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Artists and museums find ways to help refugees feel welcome

Plight of thousands fleeing war zones inspires creative humanitarian responses

by Anny Shaw  |  1 June 2016
Artists and museums find ways to help refugees feel welcome
Chinese artist Ai Weiwei visits refugees at a camp at the border between Greece and the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM), near Idomeni, northern Greece © epa european pressphoto agency b.v. / Alamy Stock Photo
Ai Weiwei unveiled new work last month that draws attention to the ongoing humanitarian crisis in Europe and on its boarders. The Chinese artist, who has set up a studio on the Greek island of Lesbos, has installed Tear Bottle/Tear Gas Canister (2016) among the collection of the Cycladic Museum of Art in Athens, juxtaposing tear gas canisters used on refugees in the Idomeni camp with ancient Greek vessels that were used to collect tears from mourners. Other works in the exhibition, Ai at the Cycladic (until 30 October), that respond to the refugee crisis include iPhone Wallpaper (2016), a collage of 12,030 images of people seeking refuge taken by Ai on his smartphone.

“Dropped into deep, dark hole”

“I felt like I’d dropped into a deep, dark hole,” Ai says of his first visit to Lesbos, where 80% of refugees arriving in Europe first land. “We were driving by the water and I saw an empty boat floating in the ocean. I jumped out of the car and got into this half sunken boat. I stayed there for quite some time, meditating as I floated out into the ocean. It was then I decided to move my studio to Lesbos.”

The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York is the latest institution to join the discussion on the refugee crisis, which has, until now, chiefly been seen as a problem for the Middle East and Europe. A series of films by the Moroccan-French artist Bouchra Khalili that map the journeys of eight illegal migrants is currently on show at the museum (until 28 August), while an exhibition focused on the architecture of shelters and refugee camps is due to open there on 1 October.

MoMA’s director Glenn Lowry recently guest edited a series of video stories for CNN on the theme of migration. Lowry said: “2016 may be a decisive year for all of us,” noting that artists have been confronting the consequences of the mass displacement of people for many years. He points to Khalili’s work, The Mapping Journey Project, which was created between 2008 and 2011. The films show refugees tracing their journeys in thick black marker on a geopolitical map, while narrating their individual stories. “[Khalili] takes this crisis… and she makes us aware that it affects absolutely each person profoundly,” Lowry says.

Art as therapy

European museums have been at the vanguard of supporting refugees. Some have been working directly with migrants long before the current crisis—the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art in Humlebaek, Denmark, began its Travelling with Art project in 2006. In April, it won the International Council of Museums’s best practice award for the initiative, which offers art classes to refugee children in partnership with the Danish Red Cross.

The focus of the project has changed in recent years, says its supervisor, Line Ali Chayder. In 2006, most of the children entering Denmark were aged between eight and 12 and seeking asylum with their families. Now, many are unaccompanied minors aged between 16 and 18. “Engaging with art, immersing oneself in artistic methods and having the chance to meet peers of your own age in a safe environment is important for these young people, who naturally have a lot of worries about the future,” Chayder says.

The Danish-Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson created a project called Green light in partnership with Thyssen-Bornemisza Art Contemporary (TBA21) in Vienna, inviting refugees and migrants as well as local students to take part in workshops on how to build lamps out of recycled materials at (until 5 June). “Green light is an act of welcoming,” Eliasson says. “Working together in an artistic context, participants build both a modular light and a communal environment, in which difference is not only accepted but embraced.”

The lamps, made from yogurt containers, plastic bags, nylon and neon green LEDs, cost €300. The proceeds support Red Cross Vienna and other projects helping refugees in Austria.

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