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The artist's role in support of displaced migrants and refugees
text by Kooj (Kuljit) Chuhan
originally published in Arts Professional magazine (issue 187, February 2009)
What’s popular isn’t always good. What’s good isn’t always popular.
In 2002, Gurinder Chadha’s film “Bend It Like Beckham” broke box office records in the UK to become the top-grossing British-financed and -distributed film ever. An astonishing achievement, considering that in the 80’s, when race issues invaded the post-punk era of the Thatcher years such an achievement, or even to make such a film, would not have been possible. With the UK apparently having ‘moved on’ from such race tensions this feel-good insight into the positive progress of now familiar Asian families in a western context won the hearts of swathes of British audiences.
Feel-good narratives sell well, and the best of these can achieve both artistic recognition and insightful portrayal. Yet what of those bleaker narratives which audiences have been brought up to shrug at, and the authorities would rather didn’t get seen? How do principled and humanitarian arts managers, commissioners or programmers deal with this imbalance while under pressure to maximise audiences?
Soon after founding the artists group Virtual Migrants, I saw “The Bogus Woman”, a rare play which cut through the norm and dealt with the appalling experience of a female refugee going through the detention system. This enduring play is, according to The Independent, “essential watching for its cutting indictment of the way in which we, as a society, fail those who rely on us for fairness, freedom and compassion.” Lisa Goldman who commissioned the play sees “the role of art as being to engage in areas of public debate and provoke questions." According to the writer Kay Adshead, “I could not believe that the violation of human rights of vulnerable people was happening in England … I have written it because I hope it will give people an insight into what it can really be like to seek asylum in this country. I also hope it may change minds.”
Over the years since then there has been considerable support for arts connecting with the ‘refugee experience,’ and in our changing world of increasing conflicts, inequalities and depleting resources, the need to migrate will increase. Yet many people seeking asylum understandably want to avoid being contentious, to avoid the tougher side of their experience for a range of reasons, and while this can lead to valid and enriching cultural and artistic development, as well as to dismantle the ‘gritty’ stereotypes, it can also unavoidably play into the favoured feel-good territory.
Luckily, committed and experienced artists from ‘established’ communities are exploring those challenging experiences of people escaping intense and life-threatening instability, with films such as the harrowing Ghosts being recognised examples. Such work has a strong pattern of collaboration with the people in question, or of the artists seeing themselves as a mouthpiece for those experiences. As Benjamin Zephaniah said of his novel Refugee Boy, “…everything in the book comes from other people’s experiences. In a way I don’t really see myself as the author of this book, I just collated these people’s experiences and put them into one character.”
These approaches and motivations have been central to the work of Virtual Migrants, a small organisation with no regular funds whose ongoing purpose is to explore narratives underpinning race, migration and globalisation. The additional key perspective which defines us is our commitment to examine the causes of the conflicts and economics which drive migration and underpin the more commonly highlighted systemic human rights abuses. Along with The Refugee Project’s publication “How UK Foreign Investment Creates Refugees and Asylum Seekers,” this leads to the piecing together of an uncomfortable jigsaw.
A 5-year phase of our video, digital art, music and cross-artform collaborations has been published in an unusual multi-format box set entitled Exhale. Working within a visual art paradigm the works explore a range of sub-themes such as the links between the war on terror and the war against asylum seekers; school children’s campaigns for fellow pupils; resonances between slavery and modern migration contexts; and the legal categorisation of people as refugees or asylum-seeking migrants which demeans their rights.
The collaborators involved vary in their background and identification with the issues, involving a mixture of migrants and non-migrants encompassing a range of displacement experiences. While it is true to say that such personal identification fuels our motivations, equally there is a basic empathy and humanity for everyone to own and participate in. Ken Loach was once asked why a white, middle-class, Oxbridge male like him makes the films he makes, to which he retorted “what a ridiculous question!”, stating that anybody can be moved by injustice, inequality and suffering and has a right and duty as a global citizen to address those issues.
Such injustices are a red rag to a bull for an increasing number of artists for whom the uncomfortable option takes first place and creative work develops relationships with dynamics outside the ivory arts bubble. Virtual Migrants, for example, maintain structural links with ASHA (Asylum Support Housing Advice), a local organisation which avoids the feel-good and chooses to specifically support asylum seekers with refused applications who can be homeless and destitute.
In 2003 the British Council’s “A Sense Of Place” international conference was a landmark event at which Virtual Migrants were given a key platform. This took place at a rising peak of interest in arts, refugees and displacement, and it remains to be seen how long such support can maintain its focus, and whether the range of arts practice working with the cultures and issues involved can develop into a strong movement. While a sense of intangibility continues despite the conference, that there is a movement is beyond doubt along with a sense that it is gaining momentum.
Global issues affecting us all have never been so visible, the desire for change never so strongly articulated. “Playing safe” may define the recession and for professionals working in the arts it may be seen as suicide to think otherwise. Nevertheless, the question has to be asked as to whether we are building a better world free from injustice, and the answer to that might be both uncomfortable and unpopular.
By Kooj (Kuljit S Chuhan)
digital artist and filmmaker, creative producer and cultural consultant
digital media artists and productions responding to themes of race, migration and globalisation