I was invited by Counterpoints Arts to facilitate an evening event, ‘Refugee Artists in Europe Today’, as part of the Swept Away series at King’s Place hosted by the Continuum Ensemble.
Featuring readings from the British-Hungarian poet George Szirtes, and a performance by Syrian Kanun player, Maya Youssef, the evening celebrating the contributions of artists in exile and discussing some of the complexities around labels related to displacement, and the challenges of pursuing art in the diaspora.
Here’s an edited transcript of my talk:
Somewhere inside your handbag, purse or wallet, you probably have an ID card. Maybe a driving license, a library card, or even a passport you forgot to put away after a recent trip overseas.
How often do you think about how your government defines you? The labels and photographs that you are defined by in your identify documents? The categories that society puts you in?
If you’re like me, not often. Yet if you’ve experienced displacement, your identity documents, new and old, will no doubt have more importance.
Behjat Omar Abdulla is a Kurdish visual artist who came to the UK in 1999. His work is inspired by the years he spent trying to gain recognition from the immigration system in the UK. He says,
“I’ve often been asked for identity pictures for the various types of ID cards I was required to have and I now own a collection of “self-ID pictures”. My work developed directly from an investigation into the use of these ID cards, what they say about people’s origins, and how these people are ultimately presented at the end of the governmental process.”
Those who come to the UK to flee conflict or persecution are faced with labels, categorisation, and often the stigmatisation that comes with them, and artists like Behjat whose creative practice engages with these contradictions are key to helping us break down these labels and better understand our own multifaceted identities.
This evening I will introduce you to several refugee artists in the UK, the work of Counterpoints Arts, and some of the reasons why a diverse arts scene is vital. I will be joined on stage later by two celebrated artists, Maya Youssef and George Szirtes who will share some of their work with us, and we will then finish with a Q&A.
According to UNHCR, more people fled their home countries last year than in any other time since their records began.
Around the world almost 60 million have been displaced by conflict and persecution. Nearly 20 million of them are refugees. Their numbers are growing every single day, on every continent. In 2014, an average of 42,500 people became refugees, asylum-seekers or internally displaced persons, every single day – that is four times more than just 4 years ago.
Whether or not we are migrants ourselves, we are all impacted by migration.
Art and creative expression can be both a reason why people are forced to flee their countries, and an outworking of an experience of movement and dislocation. Some leave their homelands because a lack of freedom of expression has made their work dangerous, some leave due to persecution of their method or style of work. Others only find their creative voice once in exile.
Some of the challenges for artists and creative practitioners in new circumstances are the same for all refugees, while others are unique. Finding your voice in a new culture can take time, learning a new language is difficult, it can be a challenge to find the space and materials to pursue art when income is limited, and engaging with new audiences often requires new skills.
These challenges facing refugee artists today are in some ways similar to those experienced by those fleeing the rise of Nazi power in Germany and across Europe in the 1930s and 1940s. Stefan Zweig was an Austrian novelist, playwright, journalist and biographer who was one of the most popular writers in the world at the height of his career in the 20s and 30s. He was Jewish, and fled Austria in 1934 in anticipation of Nazi persecution – having lost all his work he wrote his autobiography The World of Yesterday entirely from memory.
One of the peculiarities faced by artists in exile today are the labels society creates in order to box experiences together. While some artists in the UK feel comfortable using the word ‘refugee’ to describe themselves and their work, others do not identify as refugees but simply guests waiting to return to their homelands. For others the label ‘student’ or ‘teacher’ might be more appropriate. Some have never claimed asylum, and don’t draw on ideas of displacement in their work.
I’m here today representing Counterpoints Arts, an organisation dedicated to the development of creative projects that represent the stories and experiences of refugees and migrants.
Through collaborations with artists, arts/cultural and educational organizations and civil society activists working in the field of migrant and refugee rights, Counterpoints pursues a vision of the arts as a dynamic force to enhance social change and inclusion.
Edward Said wrote,
“Most people are principally aware of one culture, one setting, one home; Exiles are aware of at least two, and this plurality of vision gives rise to an awareness of simultaneous dimensions, an awareness that - to borrow a phrase from music - is contrapuntal.”
This interpretation avoids reading displacement in whatever of its many disguises as purely negative or chaotic and puts instead an emphasis on the transformative and creative potential of this experience – opening up spaces for creative expression, developing different angles of vision and sensitivity toward difference; moving beyond fixed categories and identities.
It’s this eccentricity and plurality of vision that is so often needed in developing creative approaches.
Art can be much more than engaging in an aesthetic experience. It can surprise and delight but also open spaces for people to talk across differences, to inspire community participation, generate empathy and foster a more humane society that moves beyond the current approach of nation states that excludes non-citizens.
Through exploring in a variety of ways people’s everyday experiences, challenges, histories, dreams and aspirations – art helps make visible and audible what’s often invisible or silent within policy and media representations of displacement.
The Traces Project is a UNHCR-funded web timeline that tells the untold history of contributions to arts and culture by people who have sought safety in the UK from conflict and persecution. The definition of arts and culture throughout this timeline is inclusive and multidisciplinary, allowing for an array of art forms, mediums, activities and imaginations. Some of the artists and creative practitioners featured are already household names and established figures. Others are mid-way through careers whilst others are emerging and hungry to communicate new talent.
Each entry carries with it a unique story interweaving artistic aspiration and achievement with a multi-layered history of movement and cultural displacement. Stories are shaped by specific descriptions of the contexts and histories from the countries where individuals have fled or departed, together with summaries of UK asylum and immigration policies on arrival.
Beginning at 1933 with artists, authors and architects fleeing Nazi Germany including Peter Moro and Judith Kerr, the timeline charts displacement in Eastern Europe with the rise and collapse of communism, South African apartheid, the Palestinian naqbe in 1948 and more recent displacement producing contexts such as freedom of expression in Iran, civil war in Somalia and the Syrian conflict.
Through the timeline, these contexts are illustrated by the artists who were to some extent defined by them. Men and women who have had to leave their countries and are unable to return, who have found a home in the UK, and contributed to our culture and society in significant ways.
One such artist is Robert Vas, who came to the UK in 1956 following the failure of the uprising against the Soviet rulers in 1956. His family had lived in Budapest through the Holocaust, surviving due to acquiring Swedish passports. He initially worked in menial cleaning jobs before finding work at the British Film Institute (BFI), where he found funding for his first film, Refuge England, through the BFI Experimental Film Fund.
The 27-minute film, first shown in 1959, relates the day in the life of a refugee from Hungary who arrives in London with nothing but an address. Unable to speak English, he experiences the extraordinary everyday of the city as he seeks a refuge. Fusing documentary and fiction, the film recounted Robert’s first days in the UK, and foreshadowed a series of complex political films he made from 1964. Robert Vas saw his artistic mission as being to remind and warn, primarily of the abuses of power, which lent his work to controversy.
Another artist featured in the project is visual artist Hong Dam, whose artistic expression is located in her experience as an eight year old girl as a Vietnamese boat person fleeing Vietnam for Hong Kong before arriving in the UK in 1980. Her work is a journey of self discovery, exploring universal themes of love, loss, separation and hope – and also those of other Vietnamese boat children.
In adapting to their new environments and expressing their creativity here, these artists not only speak to us about themselves, but about our own lives. As theatre producer David Binder once said, “Artists are explorers. Who better to show us a city anew?”
It is our hope that as you engage with Traces through the website or the exhibition at the Southbank Centre as part of Adopting Britain, you will come to see the rich and deep ways in which these artists have contributed to British culture and strengthened it through their diverse experiences and perspectives.
As we listen now to the work of two artists born outside of the UK, let’s celebrate the hard work and dedication that so many artists in exile have shown in continuing to pursue their creative expression in new circumstances, and the ways in which they enhance our culture.