When was the last time you heard a refugee speak for themself? Filtered through the Western media, refugee voices are subsumed by refugee ‘experts’, relief officials, or the vagaries of international political discourse. Media's sweeping statements often fail to acknowledge that refugees are individuals with their own experiences, beliefs and personalities. Instead, refugees are often portrayed through narratives of ‘us’ versus ‘them’. They are passive objects of humanitarian aid, or economic and cultural threats. As Elie observes, refugees have been considered as ‘mute, helpless victims rather than specific persons’ with individual histories and a diverse array of cultural identities. Such problematic media representation influences both how the public perceives refugees, and how they perceive themselves.
Art is a powerful tool for refugees to express themselves and tell their own stories to the world. Catalani’s interviews of Syrian refugee artists revealed that all interviewees felt the need to represent the voices and experiences of their community through their art. A theme they found particularly representative was the change endured by refugees from ‘normal people, with normal jobs, hopes, fears and problems to the victims of the war’. Notably, this is a narrative rarely seen in media headlines that broadly speak of ‘refugee boats’ and ‘refugee crossings’.
Moreover, art empowers refugees to become active contributors to global discourse and perception of migration. No longer are refugees silent, voiceless objects. Through the narratives of their art, they make sense of their experiences, negotiating both their individual and collective identities in the world.
Forced migration has grown exponentially in popularity in the art world. Tania Bruguera, a Cuban performance artist, observes that ‘Immigrants are the subject of the twenty-first century.’ Recent years have seen an explosion of the ‘refugee topic’ in museums and exhibitions. This has thrown into light the question of how the categorisation of ‘refugee artist’ shapes the artistic practices of migrants. How are they, as artists, to navigate the expectations which come with being categorised as a refugee? And how are they to reconcile them with the other manifold elements that make up their personal identity?
The challenges of refugee artists
In the words of Mercer, ethnicity is a ‘burden of representation’. Mercer’s work examining black artists in the United Kingdom in the 1990s reveals that members of an ethnic group are often expected to ‘speak’ for their ethnic community. This stems from a false assumption that an ethnic group is homogeneous with common cultural behaviour. As such, ‘ethnic’ artists are saddled in society with a set of expectations concerning their ethnicity.
Of course, it is true that artists are able to leverage upon this set of expectations to consciously subvert them, replacing hostile perceptions of their ethnic group with positive images. However, the burden fundamentally remains on the artists to grapple with these expectations in whatever way they choose.
This then shows the burden of the ‘refugee label’ on artists. As Parzer observes, refugee artists are expected to represent both their ethnic community, as well as the refugee community. The psychological weight of this burden is considerable. It ties artists to their trauma of fleeing their countries, and carries the connotations of powerlessness and dependence. They feel expected to center their artistic practice around themes of flight, trauma and displacement. Parzer interviewed Omar B, a famous visual artist in Damascus who was invited to present at a ‘refugee art’ exhibition. However, the organisers failed to distinguish between professional and amateur art. To Omar B, this revealed that his value as an artist derived not from his artistic prowess, but from his experience of being a refugee from Syria.
A second challenge faced by refugee artists is a tension between victimhood and resilience that is complex and inherent in the refugee experience.
A refugee is both vulnerable and a victim, subject to torture, persecution, violence and more. This way of viewing refugees aligns well with advocacy and human aid purposes. Yet refugees are also resilient survivors who are constantly reconstructing their identities and lives. Thus as Vigil and Abidi observe, there is a fundamental contradiction in the refugee identity. In order to receive protection and aid, refugees have to reveal their vulnerability while also demonstrating resilience. This is clearly not an easy task. As visual artist Emad Altaay told the Refugee Council: “I was a victim in Iraq, but I can’t accept myself as a victim forever. I can’t change the world, but I can help other people who are suffering to leave that aside for a half an hour while they look at my paintings and feel like they’re dancing.’
Yet refugees are also so much more than these tropes of victimhood and resilience. They are humans, workers, family members with their own histories and personalities. Another layer of identity that refugees must contend with is how to balance their identity as a refugee, with the other elements that make up their personal identity.
Practical problems also abound. Just like how female artists have often been pigeonholed into ‘women’s art’ in museums, so do refugee artists run the risk of their work being unable to escape the narrow categorisation of ‘refugee art’. This operates as a form of partial inclusion: their art is acknowledged as art, but a form of art that will always be Other. The refugee artist may very well prefer to be seen as simply an ‘artist’ but find it impossible to detach themself from the ‘refugee’ label. This is clearly seen in artistic exhibitions with the theme of ‘refugee art’. Artists may come from diverse cultural and geographic backgrounds and have only the experience of being a refugee in common. However, they are still put together in the oversimplified category of ‘refugee art’.
Furthermore, Parzer’s refugee artist interviewees report that the refugee label forces them to constantly demonstrate their artistic skills and competencies. Their peers view them as disempowered refugees before they view them as fellow artists. In order to be taken seriously, they are forced to emphasise that they were already artists in their home countries.
Strategies adopted by refugee artists
Refugee artists adopt a variety of strategies to navigate the tensions of the ‘refugee’ label, while preserving their personal identity. A clear example would be the strategy of adapting. The artist centres their art around shared ideas of refugeeness, displacement and flight. Parzer notes that this strategy is more common among recently-arrived refugee artists, or artists who do not intend to enter the professional art world.
Another more nuanced strategy is that of switching. Here, the artist navigates between refugee and ethnic categories depending on the situation. Salah Ammo, a Kurdish musician who is also a refugee, bills his art on his website as being shaped by his ethnic ‘Oriental’ heritage, while also mentioning the fact that he left ‘his home Syria because of the war’. Other artists choose to consciously subvert and challenge media-perpetuated identities. One example would be performance artist and writer Bojana Janković, whose installation art piece Trigger Warning invited the audience to ‘steal jobs’, ‘scrounge on benefits’ and participate in other stereotypical behaviours of Eastern European immigrants in a gamified setting.
Finally, some artists adopt a clear and unequivocal rejection of the refugee category. 16-year-old Amineh Abou Kerech writes in her poem ‘My Identity’ that ‘My country is not refugee. / I have an identity...I am not a refugee, I am Syrian. / Time calls us names / without permission / without warning.’ Similarly, the words of Fathi S, an artist interviewed by Parzer, speak for themselves: ‘I’d never wanted to pretend to be the poor and needy refugee. I got invitations to exhibitions, because I’m from Syria; they want you to pretend to be poor, then you’ll get something...But I’m not an artist from Syria, I’m an artist everywhere.’
How do we view refugees? When we look at their art and stories, do we view them as individuals, first and foremost? Or do we view them through the simplistic lens of ‘refugee’? It is crucial that we view refugees as complex individuals with overlapping layers of identity - individuals like you and me. Only then will we be able to view their art, and hear the stories they are trying to tell.
Alison Tan is a law graduate from Oxford University and is pursuing a masters in Contemporary Chinese Studies. She researched and wrote this article as part of her Oxford University Micro Internship programme.