by Annelise Andersen
On Thursday 7th June 2018, the RELIEF Centre cultural committee organised ‘Representing Refuge: The Role of the Arts in Mass Displacement’, as part of the UCL Festival of Culture 2018. The event aimed to prompt a conversation around media and humanitarian representations of refuge and displacement, and explore how artistic expressions can open up new avenues of self-representation, research and advocacy.
The arts and academic worlds were represented through presentations, poetry, documentary filmmaking and public engagement. We heard from Fouad M. Fouad (Syrian doctor and poet), Cameron Holleran (Poet-in-Residence at the Institute for Global Prosperity, UCL), Sophia and Georgia Scott (Directors of Lost in Lebanon), Yousif M. Qasmiyeh (Writer-in-Residence, Refugee Hosts), and Dr Elena Fiddian-Qasmiyeh, (Head of Public Engagement at the RELIEF Centre, Reader in Human Geography, co-Director of the Migration Research Unit, PI of the AHRC-ESRC funded Refugee Hosts project, and Coordinator of UCL’s Refuge in a Moving World).
Guided by Dr Hanna Baumann, Research Associate at the RELIEF Centre, the speakers were invited to present, and reflect upon, their experiences of using the arts with communities affected by mass displacement. Cameron Holleran delivered an interactive poetry performance from the audience midway through the event – a planned pause of creative disruption that encouraged the audience to take part in the conversation.
The range of work discussed demonstrated the many creative opportunities that have already been found in projects addressing mass displacement. And there was a sense that there was potential for many more. The anecdotes used to explain how works were chosen and able to represent human experience were highly personal and stirring. They said a lot, at times in a small number of words:
Sophia Scott explained to the audience why she felt compelled to capture Dr Fouad reciting one of his poems on film:
“Poetry is a powerful tool. We can and should use it to see through other peoples’ eyes.”
Dr Fouad himself explained that he viewed his writing process less as a means for psychological healing and more as a need of political expression:
“Writing is pain. When you write, you suffer. Some people say it is a relief, but that’s not true for me. It always brings discomfort. I do it anyway because it’s the only thing I can do, just to feel I am still alive, that I can scream, I can see what’s good and what’s bad. Writing is my fragile weapon – the way that I resist is by writing.”
Similarly, in his poem ‘The Camp is Time’, Yousif M. Qasmiyeh highlights the importance of locally-situated creative and critical responses to situations of mass displacement:
“Who writes the camp and what is it that ought to be written in a time where the plurality of lives have traversed the place itself to become its own time.”
Challenging dominant humanitarian narratives about refugees and their lives is, in fact, one of the core concerns of the Refugee Hosts project. Finding new ways of depicting displaced people – such as focusing on spaces of encounter between refugees and diverse host communities, rather than depicting refugees’ faces – is one way of highlighting the potential of alternative perspectives, as Dr Fiddian-Qasmiyeh has argued in the project’s blog series on ‘Representations of Displacement’:
“Does the absence of ‘the humanising face’ in our photographs necessarily embody a failure to resist the dehumanization of refugees? Or might it offer a productive alternative mode of ‘seeing’, ‘feeling’, ‘understanding’ and ‘being with’ communities affected by displacement?”
The discussion showed that the arts have many places and purposes in communities affected by mass displacement. Art matters – as a form of communication, advocacy, and self-expression. It can also lead to something entirely new and unpredictable. While there is great possibility in this, there is also risk – the risk of power asymmetries, of ethics, of misrepresentation.
How do you manage this? There is not one way, as was clear from the many different examples the guests at this event gave to this question. After all, it is not realistic to imagine that you can predict the outcome of a project. A thoughtful approach can help you to be aware of your position and the position of others in the creative process, however.
Sophia Scott and Dr Elena Fiddian-Qasmiyeh returned to the value of co-creation, time and reflexivity in their work repeatedly. This is important first in terms of creating artistic platforms for communities affected by mass displacement that are accessible, empowering and authentic. They also spoke of the deeper, more empathetic understandings of the context of the communities they were working with because of this approach too. For example, Sophia spoke of the friendship that developed from getting to know Fouad M. Fouad, his family and his poetry over months. The trust that came out of this gave new weight to his words. Dr Elena Fiddian-Qasmiyeh reflected on how different and sometimes unexpected forms of cultural performance can help an audience slow down and better engage with the experience of others. Cameron’s performance served as a live example of how this might work, and feel, in practice.
The message here? Inclusion is important. If you are unable to see yourself in work that aims to represent you, then your sense of identity and belonging can be undermined. At the RELIEF Centre we have chosen to embed inclusivity within our research questions and public engagement programme. We believe that the arts can be an effective way of bridging gaps in understanding between groups and facilitating encounters, as long as they are used ethically. Through the cultural committee, we find and create opportunities in the arts that have the capacity to impact both our research and public engagement programmes directly.
Read and hear more from the speakers of this event here: