The Intersectional Position of the Refugee Artist: Creating Safe Spaces for Empowerment

Blog   2.8.2017  

The specific terror arts suffer in conflict zones often goes unnoticed. While artistic freedom might be perceived as less important in contexts where one’s freedom to live is threatened, a closer look at many different conflict zones reveal a common pattern: Critical artistic voices are always among the first to be targeted and persecuted. A purge on artists and cultural industries has been one of the initial steps in many situations which have later transformed into life-threatening conflicts.

How can we, therefore, address and acknowledge the specific problems that arise at this intersection of being a refugee and an artist? One option is to create safe spaces which empower and make visible the artistic voices of the refugees. The dialogue initiated by artists from refugee backgrounds through art can highlight individual, personal voices and help transcend the stereotypically conceived title of ’refugee’ as a collective identity.

When it comes to creating safe spaces, another question arises: How can we, as non-refugee researchers and artists, collaborate with the refugee artists? As I currently research the asylum seeking artists in Finland, I constantly try to be conscious of my own social stance and the bias that I might possibly have due to my position. I feel that critically questioning our own position while speaking up for a certain group and knowing when to step back is crucial in order not to ‘steal the floor’, and also crucial in terms of deconstructing the hidden hierarchies of the arts and culture sphere and empowering the disadvantaged/marginalized voices.

Even in the most progressive settings, certain voices are always allowed to speak more loudly than others. Thus, it is important to be cautious that speaking for the behalf of others, whose experiences we cannot completely relate to due to our privileged position despite our best intentions, might risk further silencing these very voices and contributing to the stereotypical, one-dimensional collective identity of the refugee.

In order to empower the individual voices of artists from refugee backgrounds, we must make sure to involve them in the design and implementation processes of art projects, and ensure that they are in charge of curating their own personal narratives. Today, there are many initiatives that work in such grassroots level. One local example is the Art-Tu project in Helsinki which brings together Middle Eastern and Finnish artists with the aim of integrating the newcomer refugee artists into the Finnish art scene by familiarizing them with galleries, museums etc. The project has also had two exhibitions so far in the Cable Factory where the artists reflected on the themes of ”Journey” and ”Memory of War”, curated by Heidi Hänninen. Such initiatives empower the artists by encouraging participation and collaboration with the locals, and by providing them with an artistic platform and a level ground to voice their individual perspective and experiences.