Amsterdam: Refugee Art Exhibition Helps Convey the Migrant Experience

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AMSTERDAM — While the current migrant crisis is often characterized by facts and figures, the numbers are almost unfathomable to most people removed from the issue. Reports of well over one million migrants arriving in Europe by sea, often on flimsy rubber dinghies or small wooden boats, and almost 35,000 by land can seem so distant that they do little to evoke empathy for the individual people who comprise the data. Sometimes, though, a picture is worth a thousand statistics.

Using Art as a Medium for Struggle 

Among these refugees, who have fled their homes for reasons ranging from genocide to being individually targeted for being an activist, are artists who have decided to confront their pasts through their works. A pop-up refugee art exhibition hosted by the Bijlmerbajes in Amsterdam, a former prison building turned center for asylum seekers, showcases pieces made in collaboration with refugees who have found their way to the Netherlands.

The Temporary Museum, which opened on June 28th and will remain until January 1st, attempts to both present new perspectives on the migrant experience, as well as allow newcomers and former refugees to connect with both one another and allies in the community.

The refugee art exhibition was organized in a location, the former prison building, in which both former inmates and recognized refugees were left to fend for themselves, allowing these groups of people limited freedoms. Including both art by refugees themselves, featured in an installation called “APKAR (Artist Previously Known as Refugee),” alongside works of other international artists speaks to the goal of the exhibition to break the isolation refugees so often feel.

The Art 

A painting titled “The Gods of Africa” (2017) by Latif Mukasa, an artist and gay rights activist who fled from his home in Uganda, juxtaposed with a work consisting of heaps of dried herbal teas from Syria titled “To Break Ground” (2017) by Brazilian artist Mayra Sérgio opens a dialogue between refugees and the people wanting to help them.

The rose petals and chamomile of Sérgio’s work are collected, boiled and served ritually to visitors at the exhibit as a way of making asylum feel at home. The artist hoped to recreate the austere landscape of the former prison into a “possible meeting place where dwellers and visitors can share a cup of tea.”

A piece by Lebanese-born artist Mounira Al Solh, called “The Maquette of Dreams,” features a minimalist metal bed topped with a thin foam mattress taken directly from an asylum-seeker’s bedroom. The wall next to the bed is pasted with cards exhibition visits could open to reveal the dreams and nightmares of the migrants.

The Temporary Museum is one of two refugee art exhibitions in Amsterdam that asks how designers, architects and companies can have a meaningful impact on the lives of refugees. An exhibition in the Stedelijk Museum, from May until September 2017, featured pieces from the 2016 What Design Can Do Refugee Challenge, which partnered with the U.N. Refugee Agency and the IKEA Foundation to encourage designers to submit proposals aimed at improving the reception and integration of refugees.

The works displayed in these two exhibits highlight the importance of cooperation between disciplines, like art and design with international aid agencies, to not only acknowledge refugees as more than a number, a piece of data or a statistic, but also to successfully integrate them into a new life of safety and stability.

Richa Bijlani

Photo: Flickr

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About Author

Richa Bijlani

Richa lives in Seattle, WA. She has a BA in Anthropology with Honors from Vanderbilt University. Richa is hoping to pursue a JD, focusing on international human rights. She has been to 15 countries and can speak 4 languages.

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