Refugee Art

As the number of refugees in the world hits a staggering 60 million, and with camps such as the Calais ‘Jungle’ closing down, an increasing number of artists are creating work that shines a light on this appalling crisis.

Given arts power to wow and move us, it comes as no surprise that people are using the medium as a response to the ongoing refugee crisis. Across the globe, artists, organizations and activists are producing art about migrants and refugees in an attempt to raise awareness, change misconceptions and enhance cultural integration.

#SafePassage, 2016 © Ai Weiwei Studio

Chinese dissident artist and activist Ai Weiwei, known for his critical view of the Chinese government, has used various artistic tactics to draw attention to what he calls ‘”the biggest, most shameful humanitarian crisis since World War II”. As well as his controversial recreation of the image of  a Syrian toddler who drowned off the coast of Turkey, Ai Weiwei covered the columns of Berlin’s Konzerthaus concert hall with 14,000 salvaged refugee life vests and wrapped golden thermal blankets around his Zodiac animal sculptures on display in front of the National Gallery’s Trade and Fair Palace in Prague. His large solo exhibition #SafePassage, on display in Amsterdam’s Foam Gallery until December, includes thousands of photos taken by Weiwei on his iPhone whilst visiting refugee camps all around the Mediterranean.

Exhibition SafePassage Ai Weiwei C Foam 2016 Photo Anne van der Weijden

The recent Refugees exhibition in Sydney brought together the work of 22 world-renowned artists including Max Ernst, Lucien Freud, Helmut Newton and Yoko Ono, to offer a platform for discussing the plight of refugees around the world and address the lack of compassion that has been shown in Australia towards asylum seekers. The curator of Refugees, Toni Bailey, told the Guardian, “I’m hoping that these artists who have big reputations can attract attention, and in doing that we can change misconceptions about refugees and asylum seekers.”

Prominent artists have also been voicing solidarity with the refugees via street art and graffiti on walls across the the globe. Parisian street artist JR (think Banksy meets Damien Hirst) has long been making the invisible, marginalised and forgotten visible with his provocative supersized murals that grace buildings, tower blocks, even entire streets.  Since pasting an image of a pregnant refugee on half a mile of the Seine embankment in Paris, JR has continued to throw up images of immigrants on cityscapes around the world. With a wave of his artist’s wand he turned a container ship into an epic cruising art-work which, coincidently, ended up rescuing a boatload of immigrants from Libya.

JR at Galerie Perrotin, 2015

Artists closer to home are also riding the refugee art wave and producing work which packs a socio-political punch. Over the last year, Evolution Arts tutor and Brighton based socially engaged artist Bern O’Donoghue has been busy making hundreds of origami paper boats for her project Refugees Crossing. The boats are a response to the estimated 3,771 migrants and refugees who drowned in 2015 while crossing the Mediterranean Sea.  Speaking to the Guardian, Bern said:

“We all need to help these people and engage the government to take a more compassionate position. Each paper boat has a fact about refugees on them. I’d like the boats to be seen in towns and cities across the UK, to remind people that refugees need and deserve our help.”

As well as appearing in exhibitions in the UK, the colourful boats have been placed in streets, on buses, trains, planes, at stations and bus stops in over 100 towns and cities world-wide in an attempt to generate wider debate and change the negative discourse surrounding the crisis. Bern recently paired up her boats with polaroids by the photojournalist Giovanna Del Sarto for the joint exhibition Another Crossing at Murmuarations Gallery (see top image).

Art is all the more powerful when it comes from the hearts, hands and minds of the refugees themselves. Since 2006 Art Refugee UK has been providing safe creative spaces inside refugee camps, where teams of professionals encourage and enable refugees to express themselves through mediums including drawing, film and photography.


Plasticine figures made in the camp by the residents in the groups run by Art Refuge 

Art Refugee UK’s Tony Gammidge is organising a symposium at Brighton University on 9th November with the title ‘(How) Can the arts engage with the ongoing refugee crisis’. Book a place on the morning session here (unfortunately the afternoon session is full).

Counterpoints Arts is another organisation that supports and produces art by and about migrants and refugees and who believes in ‘the ability of the arts to inspire social change and enhance inclusion and cultural integration of refugees and migrants’. Writing for Forced Migration Review, Awet Andemicael champions the myriad psychological, emotional and social benefits of artistic activity, and its power to enhance lives of refugees both within and beyond the camps.

Don’t miss the chance to appreciate some drawings and paintings by kids currently living in Al-Abrar refugee camp in Lebanon at the From Syria With Love exhibition at Sussex University on 3rd November.

You can experience the transformative power of art for yourself by booking a course or workshop at Evolution Arts Brighton. From beginner’s drawing, to stained glass and street photography we offer many outlets for crossing the borders of creativity.

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