Last week BEYOND BORDERS took place in Birmingham, a week long programme of arts events in response to the border crisis, organised by The GAP Arts Project in collaboration with residents of Birmingham. I attended the closing event on the Saturday where GAP chaired a panel discussion entitled ‘What roles can the arts play in responding to the border crisis and the issues surrounding it?’ I had to go as I am a committed advocate for the arts as a critical tool in bringing change in relation to contemporary dilemmas.
What impressed me immediately was the venue for the talk, another place I have recently discovered in the city. Centrala is a multifunctional space located in Birmingham City Centre. Organised by the Polish Expats Association (PEA), a non-profit organisation presenting art from Central, Eastern Europe and the UK. They have curated an innovative programme that includes socially-engaged contemporary art from Central and Eastern Europe as well as artists interested in the region’s culture, history and socio-political situation.
The discussion explores some interesting questions such as how can arts be used to shift discourses and perspectives on the border crisis? What responsibility do artists have when addressing these issues within their work? And how can artistic expression be used by refugees, asylum seekers and others to share both their cultures and experiences of migration and borders?
It was clear from the panel that engaging with arts activities as well as giving refugee artists the opportunity to present their work is key. Not only does this act as therapy and a form of self healing for people who have crossed borders, but sharing the work with the public allows a range of stories to be told about refugee artists going beyond negative stereotypes about them in some media and perceptions people have as a result of a weak economy and rising unemployment. Migrants and asylum seekers become an easy scapegoat for those who need someone to blame for inequalities and the growing insecurity in our cities.
Carol Meredith, an art class facilitator at St Chad’s Sanctuary explains that since opening in 2010 the organisation had provided support for over 61,849 asylum seekers by 2015. As many as 250 people arrive weekly. They provide numerous English classes and she runs an art session there. Some people she has worked with have never used a pencil before and others are Fine Art graduates. Dr Mohsen Keiany a visiting lecturer at Birmingham City University, describes himself as a Persian artist and explains that art can be a friend to explore personal issues as a form of therapy and healing. Practicing art and having an ‘art break’ is important for everyone’s well being.
Keiany describes the frustration of carry the label ‘refugee artist’ as he has exhibited all over the world and lived in England for many years. He prefers to be considered as just an artist, and others of his calibre may be called ‘international artists’. However this is a double edged sword and I think can be compared to the same dilemmas and debates had about diverse artists; for example black and asian artists. If we label them they are easy to identify for audiences that want to see this work, for articles to be written of such work, to celebrate arts development from specific groups. But similarly artists can feel pigeon holed and separated from ‘mainstream’ work, that does not arguably leave much if we take the broadest definition of diversity, or does it?
So if we want art by refugee artists to enable them to share their experiences of their journeys or simply demonstrate their skills and talents, is it not necessary to use this label as and when appropriate? Rachael Cox from Celebrating Sanctuary, a charity that supports refugee artists (mainly musicians) to further their careers and reach new audiences through live performances, comments that artists should have the right to choose how they are labeled and if they want the responsibility of having such a label.
What is clear to me in the room is that we are preaching to the converted. The arts most certainly has a role to play as part of a healing process and as a medicinal tool. But regarding changing public perceptions, we need to still work on how we develop audiences for such work and get people through gallery and theatre doors. This is why I love street and urban art, its out there for everyone to see. To really make an impact and enable a society of informed individuals to emerge, a multifaceted approach is necessary. Education and community arts programmes are key where different people can actively participate and work together to learn about how different yet similar we all really are, and it is these that are often threatened with funding decreasing. It should not have to take pictures of a dead child washed up on a beach to soften people’s hearts and minds.