The refugee crisis seen through the lens of contemporary art has been a recurring source of debate in the past year. What can the art world could do to raise awareness around refugees’ travelling and living conditions? How can artistic engagement change our society’s relationship with migration? Where do we draw the line between awareness and emotional exploitation, education and pathos? Olafur Eliasson’s ‘Green Light’ participatory installation working with refugees at the Venice Biennale attracted both praise and doubts about the efficiency of such a manoeuver, at risk of instrumentalizing a crisis in spite of good intentions. Similarly, Ai Weiwei’s political artistic initiatives made headlines and provoked debate about the limits of art’s activist efficiency. These works revolving around visual impact and participation contrast with focused documentary work, such as Daniela Ortiz’s recent exhibition ABC of Racist Europe at Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art. In a series of interviews with refugees and grassroots activists she explores the nature of migratory control systems and European states’ hypocrisy in waving a public “Refugees Welcome!” flag while secretly organising deportations.
Artistic reactions and involvement are therefore wide-ranging and diverse in nature. However, while there are no right or wrong ways of educating and raising awareness or support, there is a recurring sentiment artistic and charity organisations do not neccessarily have a shared network allowing for productive exchanges around the subject. This is why initiatives such as WE DREAM UNDER THE SAME SKY are essential, providing a framework for collaboration between two systems sharing the same ideals with different tools at their disposal. The charity auction, precededed by an exhibition till the 21st at the Palais de Tokyo, will be organized by Christie’s at the Gallery Azzedine Alaïa. Its proceeds will benefit five NGOs working directly with refugees and migrants to advocate for their integration and rights. The initiative is led by Julie Boukobza, Chantal Crousel, Blanche de Lestrange, Niklas Svennung and Marine van Schoonbeek, in direct collaboration with the NGOs La Cimade, Migreurop, Centre Primo Levi, Thot and Anafé. Charity auctions benefiting refugees in Paris and throughout France have thankfully already existed – involving contemporary art but also photographs taken by refugees themselves, as well as the locks from the Pont des Arts. However this is first of its kind in Europe to involve an internationally recognised selection of contemporary artists with strong museum and gallery representation.
The exhibition at the Palais de Tokyo showing the donated works of 26 contemporary artists should not be mistaken with an exhibition specifically about or illustrating the refugee crisis. While many of the works do reflect some of the artists’ concerns with political and migratory themes, others do not neccessarily draw an immediate comparison, nor are they required to. This is not a show in which the refugee crisis become the direct, quite literal subject of works so much as part of an underlying, broader theme. As Chantal Crousel indicated in her speech during the exhibition’s opening, the aim is to show how refugees’ situations reflected concerns artists harbour about identity in a context of displacement and doubt. In this particular context, this approach gives space for many of the works to reflect broader aesthetics and feelings around the theme of migration, identity and society.
Rirkrit Tiravanija, untitled (we dream under the same sky, new york times, january 26, 2017) (2017) is a new work created for the exhibition which immediately responds to migration and xenophobia by directly painting his statement on the pages of the New York Times announcing Donald Trump’s devastating “Immigration Ban”. A comparison can be drawn with Wade Guyton’s work Untitled (2016), using screencaptures from the same newspaper to challenge the way in which migration is being represented by the media. Oscar Tuazon’s Reading bench 5 (wild ways/services for nomads) (2016) is a bench through which the pages of the magazine Vonulife by an Oregon collective in the 1970s can be read. Standing for VOLuntary Non vULnerable, the collective advocated freedom and nomadism in a refusal to interact with state structures. Its presence in the exhibition allows for the work to take on new meanings around nomadism, freedom and identity.
A beautiful and sensitive triptych by Anri Sala explores his work practice working directly with refugees in relation to his exploration of sound. Le jour de gloire (2017) is the result of a three-day workshop with refugees in which each of them produced images, drawings and objects related to their experiences. The tonality and rythm of Le jour de gloire corresponds to the layout of the apples in the triptych while presumably challenging the integrity of French republican values facing the welcoming of refugees in terms of our hymn and, implicitely, the motto liberté, égalité, fraternité. This subtle approach relying on several layers of interpretation and viewing also applies to Adel Abdessemed’s Chicos (2015) for whom migration and violence are recurring themes. His use of porcelain to represent two smiling children refers to kitsch decoration and imagery, subverted here to refer to the plight of child soldiers and the loss of innocence.
Abraham Cruzvillegas’ new work specifically conceived for the sale, Self Constructed Upside Down Shelter (2017) associates his interest in the dynamics of craft and reclaimed materials with the theme of migration, with a copper-plated, reversed world map on which all borders have been erased. The world map reclaimed and reinterpreted outside of a Eurocentric or American world view is a common theme in Mona Hatoum’s work, while letting domectic and socio-political issues confront and collide as part her practice. Her work Afghan (red and orange) (2008) reprises this subject. The eroded shape of a world map on the traditional carpet reveals a view of the world based on the Projection of Peters, rendering each country to scale and thus allowing for a more realistic representation of the African and Asian continents. Danh Vō ‘s work Promised Land (2017), created for the sale, relates to the themes of migration and cultural identity present in his work. His gilding of the lettering on a piece of cardboard seems to poke fun at the expectations and ideals we can ascribe to objects and the countries they are associated with. Its light-hearted but intimate message reflects Vō’s practice, which often resonates with his experiences as a Vietnamese-born Danish artist.
The abstract and multifaceted nature of the works does not soften the project into a feel-good, do-good initiative without any hard facts on migratory policy in sight. On the contrary, an integral part of the exhibition and week-long initiative leading up to the sale on the 27th is to raise awareness around each of the beneficiaries’ works by letting them have centre-stage. Every evening, free and open conferences take place in the exhibition space during which each NGO has room to launch conversations and debates about their activities and the condition of refugees in France. The fact that this is happening in Paris is all the more important. The refugee crisis here is not an abstract concern but a tangible and shameful reality in which individuals in seek of asylum or a better life are denied basic human rights and living conditions. Xenophobia and racism have not died down since Le Pen made it to the second round of the presidential elections. “No room for homeless people, but at the same time centers for migrants continue to open,” declared journalist Jean-Pierre Pernaut earlier this month, on privatised and most widely watched French television channel TF1. This is only one example of the way in which the refugee crisis is either scapegoated or normalized. This was notably the case for a recent French maths textbook using the increasing arrival of refugees to teach children about percentages. (The manual has since been withdrawn to be reprinted).
Thus, the involvement of five NGOs with five different priorities is all the more essential, raising awareness about what needs to be done on so many levels and educating exhibition-goers about many unhealthy assumptions we may have internalized (such as picturing refugees as more worthy of being welcomed than migrants coming for economical purposes). Migreurop are a network of activists conducting research on the EU’s exclusion policies, raising awareness around detention and deporatation as well as the closure of borders. The Centre Primo Levi focuses upon refugees suffering from trauma related to torture and political violence, while Thot is a school for migrants and refugees, teaching French and facilitating their inclusion into society. While Anafé concentrates on human rights at borders and “waiting zones” with dire living conditions, La Cimade deals with asylum and integration rights. The focus on different needs for refugees and migrants alike is all the more important to give the visitor increased awareness of what needs to be acheived, beyond a blanket “refugees welcome!” statement. It is genuinely rare to leave an exhibition with so much activist information at your disposal. At the door as I arrived, peaceful protesters were holding placards with a familiar name – that of Cédric Herrou, condemned for his help towards refugees as a concerned French citizen. While grassroots activism and individual involvement are admittedly not a part of WE DREAM’s activist representation, it is difficult to leave the space without considering our individual responsability towards the people we welcome into our countries.
Art and activism must form more networks and initiatives to work together, to balance ideals with calls to action in spaces geared towards information and debate. This exhibition and its charity sale is important for a number of reasons, beyond the financial support and social awareness it will raise. It shows what can happen when artistic and charity networks merge to bring their individual expertise to the table for a dynamic and solidarous exchange. It would be sadly optimistic to think we’ll need less of these initiatives in the future. Nevertheless, these projects bring hope that the art world will know how to anticipate, mobilise and organise with increasing skill, passion and commitment to relieve further suffering and injustice.