Ways art and culture relates to the refugee crisis

Here is a story about the 'culture shock' experienced by migrants making their new homes in Germany. It starts with a funny anecdote about a group of refugees going to a fund-raising night in a Berlin nightclub. 

Here is a story about the 'culture shock' experienced by migrants making their new homes in Germany. It starts with a funny anecdote about a group of refugees going to a fund-raising night in a Berlin nightclub. 

Cultural activities are a way of meeting other people. Art - if it's any good - shows what is hard to see.  It's also primarily through culture and forms of cultural expression that migrants meet hosts and visa versa. 

So it follows that people whose work is concerned with art and culture - artists, cultural funders, arts managers, curators, hobbyists, organisers, venue managers - are drawn to the refugee crisis as a place to act.

This work is clearly becoming more important by the day, not least because culture is where new collective ideas, expressions, and art forms begin but also where they are stopped. The refugee's struggle to make a life in Europe is a legal one and also a cultural one. A Danish city in Randers has recently made Pork compulsorary on menus in public buildings.

Here's a rough list of connections between art, culture and the refugee crisis. Can you help me add to/improve the list? If you can, comment and I'll put them in.

1. Art relief

Making sure that displaced people have the instruments, platforms and opportunities they need to make music, art and theatre. Music Against Borners encourages people to donate musical instruments to refugees.  They say: 'Music against borders recognises the importance of culture and creativity in empowering people disenfranchised by war, poverty and the EU immigration system'. See also 'British Artists Launch Theatre in Migrant Camp'. 

2. Art & enterprise

Some imaginative projects also aim to create marketplaces for migrants artistic skills. This project, I think organised by Sweden's Folk Musicians against Racism makes it possible for migrants to play concerts at private parties. Cucula helps refugees make and sell furniture. A new cultural centre in Amsterdam hopes to create a co-working space managed by and used by a mix of artist refugees and other local artists. 

3. Culture & Conversations

Projects which make it easier for host communities to eat, make and think with refugees. Kitchen on the Run is a mobile kitchen come dining room in a portacabin designed by Berlin architecture students which is about to embark on a European tour stopping in different cities, helping  host communities to prepare and eat with refugees, sharing stories. They say; 'We want to provide room for encounters and the discovery of common ground in order to reduce prejudices – a prerequisite for a sustainable coexistence and cooperation in Europe.'

4. Artists protesting, writing letters and marching

Ai Weiwei & Anish Kapoor walked between their art work in London on Sept 17th and invited others to join them. The Guardian reported, 'Kapoor said the walk was a creative act. “We are demanding creativity of others, recognising that those who leave their country and go on a journey across the water full of danger or who walk hundreds of miles across land are also making a creative act.'  In september 2015 100 cultural figures including Kiera Knightly, Jamie Oliver and Anish Kapoor in the UK signed a letter encouraging the government to 'wake up to the urgency of the current crisis'.

The Centre for Political Beauty have staged a number of  political protest perfromances including reburials of drowned migrants - they call it 'aggressive humanism'.  Maybe at the end of this spectrum there's art with a strong political message: e.g. Barthélémy Toguo's Migrant Stamp.

Ai Weiwei has recently set up a studio on Lesbos to make art about - and presumably with - refugees and migrant. “As an artist, I have to relate to humanity’s struggles ... I never separate these situations from my art,” he said. Here are his pictures off instagram. He also recently pulled his show in Denmark in protest at new legislation which will see asylum seekers stripped of many of their valuables on entering the country.

MIA's new video is in similar 'protest by art' territory. According to a statement from her label, her new album expected later in 2016 will 'explore the concept of borders'.

5. Artists raising money

Artists selling work and donating money that can be used to support refugees. Banksy says he is shipping his Dismaland project to provide shelter in the 'Jungle' camp in Calais. The Creative Collective for Refugee Relief enable artists to donate and sell artworks to raise money for refugees. Chefs aren't really proper artists, but they are getting involved too - a group of them have done a cookbook.

6. Art projects which challenge representations

'Culture jamming' projects that counter, remix and offer alternative representations refugees like Doc Next Network's remapping europe project which tried to create new stories about migrants and Bern O'Donoghue's project which seeks to combat misinformation about migrants. She says “The language used by the government to describe the refugees, and the unwillingness to offer more help to people arriving in Europe asking for basic human rights has left me ashamed.” Most art by deifnition shows us something we can't see for ourselves - either because we literally can't see it for ourself, or because it is filtered out by 'The Media'. See Hannah Rose Thomas portraits of peope living in the Jungle in Calais.

7. Platforms bringing togther alternative stories

Like this one, obviously. But also see; Crossing Channel Facebook Group 'A media channel for the public to cross paths with every day stories you don’t hear every day about the people seeking refuge in Europe'. UNHCR's Refugee Film Festival

8. Attacking ISIS

Western media tends to unwittingly propagate images of ISIS that show them as they would like to be seen - terrifying, macho, fundamentalists. Maybe this throwing the net a bit wider but this article looks at exciled Syrians who are mocking ISIS on youtube. One of the best British Films of recent years Four Lions did something similar - it's a highly amusing and deeply humane thing.

9. Websites curating artwork of displaced diasporas and supporting the work of displaced artists.

Like Dawalty who say that they collect 'photography, posters, comics, videos, animations, booklets,infographics and illustrations. In addition to articles and programs related to digital activists’ security'. This report Arts & Refugees History, Impact Future  from 2008 funded by Paul Hamlyn Foundation / Barings Foundation / Arts Council England, reviews work with refugees in Britain since the 1970s - most projects, in one way or another involve supporting artists from diaspora communites.
Hotel City Plaza in Athens
Grand Hotel Cosmopolis

Pergamon Museum in Berlin employees Syrian Refugees as tour guides

The Syrian Mobile Festival reviewed in The Guardian

Film: In The Dark Times made by Thomas Busch for the Goethe Insitute about culture


10. Migrant voice
Projects which aim to to help refugees develop a foothold in boradcast media- like refugeeradio and this refugee.tv which features news reports made by displaced people living in Austria.

Soloman is an Athens based e-magazine made with refugees. They say 'We encourage the involvement of locals, immigrants & refugees in the co-shaping of society through the free expression of their views, ideas and skills.' In January Al Jazeera reported on a new arabic language newspaper called Abwab started by Ramy Alasheq - a Syrian-Palestinian refugee living in Cologne. The newspaper is distibuted at refugee shelters and community centres accross Germany.

There are numerous projects helping refugees and migrants to share recipes and sell cookbooks.

11. Art, culture and integration

I have been starting to look for examples of platforms which aggregate examples of 'good practice' in bringing together culture & integration. I haven't quite yet found the 'go-to place'. Several projects in ECF's Idea Camp 2015 proposed new cultural projects that created ways and places for refugees to 'meet' and experience their 'host communities'. Miguel Magalhaes proposed Platfroma which involved converting derelict prison on an island with many refugees into 'a living space for encounters: a place where people can meet others they otherwise woudn't' - here's one of his similar projects. Laura Pana proposed Migration Lab 'a social initaitive meant to bring migrants refugees and host communities through the means of culture, informal education and social design programmes'.  And Federico Brivio proposed a 'Migrant community docking pilot' which was a sort of information sharing platform based on migrants needs and experiences in Marseilles - a digital landing landing ground for migrants.

Elsewhere the European Commission has its own web site on integration', which lists 1,323 initiatives accross the EU which link cultural projects to integration goals. It's ever so clunky and hard to navigate. Cities of Migration - an aggregator for integration projects based at Ryerson University, Canada - links to about 30 projects around the world (not just in Europe) which link culture, art and integration. The European Council for Refugees and Exiles has published guidance on how culture and art can assist integration of refugees in Europe but the information is rather out of date. The International Network for Contemporary Performing Arts currently have a call out for examples of projects involving artists in their network working with refugees.

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HI:) It's so great to see how you guys engage with such a primitive but unfortunately existing issue...I am independently working alos in this direction, if you have time, watch Sweet Thorn:


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Hi Charlie

in addition to migrant voice:

I would like to mention the Searching Traces video channel initiated with a funding by the Goethe-Insitut Istanbul. A video online project that took its starting point in Turkey 2014, displaying videos by migrants mostly in Turkey and Iraq so far, reflecting the situation of migrants in a host country, the chance of cultural diversity and the need of free exprerssion of personality.

Best Thomas

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Hi Thomas - I will watch! What happens to the videos? Do you have a partnership with another platform or a broadcaster? Looks like a great project. Charlie

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the video are and will be published on our video magazine streetwalking

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Hi Charlie, did you read that Ai Weiwei is installing a studio on Lesbos island?
Seems that some of his students from Germany and China will also be working there.
Have a look here:

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Came across this organisation this morning:

They seem interesting

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On another pespective, check Teckfugee.
Moved by the plight of refugees in Europe, a number of technology industry people have formed a voluntary team to create the series of non-profit "Techfugees" conferences, hackathons, and work with a global network of collaborators.
The next conference will be in London on 2 December

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Hi Charlie, here is another initiative related to music: Net Diasporas, a pilot internet music project that will enable musicians from migrant and refugee backgrounds in urban and regional areas to collaborate and perform culture specific musical repertoires online.
This project is iniated in Australia, but could grow and extanded to EU.

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That´s a very good compilation Charles! I ve just published a call for contribution launched by the IETM international network for contemporary performing arts. Maybe is of interest or you can disseminated through your networks.
Thank you,

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