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What Can Art Offer the Refugee Crisis?

It’s been raining a lot recently in Europe. In the UK, rivers have burst their banks and towns have been flooded. Across the English Channel in the French seaside-resort town of Calais the news of more rain is particularly troubling. Calais is home to as many as 7,000 migrants from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran, Eritrea, Sudan and elsewhere, living in tents and ramshackle huts in one of Europe’s largest unauthorized refugee and migrant camps. “The Jungle,” as it is aptly named by camp residents in protest of their treatment like animals, is only an hour by train from both London and Paris, yet conditions there are worse than even slums in some of the most impoverished and conflicted areas of the world. With no electricity, minimal water and sanitation services and no major NGOs or government organizations providing aid, the camp has been mostly left to its own devices and the assistance of many unprofessional volunteer-run initiatives.

Recently, I spent a week in Calais sorting clothing donations in a warehouse, preparing and distributing hot food alongside refugees in an onsite kitchen, and sharing meals with residents, talking about their desires to reunite with family members in the UK or to find work and heal from the trauma they’ve experienced. To me the Jungle is a place of contradictory emotions. While it looks and feels deeply sad it also holds a largely positive atmosphere—the refugees’ sense of resilience and fortitude being particularly inspiring. The positivity infects not just the camp residents but also the volunteers, many of whom have quit jobs and taken time away from families to work with and support people they’d not previously known. Yet beneath the egalitarian and humanist sheen the situation is bleak. As the days go by, the mud gets deeper and the cold gets colder. Fires erupt in the camp regularly, refugees face police brutality on a daily basis and there is a growing number of unaccompanied minors now living in the camp. As an artist and a writer walking the streets of “the Jungle,” I found myself asking, “What can art hope to offer this place?”

In the western corner of “the Jungle,” hidden among some tents on the side of the overpass, is a Banksy mural. It depicts Steve Jobs in his iconic black turtleneck and jeans holding an Apple computer in his right hand, with a garbage bag of belongings flung over his left shoulder. The mural has been widely covered in the press and has brought much-needed attention to Calais. While well intentioned, Banksy’s message—that we wouldn’t have had son-of-a-Syrian Jobs and Apple Inc. to enrich our lives without migration—is bogus. By suggesting that the value of humans can be distilled to their economic potential, we risk weakening our ability to empathize with and humanize said individuals. Banksy’s influence in “the Jungle” reaches further than the wall of the underpass: some residents in the camp noticeably don Dismaland jumpers (which were donated after the project’s closure last year). In another area of the camp a new housing project initially held aloft “Dismal Aid” in wooden lettering, a commentary on the British government’s appalling lack of aid and financial support for border security. The artist seems unaware of how disempowering it might be to have a 10-foot wooden sign reading “Dismal” above your home, even if it is a provocative statement (supposedly the sign was later removed by residents and repurposed as firewood). Perhaps it was neither necessary nor helpful to turn the refugee camp into an ironic art installation. The ethics of art-making in a humanitarian disaster are complex, with the cult of “the artist” often becoming messily entangled with their good intentions. Being in “the Jungle,” where volunteer hands are always needed, I wondered whether artists should be making art about the refugee crisis at all.

This past week saw the arrival of a new Banksy mural outside the French embassy in London, this time showing Les Miserables’ Cosette holding a tattered French flag while engulfed in a cloud of tear gas, in clear protest of French police activity in Calais. While the piece could be understood to utilise the classic imagine-if-it-were-a-white-child charity trope, Cosette also symbolises hope and an oppressed and abused society rising through revolution to a bright future. Using an icon so representative of French history and the spirit of “Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité,” but also of whiteness, could be considered purposefully blasphemous. A QR code next to the piece to be scanned by your smartphone (if you have one) links to a video by activist group Calais Migrant Solidarity of police firing tear gas and rubber bullets into the camp, bringing much needed attention to widely unreported police brutality.

Art has a capacity to show what is difficult to see. It can be utilitarian, vying to promote active change on the ground by representing stories and offering a counter narrative to propaganda and fear mongering. Be it Sri Lankan refugee MIA’s brilliantly unapologetic music video Borders or Chinese dissident Ai Weiwei’s recent decision to open a studio on the Greek Island of Lesbos, artists are looking at the refugee crisis as inspiration with the hope of making artwork that does something. Stories, icons and images hold power: the connection people felt to the young Alan Kurdi photographed face down on a Greek beach can be linked to changes in European refugee policies and in Canada the decision of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to personally welcome Syrian refugees arriving at the airport.

However, there are practical and ethical pitfalls to artwork and documentary about the refugee experience, with artists and journalists claiming to speak on behalf of those whose experience they do not share. In the case of Alan Kurdi, by freely circulating images of his body, the media removed the family’s agency and reinforced a racially biased system of representation for deceased persons of colour. It also likely contributed to a media, public and political situation that now places higher value on those fleeing conflict in Syria than those who seek asylum from elsewhere. Yesterday, in a bizarre move, a magazine to accompany India Art Fair published a restaged version of the Kurdi photograph with Ai Weiwei using his own body in place of Kurdi’s. While Ai has for months been using his popular Instagram account to amplify the still ongoing plight of migrants arriving by boat on Greek shores, and this new photograph is conscious of the media’s short attention span, no one can say that the original image of Kurdi was overlooked. It also reads as an artist utilising tragedy for crass self-promotion—yet another example of inappropriate, harmful misdirection. Tania Canas, arts director of RISE, an organization of refugees, survivors and ex-detainees in Australia, has published a list of ten points to consider if you are an artist working with the refugee community. Her list underlines the uneven power dynamic between artist and subject, as well as the risk of refugees being reduced to an issue. “Our struggle is not an opportunity, or our bodies’ a currency, by which to build your career,” she warns. “Presentation vs representation. Know the difference!”

Art can be humanitarian also, reaching out a hand to a fellow human being. One evening after working in the kitchen, I was invited by a Sudanese friend to a French rock concert happening in the camp. Inside a large tent, known as the Dome, there was an atmosphere of carefree jubilance as people of different nationalities came together, danced, played music and made fun. This “Good Chance Theatre” was established by two young English playwrights, Joe Murphy and Joe Robertson, who realized that after food and shelter, intellectual and artistic stimuli were important to bored camp residents living in dire conditions. Originally intended for multi-language theatre productions, the large tent evolved to become a town-hall-cum-arts-centre, a space for hosting art workshops, rap battles, slam poetry, painting, singing, comedy, mime and even Shakespeare. “For people here who are artists in a discipline of any kind it’s a godsend,” said Joe Murphy. “For those who aren’t, it is activating creativity. It can be a strategy to combat the tedium and to get people through this difficult time.”

Running Good Chance’s varied schedule of events, Murphy is conscious of the value of storytelling to people’s wellbeing. “Every single tradition—literary, theatrical or artistry of any kind—points to a need for us to converse and be with each other. These things are even more necessary to encourage in situations that are challenging. The instinct of many people in the camp is to close up. As soon as there is a space that is safe and that people will listen then perhaps you can deal with what’s going on in your head rather than just playing it over and over again.” A refugee talking about Good Chance with the BBC said, “If there wasn’t this thing in the Jungle, I don’t know what would happen for me, for my mind.”

Artists have responded to the needs of “the Jungle” in other ways: by raising money, starting charities and organizing protest. Ai recently pulled out of a show in Copenhagen in protest of Denmark’s new law requiring valuables to be seized from asylum seekers; in October of last year, 800 French artists and cultural figures, including Christian Boltanski, Sophie Calle and Thomas Hirschhorn, petitioned the French government to create an emergency action plan to help people living in the Calais camp. A Mauritanian artist named Alpha lives there and runs an art school he built himself, known as “the blue house on the hill”, and marked with a sign that reads in French “Here we sell the vaccine for racism.” Last year he met French artist Corine Pagny and together they started “Art in the Jungle,” a collective now comprised of 50 visual artists including camp residents and visitors. I could see their presence in the visual art that peppers the camp: sculptures, poems, wheat-pasted photographs on buildings, paintings hung from tents and murals on tarp. They describe their aims as “apolitical, altruistic and humanistic,” operating as a link between “the Jungle” and the outside world as well as providing support to promote migrants’ artistic sensibilities. The group (which counts French situationist Ernest Pignon Ernest amongst their supporters) has worked to raise awareness through exhibitions in Paris and London and last month organized a four-day exhibition for International Migrants Day where Calais town residents were invited to come into the camp, experience the artwork and start conversations in an attempt to counter prejudice.

British media continues to talk about the crisis in Calais in terms of the population capacity of Britain, using “us” and “them” as commonplace language, and not in terms of the need for a concerted humanitarian effort with France. With a growing sense of resentment towards refugees in Europe, the political shift that would be required for the residents of “the Jungle” to be resettled in the United Kingdom is enormous. In its absence, and with increased border security, people have become more and more desperate. On my last day in the Jungle news broke that a 15-year-old Afghan named Masud, who had left the camp not long after Christmas and boarded a truck with the hope of being reunited with his sister living in the UK, had been found dead days later having become trapped and suffocating. For many of those living with this as their daily reality, “the Jungle” appears to be the end of the road. What people need in this no-man’s land between England and France is safety, shelter and sustenance. They also need hope. Maybe art can give them that.

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