The refugee crises which have characterised our age (as if there has ever been a time when people were not forced by war, persecution or natural disaster to leave their homes and seek safety in strange lands) have inspired artists throughout the generations to attempt, through different media and in different styles, to portray the plight of the refugee.
Tamara de Lempicka portrays two women refugees from the fighting in Spain, in something of a departure from her normal high society subject matter. Felix Nussbaum painted The Refugee drawing on his own experience. As a German Jew, Nussbaum was studying in Rome when the Nazis came to power, and spent the next ten years in exile in Belgium, going into hiding during the Occupation. He and his wife were arrested in 1944 and were murdered in Auschwitz. His painting powerfully depicts the desolation of exile, and the sense of a world of potential freedom and safety (the globe and the open window) that is visible but out of reach.
In much more recent times, we can see the work of Syrian women refugees, working with visual artists Aglaia Haritz from Switzerland and Abdelaziz Zerrou from Morocco, on a project Embroiderers of Actuality. They asked women in different locations to create embroidery, which they then use as inspiration and/or material for their own images and sculptures.
One of the images exhibited by the Refugee Art Project is Alwy Fadhel’s instant coffee painting, Endurance, by Alwy Fadhel.
The technique of painting with instant coffee powder diluted with water was started by an Iraqi refugee in Australian immigration detention who enjoyed painting and used the resources available in detention to do so. He taught the technique to fellow detainee Alwy Fadhel, who became the principal coffee artist and contributed to making the technique a tradition inside the detention center where he was held.
Syrian artist, Abdalla Al Omari, who has refugee status in Belgium, has re-imagined US President Donald Trump and 10 other world leaders as refugees in a series of paintings (The Vulnerability Series) currently on display in Dubai. The images draw on his own experience with displacement.
Giles Duley, a photojournalist, has recorded some of the stories of the refugees travelling from the Middle East to Europe in 2015.
The UNHCR gave me the greatest brief ever given to a photographer – just follow your heart. So, rather than try to cover the whole crisis, I tried to cover a few stories within it and that was how I kept my focus. There is no such thing as truth in photography, which is why the book has the title I Can Only Tell You What My Eyes See. As soon as I go to one beach and choose one person to photograph, I’ve made a decision and I’ve ruled out thousands of other stories. Politicians and the media often try to simplify the narrative, but the fact is, if you have a million people crossing into Europe, you have a million different stories. … I’ve worked in Angola, Afghanistan, Iraq, and have seen some of the worst of humanity, and yet I found myself standing on those beaches in floods of tears. It was hard initially to work out what was different. What was it I was seeing that I hadn’t seen before? I’ve seen a lot of refugee camps, but they are generally static places. What I’ve never seen is people moving en masse like that, putting their lives on the line, risking everything for freedom, for safety. To see the fear on their faces, but also the relief that they’d finally made it, was completely overwhelming.
Alketa Xhafa Mripa was living in the UK and studying Art at Central Saint Martins when the war in Kosovo broke out in 1998.
As a result, she had no choice but to seek refugee status in the UK. While Alketa didn’t flee her country, she faced the very real issue of being removed from her home. This fostered her fascination with the themes of identity, history and memory, with a unique focus on women’s issues. Her most recent project, Fancy a tea with a refugee?, is a mobile installation that tours the country, inviting people to share their stories and thoughts about migrants, refugees and displacement.
And under the sea, a powerful image of the fate of so many refugees attempting the dangerous Mediterranean crossing, in Jason deCaires Taylor’s sculpture The Raft of the Lampedusa, a sculpted boat carrying the figures of 13 refugees. It’s part of an underwater museum, Museo Atlantico, in Lanzarote.
From painting to sculpture, embroidery to installation, and finally (in this brief and inadequate review of the refugee crisis in art), to the graphic novel.
French author and illustrator double act Bessora and Barroux share their new graphic novel Alpha, the story of a migrant desperately searching for his family.
one man – another refugee – said to us, ‘This is my story.’ With comics, people can project their own experiences on to these simple drawings and make them their own.