Throughout history, human beings have tried to explain, expose, create, or manifest their discontent through art. Thus, they evidence social crisis, wars, inequalities, discriminations, bad policies, among others. In this way, art emerges as a form of protest, and it’s constructed through valuable symbols that embody social and political matters. Through images or words, art fashions provocative discourses to reveal the injustice many people live day by day.
One of the most pressing situations in the current climate is the refugee crisis. Millions of children, men and women have had to flee from war, misery, and famine in the pursuit of a better life. However, in their longing to survive and not perish while trying, they face racist and repressive policies, their rights are violated, they’re taken to detention centers where they live in inhumane conditions, or live in the streets without any aid.
This is why many artists have reacted to the insensibility of governments, who allow immigrants to live in deplorable conditions without any support. Art can also criticize, point out, and put in evidence the failings of governments. Here’s a list of artists who have decided to use their art to give a voice to refugees and migrants all over the world.
1. Alfredo JAAR (Chile)
The Chilean artist and activist has devoted most of his work to the inclusion of refugees. He does this not only to raise awareness, but to generate immediate changes and improve the lives of thousands of migrants and refugees. A great example of this is his piece Music. Everything I Know I learned the Day My Son Was Born.
JAAR realized that the Nasher Sculpture Center in Dallas was mainly visited by the city’s elite members. This fact inspired him to create a 7m2 wood and acrylic structure with 15 green tones. The visitors would get inside the pavilion and listen to the cry of newborn babies born in three hospitals that attend illegal immigrants, refugees, and afro-American people.JAAR managed to raise the awareness of the Dallas citizens and the museum became a welcoming place for diversity.
2. Banksy (United Kingdom)
The work Jungle by urban artist Banksy, makes us reflect on the intellectual, cultural, creative, and humanitarian contributions refugees can bring to a community if they are given an opportunity to be part of a society.
In this piece, Banksy portrays Steve Jobs with a black bag carrying all his belongings and an original Apple computer. Jobs was the son of a Syrian immigrant who had to flee his country during WWII. What would’ve happened if Jobs’ father had not been allowed to enter the United States? How different would technology be nowadays? How much money would stop entering the US if this had happened?
3. Bouchra Khalili (Morocco)
This French-Moroccan artist managed to connect his visitors to the stories of eight refugees who narrated their experiences of fleeing their countries. The Mapping Journey Project took three years to be completed (2008-2011). This exhibition consists of eight videos of refugees tracing the routes they followed, while narrating their odyssey. This installation allows the visitors to assimilate the distances and the conditions of the journeys that millions embark with the intention of arriving at a better place to live. The piece also tells us that there are many who can’t accomplish this aspiration.
4. Ai Weiwei (China)
This Chinese artist is one of the most controversial in today’s artistic scene. He’s very passionate in his fight for immigrants’ rights, since his family went through the same sufferings. The artist remembers the pain behind many of the stories that marked his childhood. Ai Weiwei has visited many refugee camps where he has found inspiration to create shocking pieces that have caught the attention of many audiences around the world.
During his exhibition in Greece, called Ai Weiwei at Cycladic, the artist filled the columns of the Cycladic Museum at Athens with 14 thousand lifesaver jackets. The most shocking thing is that these jackets belonged to people who tried to cross the Aegean sea to reach European land, but unfortunately drowned in the sea, leaving behind their orange jackets.
5. Richard Mosse (Ireland)
Mosse is an Irish documentalist and photographer who has devoted himself to capturing the most chaotic geopolitical events of the world. In Incoming, his most recent work, he uses weapons as tools to create conscious art. His photographs are taken with a thermal security camera where one can see the precarious conditions of the camps where thousands of refugees live. The most disturbing reading these images leave is that these cameras can detect human beings by their body heat from a distance of 30 km and are used to attack refugees.
Wars, global warming, government’s interests, racism, persecutions, and attacks, force people to move to another place to lead a better life. Mosse invites us to accept our share of responsibility for the problems that afflict the world.
6. Shirin Neshat (Iran)
Shirin Neshat is a contemporary artist recognized by her photographic series about religious, social, and cultural themes. The artist abandoned her natal country (Iran) in 1974, due to a lack of opportunities to grow, but her art is filled with themes and allusions to her roots and her people. One of her most shocking pieces is the series of photos, elaborated through chromogenic printing, called Our House Is on Fire (2013).
It consists of portraits of people affected by the Arab Spring, where the army would attack civilians who fought in the name of democracy. This series shows global suffering with real faces. There are many immigrants, but we barely stop to think in how each individual suffers due to the selfishness of a few despicable people.
Due to her works, she has been declared a persona non grata in Iran; however, this only motivated her to continue her questionings of the regime through art.
**Through these art pieces one can reflect on how migrants and refugees are victims of other’s actions. Nowadays, art isn’t satisfied just with provoking our enjoyment and delight. It wants to make us uncomfortable, acknowledge other perspectives and ways of thinking, and react to what’s going on in the world.
All art disciplines can criticize their social context. Some of them openly expose the perverse and despicable situations their artists perceive and show how sick the world can be.
Translated by María Isabel Carrasco Cara Chards