migrants, and people are being outcast and deserted. Yet as a result of many different initiatives, migrant Art is crossing boundaries that even the artists themselves cannot cross. Through increased communications and modern technology, the impediments of geographical distance are gradually being alleviated. This year, migrant and refugee art is at the forefront of exhibitions across the UK, highlighting the Visual Arts’ commitment to a variety of cultural perspectives, and to the creative value of all of humanity.

It is the sea – the hope of escape, the fear it poses as a barrier, and the paradox of life and death it insinuates – that lies at the core of migrant art. The Baltic Art Gallery’s exhibition in Newcastle, Disappearance at Sea – Mare Nostrum, is on display from the 27th January to the 14th May 2017. This group exhibition focuses on migrant and refugee journeys across the Mediterranean, with contributions from a variety of artists including work from Syria, Greece, Kenya, and the UK. The Baltic is adamant in educating its visitors and has therefore partnered with Amnesty International to ensure their staff are well-equipped with information and resources to discuss the issues this exhibition explores. Disappearance at Sea uses a wide range of visual mediums to evoke the experience of crossing the Mediterranean and the land borders surrounding it. One of the highlights of the exhibition are the canvas drawings which were created in the Asylum Centre of Bogovadja, Serbia and which map individual refugee journeys. There is also a room full of marine video footage and a virtual reality experience.

Like the Baltic’s exhibition, John Akomfrah, a video artist born in Ghana, now living in London, is primarily concerned with this contemporary crisis. Yet Akomfrah also presents this modern experience alongside the vast number of previous faces of the displaced which have haunted world history. Akomfrah has recently been awarded the Artes Mundi prize for his video installations focusing on the persecutions of migrants which have occurred in the past four centuries. Condemning the way in which European countries have greeted migrants and refugees from the Middle East and North Africa (MENA countries), Akomfrah uses his Art as a platform to highlight the shameful treatment of the displaced. The Artes Mundi Award praises international artists who explore contemporary social issues across the world. Akomfrah’s video installation winning first prize encapsulates the importance the Visual Art community are placing on the promotion of artwork which tackles migrant and refugee crises.

Akomfrah has earned the resources, financial support, and stability that others unfortunately do not have access to, and thus creativity can often be crushed.  With no home, no studio, and no stable income, it is nearly impossible for migrants and refugees to continue making and exhibiting their art. To help alleviate this issue, and to promote migrant artwork, which in any other circumstance would remain hidden in the depths of Za’atari or the crumbling remnants of Aleppo, Yorkshire Sculpture Park (YSP) have initiated an ‘art by email’ scheme. Beyond Boundaries: Art by Email strives to give artists from MENA countries the opportunity to display their work at the gallery, even if their ability to travel is restricted by social or economic circumstances. YSP’s mission highlights that physical distance does not always have to be a barrier for creativity in the modern world; cultural divisions and political unrest should not prevent the celebration of artistic talent. After an open call to MENA countries, YSP’s pioneering project selected 16 artists to send their displays (or the instructions on how to create their displays) via email to the gallery. Through this project, YSP emphasised the need for MENA artists to share the reality of their experiences and to stress the power of creativity which still manages to flourish in these countries despite the current crises.

Ex-Durham student Hannah Rose Thomas is also working to give refugees a medium through which they can express themselves. Hannah has travelled to Jordan with the aim of bringing art to Syrian refugees and using its cathartic effects as a creative therapy. Hannah, with the help of refugee children, is transforming old refugee tents into canvases of creativity and artistic expression. Although this project may seem small, to the children who are finally given independence and a way to express their emotions, Art can be liberating. Hannah is currently raising funds for an art project she is organising in Kurdistan this summer for Yezidi women who have been rescued from ISIS captivity.

These are, of course, just a few examples of the variety of ways art is exploring the modern migrant and refugee crisis. Art may not be an immediate solution to the wars, the inhumane governments, and the natural disasters which are forcing people out of their homes, but, art gives people a voice and a medium through which they can express themselves. Art allows the displaced to photograph and paint their own stories, and in this sense, take back their independence and individuality which is often lost in sweeping news reports that turn people into statistics. Art captures the humanity, and paints the people, and 2017 is the year artists and galleries are fully fulfilling their responsibility to tackle and expose modern humanitarian crises.

Photograph: Lucy Sara-Kelly

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