Art beyond borders: Six ways art activism can help the refugee community

Activism can work to help the plight of refugees…

War, persecution and climate change are among the top causes of those escaping their home country; and when increasing powers of border authorities and surveillance have created greater challenges for migrants and refugees, activism can step in and play a key role. The overlap between art and activism can prove extremely useful in advocacy for those with less power. It can provide a voice for the voiceless - but in what ways can this be done?


1. They can advocate through a recording of the refugee experience

Banksy cited iconography from Les Miserables to record the poor treatment of refugees by the French government, with references to violence and a torn flag to symbolise their stripped human rights. The identity of an artist can infiltrate their visuality. Refugee artist Mohamed Keita showcases eight photographs: four from Africa and four from Europe. These shots exhibit the artist's geographical movement now as a prolific photographer, while calling back to his past experiences of movement as a refugee. They map the hybrid identities and transference of cultural and social environments that refugees face in their displacement. 

Credit: Banksy and
Mohamed Keita, Storm 2021, Africa, photograph, 2021.

2. Artwork can highlight issues dividing the refugee reality

The experience of refugees varies dependent on their socio-economic status, race and gender. Emerging artist, Ana Espriella, has produced 4 exclusive digital works that expand on these intersections. Access Pass: Colour Denied draws attention to the racism that intertwines within their reality. The recent war in Ukraine highlighted the depth of racism experienced within the refugee community as white individuals were given greater opportunities to escape. Intersectionality expands on notions of oppression, and so innately works within advocacy to support those who have been mistreated both within and beyond the identity of a refugee. Espriella’s work, therefore, is activist in its championing of oppressed identities within the refugee community.

Ana Espriella, Access Pass: Colour Denied (Pase de accesso: Color denegado), digital art, 2022.

3. Art can be created alongside activism

Creatives can choose to produce works in the midst of activist actions and within the environment. Photographer and photojournalist Kristian Buus captures visuals of powerful activism in the form of protest. In 2017, he collated a series of images of the Stansted 15: a group of activists who attempted to block a deportation flight at Stansted Airport. With a handful of the 60 passengers risking imprisonment and potential death in their home country, the activist group felt the safety and welfare of the passengers was at risk. This, along with a disagreement of forced deportation, pushed the Stansted 15 to take action in blocking a flight.

Kristian Buus, The Stansted 15. No-one is illegal, photograph, 2017.


4. Art can extend advocacy by capturing the issue

The group’s actions were certainly a mode of activism: but can you count Buus’ accompanying photography as part of that? The role of a photographer has been contested throughout history; whether simply observers of events or playing a role within it. Arguably, Buus’ active choice to capture these moments first-hand transforms his practice into one of activism itself. By interacting with advocacy and choosing to highlight its message to a wider audience, Buus engages with a form of informative activism that resides in its advancement.


5. They can reframe the plight of refugees

The creative license that comes with artmaking can visualise the refugee experience in diverse angles to the general perspective. Aya Abu Hawash’s Refugee’s Memory Series does this while exploring feminism and identity. Reviving the Palestinian collective memory through the combination of old and new, Hawash scanned old images and combined them with new memories through digital art. Research into the historical photographs allowed Hawash to produce new narratives to reawaken the Palestinian cause. Moreover, this project was inspired by Mahmoud Darwich poems that have a depth to express the power of love and land.

Aya Abu Hawash, Refugee's Memory 1, digital art, 2018.

6. Art projects can engage refugees in advocacy for their freedom

Artolution has been working with Syrian refugees since 2013. Leader Joel Bergner says: “We lead discussion and art-making in which Syrians explore their longing to return to Syria, their dreams for the future, and their current plight as refugees. [The projects] focus on reducing tensions and promoting social cohesion.” Projects, such as this, encourage positivity, creativity and better futures for communities through a direct advocacy for refugees and their experiences.


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