e-flux Conversations has been closed to new contributions and will remain online as an archive. Check out our new platform for short-form writing, e-flux Notes.

e-flux conversations

Some points to consider if you're an artist who wants to make work about refugees

Tania Canas, Arts Director of RISE, writes a 10-point bulleted list about things to keep in mind if you’re an artist who wants to make work about the growing refugee community. It’s kind of cringe-inducing thinking about the artists and photographers trolling around refugee camps looking for new creative material. Her post below, original here.

There has been a huge influx of artists approaching us in order to find participants for their next project. The artist often claims to want to show ‘the human side of the story’ through a false sense of neutrality and limited understanding of their own bias, privilege and frameworks.

  1. Process not product
    We are not a resource to feed into your next artistic project. You may be talented at your particular craft but do not assume that this automatically translates to an ethical, responsible and self-determining process. Understand community cultural development methodology but also understand that it is not a full-proof methodology. Who and what institutions are benefiting from the exchange?
  1. Critically interrogate your intention
    Our struggle is not an opportunity, or our bodies’ a currency, by which to build your career. Rather than merely focusing on the ‘other’ (‘where do I find refugees’… etc) Subject your own intention to critical, reflexive analysis. What is your motivation to work with this particular subject matter? Why at this particular time?
  1. Realise your own privilege
    What biases and intentions, even if you consider these ‘good’ intentions, do you carry with you? What social positionality (and power) do you bring to the space? Know how much space you take up. Know when to step back.
  1. Participation is not always progressive or empowering
    Your project may have elements of participation but know how this can just as easily be limiting, tokenistic and condescending. Your demands on our community sharing our stories may be just as easily disempowering. What frameworks have you already imposed on participation? What power dynamics are you reinforcing with such a framework? What relationships are you creating (eg. informant vs expert, enunciated vs enunciator)
  1. Presentation vs representation
    Know the difference!
  1. It is not a safe-space just because you say it is
    This requires long term grass-roots work, solidarity and commitment.
  1. Do not expect us to be grateful
    We are not your next interesting arts project. Our community are not sitting waiting for our struggle to be acknowledged by your individual consciousness nor highlighted through your art practice.
  1. Do not reduce us to an issue
    We are whole humans with various experiences, knowledge and skills. We can speak on many things; do not reduce us to one narrative.
  1. Do your research
    Know the solidarity work already being done. Know the nuanced differences between organisations and projects. Just because we may work with the same community doesn’t mean we work in the same way.
  1. Art is not neutral
    Our community has been politicised and any art work done with/by us is inherently political. If you wish to build with our community know that your artistic practice cannot be neutral.

*Image via Business Insider

1 Like

It’s difficult to tell what is worse: the artist who thinks it’s okay to do work about other people’s misery or the patronising code of conduct.

1 Like

Definitely important points, which should actually be obvious to everybody who wants to work with these questions. But what is the reason to engage in artistic reflection in the first place? (money, money? –Maybe if you make a large scale paper boat at the Venice Biennale). In relation to this I would like to point out that NGOs (referring to RISE) working with refugees can’t monopolize the question. Because it affects us all and therefore will naturally be a subject of art. Maybe they just don’t see the meaning of art or artistic process, this doesn’t necessarily make the artist guilty of the charges described. And why throw suspicion on artists in the first place? They are part of keeping topics alive and rising new ones, more differentiated than the media machinery can produce?

Great! I have tried to address this issue in this article http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/rose-gibbs/ai-weiwei-make-political-_b_8219342.html
Was thinking that artists should ask of themselves the same questions that Governments asks when giving foreign aid, things like (I asked quite a few people who work in this area e.g DFID etc. so thanks to them and sisters)

  1. Does the aid go to infrastructure
  2. Who benefits from the infrastructure: companies or citizens
    – Whose infrastructure? Even if for citizens, is it simply aimed at building capitalism in this region?
  3. If companies benefit: is it local companies or international companies
  4. Does the aid subsidise larger failings of a regime/prop up oppressive regimes
  5. Are there conditions attached to the subsidies: ie dependent on the government acting in x y or z way

It is also worth noting that countries like the UK who give aid to other countries in most cases get more out of those countries than they put in (in revenues of other kinds). Artists should consider who really benefits from this ‘aid’ they give various causes (most often themselves?)

1 Like